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Two women in a tub
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.