School of Fontainebleau - Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters ?

The 'Net is full of sites saying or implying that this scene of two women in the bath, often but arguably identified as Gabrielle d'Estrées and one of her sisters, represents lesbian activity.

This is extremely unlikely. First of all, even if these two important ladies did have lesbian tendencies, or a lesbian relationship, they would have been extremely unlikely to have advertised it in public. The general historical background suggests that lesbianism would have been greatly denigrated in their culture, so why would they have done so. (For people who insist on 'sources', however secondary those may be, I have to admit that I can't think of any offhand for Sixteenth Century France; for Seventeenth Century France, on the other hand, if that's close enough for you, Roger Duchêne's biography of Mme de Sévigné does make the point.) Second, the strength and the nature of the connection between Gabrielle d'Estrées and Henri IV makes any lesbian tendencies on her part less likely, although I suppose that there is no logical reason to prevent her from having had both inclinations. However, it's odd that history makes no mention of any such tendency on her part.

The most important point, however, is that the supposed depiction of the lesbian act is no such thing. The lady to our left of Gabrielle is holding her fingers in a strange rigid position which seems to have no connection with anything normally done during sex. If one were to answer that in a painting as hieratic as this one that's evidence of nothing, the very fact that the painting is so hieratic suggests that it refers to something considerably more official than illicit sex.

What makes the determination of the subject almost conclusive, though, is the related painting

School of Fontainebleau - Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters ?

now in Montpellier, which makes it clear that the subject of both is related to a birth, and that the strange gesture of the lady with the maybe-Gabrielle can be eliminated from the second version because it is not absolutely essential to the subject of the painting. It would appear that the painting in the Louvre, if it indeed includes La Belle Gabrielle, more likely represents some subject related to one of her pregnancies or childbirths.

Trying to force old paintings to fit modern politics is not generally a good idea.


Spaces, not commas, please!