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.