Why Is This Woman Pinching the Nipple of the Other?

Decoding a painting of two sisters in a bathtub

Christopher P Jones
5 min readJul 25, 2022

--

Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters (c. 1594) attributed to the School of Fontainebleau. Oil on oak wood. 96 × 125 cm. Louvre, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

It is hard not to be intrigued by a painting like this. It shows two women sitting unclothed in a bathtub. The one on the right is named Gabrielle d’Estrées. Beside her is another woman — thought to be her sister — who is unambiguously pinching her nipple.

Given their coiffured hair and sparkling pearl drop earrings, it is fairly clear that they belong to the aristocracy — which is all the more reason to be surprised at their nude depiction.

This fascinating painting remains one of the most famous works of French art, and yet very little is known about its making: the artist behind the work can only be guessed at, and the commissioning patron is unknown.

As for its meaning, historians have long questioned the gesture of the nipple pinch, and have come to some surprising conclusions.

The Setting and Background

Both women are shown naked from the waist up. They are sat inside a bathtub that is covered in cloth or silk. Bathtubs of old were typically made of metal or wood, and were often lined with fabric to prevent the heat of the metal from burning or a rogue splinter from the wood. It was all about comfort.

Gabrielle d’Estrées was a French duchess and a mistress, confidante and adviser of King Henry IV of France. She was a noblewoman with contacts in high places.

In fact, the union between Henry and the Duchess was more than just passing: they intended to marry, but only after Henry could apply to the Pope for an annulment of his present marriage to Marguerite de Valois, better known as Queen Margot, and given permission to remarry.

In anticipation of their hoped-for nuptials, Gabrielle d’Estrées is shown in the painting holding a ring in her left hand. This detail should alert us to the idea that the painting is about Gabrielle’s relationship with the king.

(Some years after this painting was made, in March 1599, Henry did indeed give his mistress his coronation ring.)

And yet the union was not to be. Gabrielle, pregnant with what is thought to have been the couple’s fourth illegitimate…

--

--