Two women in a tub

Gabrielle d'Estres and one of her sisters.
Gabrielle d'Estres and one of her sisters. | Source

This two women in a bathtub were painted around 1594 by an unknown artist. it was a time of religious wars, protestant versus catholics in which paintings like this would have been violently discharged with the artist who dared to paint it. It is completely understandable why it is not signed.One of the women carries resemblance with Gabrielle d´Estrées, Henry IV of france´s mistress. She was beautiful woman of her time and had many affairs before catching the king´s eye.

In the 16th and 17th century people used to live in extreme filthy conditions so bathing was strange and carried all sort of esoteric meanings. Doctors advised hands could be washed but head and feet should never touch water. Bathing was also associated with witches, in their sabbath witches took a bath and it's said that Satan copulated with them in the water. Gabrielle d'Estrées was a hated woman in court, she had too much influence on the king, he even converted to the catholicism on her advice(He was able to be crown lawful king afterwards) and her reputation was far from respectable besides being a public sinner.

I did a little survey with ten subjects about the idea behind this women bathing together. The results were somehow predictable, most of them thought it was the celebration of a lesbian relationship among sisters. “Gabrielle d' Estrées and one of her sisters” carries a deeper meaning though. In 1594, Gabrielle was pregnant and gave birth a child fathered by the king. King Henry IV gave her his coronation ring(Gabrielle is holding the king’s ring on her left hand). He wanted Gabrielle to be his lawful wife and queen.

The duchess of Villars (Gabrielle's sister) is tweaking her sisters right nipple with her left hand. This detail most of all gives this painting an aura of naghtyness or taboo. It is more likely to mean that Gabrielle was pregnant. Nowadays the clear sign of pregnancy would be a round belly but back them even virgins showed a rounded belly because it was sign of ideal beauty. In paintings of Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, they reach out for each other's bodies perhaps to feel the baby move or heart beat. In this case the code is taken further.

In the background it's seen a woman(perhaps a wet nurse) sewing at a table next to fireplace.This scene to the superstitious eye looks quite obscure. The silk of the curtains around the sisters are red mean shed blood. The fire at the fireplace seems to be nearly extinguish which reveals the treat on Gabrielle's life. Beside the fireplace, a table that look like a coffin covered with green velvet which was Gabrielle's favourite color. The painting above the fire shows a naked man a clear allusion to Gabrielle's immoral relationship with the king. The small mirror above the wet nurse looks dark and shows no reflection, an obscure mirror is a symbol of death.

Gabrielle died of complications in her fourth pregnancy in 1599. She was really close to become queen as the king’s marriage was about to be dissolved. Every time I look this painting feel different than my surveyed subjects, I see two women looking like wax dummies(probably consequence of tight corsets) and a left- right order instead of the classic right to left. It bothers me that the hand tweaking the nipple looks somehow unreal and anatomically incorrect. This painting tell us a story that goes beyond what we can see in the surface and that makes it interesting.

Comments 14 comments

princesswithapen profile image

princesswithapen 5 years ago

Intriguing to know that bathing was associated with witches. Interesting hub, Lorenaybe.


PETER LUMETTA profile image


Fascinating analysis of a period piece with all the symbolism included. Thanks, Peter

LorenAyBe profile image

LorenAyBe 5 years ago from Belgium Author

Thanks,Princeswithapen. Indeed,Weird times in which bathing was considered dangerous and connected to witchcraft.

LorenAyBe profile image

LorenAyBe 5 years ago from Belgium Author

You're welcome, Peter Lumetta. I'm glad that you found it somehow interesting.

epigramman profile image

epigramman 5 years ago

...I have always loved this painting - seems quite daring for its day and time - but I always have the day and time for your hubs on art

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ubanichijioke profile image

ubanichijioke 5 years ago from Lagos

Quite a walk in the path of history. I appreciate the interpretation, meaning and thoughts. Great hub, informative and very useful

LorenAyBe profile image

LorenAyBe 5 years ago from Belgium Author

Epigramman,this painting is way more interesting once you know all the hidden meanings.

LorenAyBe profile image

LorenAyBe 5 years ago from Belgium Author

thanks, ubanichijioke. Every painting is more meaningful situated in a time frame.

Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

I saw this painting at the Louvre this summer and had forgotten about its fascinating background. It's one of my favorites! Thanks for the fun read.

LorenAyBe profile image

LorenAyBe 5 years ago from Belgium Author

Great! glad that you liked it, Simone.

sever3d profile image

sever3d 5 years ago from London

O wow. Louvre ?! I've been there like 20 years ago and wish to remember that now . nice one anyway.

LorenAyBe profile image

LorenAyBe 4 years ago from Belgium Author

yes,this painting is in the Louvre. But the Louvre is so big that it's hard to remember all paintings.

cha 4 years ago

yeah i read the book, anyway, what's in the book, i forgot the title, it's in our Library, the book states that Gabrielle died with brutality, her eyes rolled, her back was curved....and what the doctor says is that it's a hand of God, I'm confused now, what really happens to her?

LorenAyBe profile image

LorenAyBe 4 years ago from Belgium Author

Gabrielle D'estrees died of Eclampsia.Which is a complication of pregnancy. The syntoms are quite severe and it can be confused with poisoning. She had convultions and the rolling eyes,facial twitching,involuntary forceful muscular movement can occur preceding a seizure ,followed by coma and finally death.

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