by Alexandra Tuschka
Oh! Now that's a bizarre scene. Two pale women are sitting opposite us, both have their hair in a similar egg-shaped up-do and both are sitting naked in a bathtub. They look at us with a similarly neutral gaze and have also put on the same jewellery: drop-shaped pearl earrings. The woman on the left, who has darker hair, shamelessly grabs the blonde woman on the right's breast and pinches her nipple. The woman is not shocked at all. Her left arm lies relaxed on the edge of the bathtub, her right hand holds a ring. And it gets even better: the title of the painting tells us that we are dealing with sisters. This irritates the modern viewer.
The other furnishings of the picture are also not immediately classifiable. Heavy red curtains flank the picture space on both sides. As on a stage, they are only drawn up in the middle and expose another scene in the background. There a servant is sewing. Under a burning fireplace, a table has been covered with a green blanket. A small framed painting or mirror can be seen next to the sewing woman, and a small section of a painting can be seen above the fireplace; here we see the naked lower body of a man sitting on the floor. This could be St Jerome, or it could be St John the Baptist, both of whom are often shown wearing red cloth in nature.
The painter of the work is speculated to be of the 2nd school of Fontainbleau. The lady on the right is identified as Gabrielle d'Estrées, a mistress and advisor to Henry IV, the French king from 1598 to 1610. On the left, the sister, is therefore Julienne D'Estreés. The young Gabrielle met the king at the age of 18, who, already 40, was enchanted by her beauty. Gabrielle bore him three children out of wedlock and hoped that the king would disown his official wife Marguerite de Valois, who remained childless. The annulment of Henry IV's marriage to Marguerite had already been initiated and the marriage to D'Estrées arranged when she died on 10 April 1599, aged only 28.
The most accepted theory about the painting is that she is shown here in 1594, pregnant with their son. The ring then symbolises the promise of marriage. The grip on the nipple stands as testimony to the milk, and the servant in the background is already sewing clothes for the new human child.
The composition we see here was very popular among the aristocracy in France, so that at least 7 very similar works have survived to us. The clear precursor of this painting is Francois Clouet Portrait of a Nude Lady. In this one, Diana of Poiters is often assumed, another mistress, this time of King Henry II. The similarity between the two compositions is unmistakable: the red curtain, the seductive bather, the background, which is compositionally almost identical. Only different persons than in the first picture enliven the scene. A child is nursed by a busty wet nurse, an older one steals some fruit and the second servant tries to lift the heavy jug.
Bathing was a privilege inherited from antiquity. It was not as intimate as washing the body, but also liked to serve as a common pastime. Fragrant plants could then be infused and one bathed together. Now we can also classify the remaining motifs in a very lifelike way: the curtain, called a "pavilion", prevented too much heat from the bathtub from escaping into the room. On the table in the background, the bath water is heated at the fireplace. Of course, it then needs another person to pour it, as one cannot always get up oneself. This becomes even clearer in the comparative work, as one of the wet nurses is carrying the jug of warm water.
Thus, many a viewer is literally disappointed when he learns that there is no sexual liaison between two ladies to be seen here, but a very concrete testimony of contemporary events.
Unknown - Gabrielle d'Estrées and one of her sisters
Oil on wood, c. 1594, 96 × 125 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Unknown - Portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrées
Oil on wood, end of 16th century, location unknown
François Clouet - Lady in a bath
Oil on oak, c. 1571, 151.0 x 61.0 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington