Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters

There have been at least four double portraits of Gabrielle d'Estrées with one of her sisters. Gabrielle was the longtime mistress of the French King Henry IV in the 1590's and they had four children together.  These intriguing double portraits has long fascinated art historians.  The exact painter or painters are unknown and they are referred as being part of the 'School of Fontainebleau' a 16th century French style which blended elements from both the Italian and Flemish schools of painting.  Gabrielle had two sisters, the Duchess de Villars and Madame de Balagny, it is not known for certain which of the two were in the double portraits with her.

All of the portraits are painted with the subjects sitting together nude in a bathtub with a red curtain behind them. A red curtain was often shown in Flemish and Dutch painting as surrounding a bed so the curtain likely represents the sphere of the bedroom while the bathtub allows the sisters to be shown nude.  The ‘Fontainebleau’ style can be seen in the Italianate modeling of their figures and in the Flemish attention to detail and stylized faces.These were likely painted for the king and meant to be hung in a place where King Henry IV would see them rather than somewhere the public would view the work.

Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters, School of Fontainebleau, Uffizi, c-1590's

While there are similarities between these, each of the three focus on a different theme.  In the first to be discussed there is no background other than the red curtain.  Gabrielle, the lighter haired sister on the right, gives her sister a ring.  Does the ring refer to a marriage? Or perhaps instead to the coronation ring of Henry?  While Gabrielle and Henry were never married to each other, as Henry was already married, it could also refer to a symbol of fidelity on the part of Gabrielle.  Or instead to an impending marriage of the sister. 

Perhaps the most famous shows one sister pinching the breast of the other, an oddly provocative gesture that is widely thought to be an allusion to Gabrielle being pregnant with the first of her children with the king.  Adding to that theory is the woman in the background sewing by the hearth who is probably making a blanket for the baby. There is also a hint of a painting within a painting in the red draped nude legs of a figure in the painting above the fireplace which seem to allude to love and romance.

The picture is dated based on the year of birth of César de Bourbon, the later Duke of Vendôme, the first son the couple had together in 1594.  In this painting both sisters have pearl earrings and are wearing no other jewelry, however Gabrielle again holds a ring.

Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters, School of Fontainebleau, Louvre, c-1594

The picture is dated based on the year of birth of César de Bourbon, the later Duke of Vendôme, the first son the couple had together in 1594.

The third and fourth painting are essentially the same style with two variations, one depicts the sisters nude and the other depicts them dressed in gauzy material.  The baby being nursed by a wet nurse in the background of both works is assumed to be César as an infant.

Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters
School of Fontainebleau, Chateau de Fontainebleau, c-1590's

 Portrait Presumed to be Gabrielle 
d’Estrées and the Duchess de Villars in the Bath, School of Fontainebleau
© Musée de la Société Archéologique, Montpellier

A Lady in Her Bath, François Clouet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, c--1571

A work painted twenty years earlier likely inspired the style and composition of all the Gabrielle d'Estrées portaits.  François Clouet painted the work of a woman in her bath in around 1570, twenty years earlier.  While there are varying thoughts on who the woman is, it is thought to also be a portrait of a king’s mistress.  The work was long attributed as a portrait of Diane de Poitiers, the famous mistress of King Henry II (which would date it to the 1550’s).

However it is now thought to be a portrait of Marie Touchet, the mistress of King Charles IX of France.  This work by François Clouet had an obvious stylistic influence upon the Gabrielle d'Estrées portraits. It also contains the red curtain framing the scene, the subject nude in a bathtub and two elements in the background reappear in the later works.  

The wet nurse is reproduced identically in the background of the two similar paintings and the large white hearth appears in the other.  The figure of the main subject is also similar in style and appearance.  Here as in the two versions of the painting with Gabrielle, the king's mistress wears a pearl necklace.  Pearls symbolized many things in the Renaissance including hidden wisdom, purity and patience.

The subject in the Lady in Her Bath looks more like a type of person than an actual portrait as her features are stylized rather than individualistic.  The type being an elegant female nude suitable as the mistress of a king.  The artist François Clouet was the son of a well known Flemish portrait painter, Jean Clouet.

All of these works share the graceful elegance of the Mannerist style of painting and sculpture from the 'School of Fontainebleau.'  Italian Mannerist painters of the early 16th century fled Italy after the 1526 sack of Rome and went to the French court, in addition to Paris the king spent much time at the Chateau of Fontainebleau.  A few years later when the Florentine Catherine de Medici married King Henry II there was an additional need for Italian Mannerist artists at the French court.  The style stayed popular through much of the 16thcentury.  Italian artists who worked in France at that time included Rosso Fiorentino and Benevenuto Cellini.

Today the style of the double portraits of Gabrielle d'Estrées continue to captivate the viewer.