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The Meaning behind One of the Most Oddly Erotic Paintings in Western Art

For much of history, queer works of art—that is, art that explores same-sex relationships, romances, and sexual encounters—have been scorned, altered, or simply hidden away. In recent years, there have been efforts to reclaim these works and to champion art whose queerness was once dismissed or disregarded.
It’s harder to know how to reclaim something as queer when its original creator—and the audience to whom it was first shown—not only lacked the terminology to discuss sexualities that deviated from the norm but intended for the work to mean something entirely different. It’s particularly difficult when those meanings become lost on modern viewers. Can we truly call something queer when it was never intended to be? Where is the line between fetishism and representation?
In the anonymous French painting Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters (ca. 1594), two women—one presumed to be Gabrielle d’Estrées, mistress of King Henry IV of France, and the other her sister, the Duchess de Villars—turn half towards the viewer as they sit in a bathtub lined with silk. The women have faces the shape of upturned petals; thin, arched eyebrows; skin the same color as the pearls they both wear in their ears. They are naked from the waist up, and both women’s small, dark eyes are locked on the viewer, mouths tight and ambiguous.
But what everybody sees first—what viewers can’t help but fix their gazes on—is the hand of the woman on the left as it pinches the nipple of the woman on the right, her index finger and thumb forming a perfect “C.” Above them, ruched silk curtains, heavy as thunderclouds, are parted as though the audience is at a stage’s edge. The viewer’s voyeuristic position sets the scene as a performance.
There’s an obvious eroticism to the image: the fearlessness of their gazes, the soft curves of flesh, the erect nipples. The pinch itself constitutes the only moment in the painting where skin meets skin, where contact is between the subjects rather than with the audience. As scholar Chris Roulston notes, the composition employs the traditional artistic language of coupledom—one figure is light haired while the other is brunette figure dark—lending an added intimacy that makes the painting undeniably sapphic.
Unknown, Portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées with Her Sister, c. 1590. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Unknown, Portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées with Her Sister, c. 1590. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As Rebecca Zorach notes in her essay “Desiring Things,” “Though it might be altogether too anachronistic to re-gender receptive looking as some sort of generalized lesbian gaze, we can […] assume the presence of female viewers as well as male.” Although modern conceptions of sexuality may differ greatly from their historical counterparts, the 16th-century French writer Pierre de Brantôme contended that “there are in many places and regions many such ladies and Lesbians, in France, in Italy, Turkey, Greece, and in other places…In France, such women are fairly common.”
Other works attributed to the French School of Fontainebleau—and other intimate, nude paintings depicting Gabrielle—seem to support this claim. The huge variety of cultural artefacts from the time—from Shakespeare’s cross-dressing women characters to lesbian pornography—demonstrate a societal knowledge of same-sex female relationships. In any case, it’s clear that throughout history the painting has been received as though it depicts a lesbian relationship. In the 19th century, for instance, a Louvre museum official reportedly covered up the “lewd” painting with a sheet.
Despite what it might look like to the contemporary viewer, a purely queer reading of the work would be misguided. Rather than a depiction of lesbian foreplay, most art historians interpret the painting as an announcement that Gabrielle is pregnant with the King’s illegitimate son. It’s her sister who is signaling this to the audience, not her lover. The fingers wrapped around Gabrielle’s nipple symbolizes the latter’s fertility, an allusion emphasized by the presence of the figure sewing baby’s clothes in the back of the painting.
It seems naive to believe that both readings can’t simultaneously be true. Its original audience, however ignorant of modern definitions of sexuality, couldn’t fail to recognize the erotic potential of the painting. In another of Brantôme’s writings, he details a woman so aroused by the painting that she has to immediately leave the room to have sex with her (male) courtier.
Far more difficult for a queer interpretation of the work is its fetishistic portrayal of the women. With its emphasis on the erotic possibilities between sisters, and Gabrielle’s status as a mistress—sexualized and stripped even when relaying a pregnancy announcement—the work seems to slide from a representation of queerness to an object of the straight gaze. Commenting on Brantôme’s story, Zorach voices how these depictions of lesbian arousal “are always in the eventual service of heterosexuality.”
The complex reality is that all of these seemingly conflicting views are valid: Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters is simultaneously a sexualized queer scene, a coded announcement of a royal pregnancy, and an erotic fantasy meant to entice straight audiences. To prioritize one reading over the others would be an injustice, a smoothing over of the very complexities that both enrich and frustrate queer histories.
Hannah Williams