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“Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d’Estrées et de sa soeœur la duchesse de Villars” or “Presumed Portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées and Her Sister, the Duchess of Villars”, artist unknown (Ecole de Fontainebleau), c. 1594, Louvre, Paris

A quick stroll in the long corridors of the Louvre is enough to observe the strange impact that this painting never ceases to have on visitors: gasps, laughs, bawdy imitations by tourists in birkenstocks. The delicate yet evident sensuality of this piece is misleading: wasn’t it awfully daring to represent these two noblewomen naked? why not present an allegory instead? and honestly, what’s with the nipple-pinching?

Far from our modern interpretations of lesbian love or our taste for sheer provocation, this painting showcases the beauty of the most famous of Henri IV of France’s mistresses, Gabrielle d’Estrées, with her own sister, the Duchess of Villars. The latter’s gesture is usually interpreted as a reference to Gabrielle’s pregnancy.

“The oddly affectionate way in which the sister is pinching Gabrielle d’Estrées’ right breast has often been taken as symbolizing the latter’s pregnancy with the illegitimate child of Henry IV, writes Vincent Pomarède on the Louvre’s website. This interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the scene of the young woman sewing – perhaps preparing a layette for the coming child – in the background.

But here is the problem: this is not just any pregnancy. It is the pregnancy of a mistress who might become a queen, the prospect of an illegitimate child who might become an heir. Although still chained to Marguerite de Valois in a political marriage, Henry IV has been separated from her for a long time and is publicly living with Gabrielle d’Estrées. It is no secret that he is trying to get an annulment and intends to marry his mistress. His marriage to Marguerite has been rocky to say the least, with Marguerite being successively held hostage in the Louvre by her brother Henry III when her husband escaped, sent back and forth disdainfully between the two men, kept prisoner in a fortress where she finally decided to stay and write her Memoirs. More importantly, their marriage has been childless.

The pregnancy of Gabrielle in 1594 is a turning point because if this child is a boy, he will be the first direct male heir produced by a French King in half a century.

“Gabrielle d’Estrées”, by Daniel Dumoûtier, c. 1599, BnF

When Henry II succumbed to his wounds in a jousting tournament in 1559, he left a very young Francis II on the throne, who died seventeen months later without an heir. His brother Charles IX succeeded him: too young and too easily influenced to deal with the religious turmoils of the time, he precipitated the country into a civil war. His brother Henry III reigned for 15 years without appeasing the tensions. His own failure to have a son caused the end of the Valois line, bringing forth the reign of his cousin and brother-in-law, Henry IV.

1594 is an important year for Henry: although King of France by law since the death of Henry III in 1589, he has been battling against the catholic League to gain access to his throne. It will take an army at the gates of Paris and an abjuration of his Calvinist faith to finally have a coronation on 27 February 1594. Only an heir would break the curse of the three childless Valois brothers and seal the presence of the House of Bourbon on the throne.

Gabrielle d’Estrées’s body, as such, is under special scrutiny. Unlike in England at the same period, pregnancy portraits are invisible in France. Her body can be shown, her beauty extolled, but only in the filiation of renowned works of art. The School of Fontainebleau has been experimenting with new forms, breaking away from mythical figures and leaning towards mannerism: noble ladies no longer have to appear naked in the allegorical disguise of Diane, Venus, or the Virgin Mary. Gabrielle’s painting is a perfect example of the second School of Fontainebleau, a variation on a fashionable depiction of women in their bath.

The oldest one, known as the “Dame au Bain” was first thought to represent Diane de Poitiers, the famous mistress of Henry II, but the National Gallery of Art in Washington where it is hung suggests that her mask-like features, as well as the date of the painting, make her more of a general Venus type. Her perfect skin, small breasts and delicate hand holding a pen offer a vivid contrast with the wet nurse in the background, whose large breasts only have a material function. The pose of the woman in the tub may have been influenced by the Monna Vanna, a nude version of the Mona Lisa by Salaì, Leonardo da Vinci’s assistant and model.

“Dame au bain” (Lady in her Bath), by François Clouet, c. 1571, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The “Dame à sa toilette”, shows an anonymous bejeweled noblewoman holding a ring and sensually touching a pendant on her bosom with very delicate hands. The servant performing chores in the background seems derived from Titian’s Venus of Orbino.

“Dame à sa toilette”, artist unknown, c. 1580, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

Now let’s look at the Gabrielle d’Estrées painting again: her impassibility in her tub is reminiscent of the “Dame au bain”; her hand, as well as the ring she is holding, is a perfect imitation of the “Dame à sa toilette”. This ring, a traditional sign of love, takes on the double meaning of Henry IV’s coronation ring in the hand of Gabrielle, especially in contrast with the heaping jewel box of the Dame: the Dame has financial opulence, Gabrielle could have royal power through marriage. The servant sewing in the background underlines the idleness of the lady, much like in the two older paintings, but also seems to hint at something that is not apparent.

There is no child in this painting, yet as the Louvre’s notice suggests, the servant might be sewing a layette. But more importantly, unlike the servants in the two older paintings, who appear as functional elements of the economy of the home, delegated with chores such as cleaning or feeding, this servant is producing something — her sewing is less a metaphor for the presence of an unborn child than a metaphor for the production of a child.

Unlike the English pregnancy portraits, which clearly state the obvious double presence of mother and child, of present and future, thereby affirming the necessary visibility of the power of filiation, the depiction of Gabrielle’s pregnancy is that of a hidden process, a secret maneuver to produce a child between the veils of what is proper and what is not. The message is clear but must be sent through a montage of images: depicting Gabrielle as a “woman in her bath” allows for a subtle reactivation of a fashionable type of portrait while hiding her lower body in a tub; the presence of her sister indicates the highest level of intimacy in a time when privacy hardly existed. The gesture of pinching her breast is, again, a quirky play on what is known but cannot be said: this body could be the matrix of a new dynasty, this body will produce an heir that can only be symbolized by the production of milk in the breast, the production of a layette in the background. Something will come out of this body, in the enclosed space of a warm, feminine environment reminiscent of a birthing chamber.

And what happens if we turn to the portrait of yet another famous mistress? Agnès Sorel, the first officially recognized royal mistress, bore King Charles VII three children and died in childbirth in 1450. Jean Fouquet depicted her in a black dress and as a Madonna lactans, holding a child and showing some serious cleavage. The uncovered nipple here is sexualized: pale flesh flowing out of a severe black corsage, full breast made available to the infant’s mouth and everyone’s gaze. It is a fierce nipple, that of a sensual and maternal woman, an offered nipple waiting to be touched, perhaps… pinched.

“Agnès Sorel”, by Jean Fouquet, 15th century, Château de Loches

“Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim”, by Jean Fouquet, 15th century, Koninklijk Museum, Belgium