The image of this picture flashed in my mind last night and it daawned on me that I had never wondered about its origins or sought out the reason for this curious gesture. Well, here are the answers - for you and me both...
The subjects are Gabrielle d'Estrées (on our right) and her sister (doing the pinching). The artist of the painting is unknown, but it dates from the Fontainbleau school c. 1595. It is entitled - sensibly enough - "Gabrielle d'Estrees and One of Her Sisters in the Bath." The oil on wood panel (96 x 125cm) is on display at the Louvre. Gabrielle d'Estrees (1573-1599) was the mistress of Henry IV of France (1553-1610), and this painting was full of symbols, as decoded by art historians (listen here):
- Gabrielle's sister is pinching her nipple, the source of the new mother's milk, indicating she is pregnant with the king's child. In fact, the painting anticipates the birth of her 1st child with Henry IV, César de Bourbon (1594-1665). She would go on to have 2 more children (b. 1596 and 1598) by him.
- In her left hand Gabrielle holds the King's coronation ring, which he actually gave to her several years later in 1599 as a sign of their bond and intended betrothal - just days before she died giving birth a 4th time to a stillborn child.
- The love between the king and his mistress is expressed by the painting of an erotic scene on the back wall. Also in the background, a female servant is sewing baby clothes in preparation for the birth. She sits before a lit fireplace that signifies the mother's furnace.
Oddly, everyone depicted in this painting is left-handed: the sister doing the pinching, Gabrielle holding the ring, and the woman sewing. I found a sumptuous portrait of a clothed Gabrielle to use as an inset (2nd image), but then realized I didn't know a thing about it. But I soon identified it. The painting is entitled (you guessed it) "Portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées" by Italian artist Lavinia Fontana, c. 1593-99.