This image is the painting “Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs” by un unknown artist, thought to belong to the Fontainebleau School of late Renaissance, dated c. 1594. It depicts two naked white women sitting upright in a bath looking expressionlessly at the spectator, identified as the mistress of King Henry IV of France (right) and her sister (left). A second scene, a well-dressed lady sitting by the fire stitching cloth, plays centrally in the background space of the composition
The whole picture appears very staged, with both women sitting straight up with elegantly placed arms and fingers, and quite literally with red curtains on both sides like on a theatre stage. Their faces and haircuts are carefully styled along contemporary fashion – pale and sleek – and their bodies are modelled after the 16th century beauty ideal – firm with small breasts. The high contrast of their bright bodies against the dark background sets the two scenes apart. The painter the painter has rendered these details, as well as the light effects and transparent water, extremely realistically. It is remarkable that the skins do not appear wet, lacking translucency, so it is not instantly clear the women are bathing.
The meaning of this image is very interesting, because it is layered and relates to the context of late 16th century France. Gabrielle d’Estrées holds a ring, symbolising her upcoming marriage. Her nipple is pinched by her sister, who so indicates the pregnancy of Ms. D’Estrées. The breast is a symbol for childbirth because of its future function of breastfeeding. This interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the scene of the woman sewing – perhaps preparing clothing for the coming child – in the background.
Following a more progressive interpretation, this image could signify forbidden female homosexuality. The curves of the left curtain imply it has just been lifted to reveal an intimate interaction between two naked women. In this case, the facial expressions can signify surprise and mystery. The woman in the background would identify as brothel owner.