When I was a child we used to have this very big book of reproductions of the greatest paintings of all time. I clearly remember spending hours looking at one in particular and my fascination with the glamorous dress, the pure white, almost childish face, with the pink cheeks, the abundance of ribbons, with the small and ever so delicate decorations in the hair, on the wrists, around the neck. It wasn’t till much later in life, when I saw that paining in London, when I was reminded of my childhood dream of living in the ages when women wore those long dresses. It was also the day I realized it was one of the most famous portraits of Madame de Pompadour by Boucher and I felt the same craving for simpler times, but now with the knowledge that they were not simpler.
Jeanne Antoinette Poisson was born on December 29, 1721 in Paris to François Poisson and his wife Madeleine de La Motte. Her father was forced to leave the country because he was buried in debts, but it is well-known now that he was not her biological father. The parenthood belonged either to the finacier Jean Pâris de Monmartel or the tax collectr Charles François Paul Le Normant de Tournehem. It’s pointless to discuss that from nowadays’ perspective.
At the age of six, Jeanne was accepted in the convent school at Poissy. She was very bright and charming. However, she was also prone to sickness. At the age of nine, she was sent home with a whooping cough that played a nasty part in her future – her lungs were her weakness and her constant worry. After her return, she was homeschooled and no, she didn’t excel at regular subjects. She did show, however, excellence in any form of art. After she had recovered from the illness, her mother took her to a fortuneteller. It’s strange how serious people took the words of these “professionals”. The words “One day she will possess the heart of a king,” were never forgotten and her mother doted on her, preparing her for that big moment when her daughter would marry a king. She didn’t. She only became one of the most loved and most hated mistresses of Rococo France with Rococo style invented and imposed by none other than her.
Her tutoring was sponsored by Tournehem, which could have had something to do with his parenthood and who also moved them to Paris. Besides, he was a man with means and connections. That explains the arranged marriage Jeanne entered. Her husband was one of Tournehem’s nephews, Charles Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles and when Tournehem died, he left all his properties and money to the married couple who never lived poorly anyway. After the marriage, Charles fell deeply in love with Jeanne. Whether she had the same profound feelings for him, that is not known, but she did care for him and promised to never leave him (unless he was the King – something she probably only thought.)
Jeanne started attending popular salons and meeting interesting people who appreciated her wit and impeccable taste in arts. There she met Voltaire and Montesquieu. Later, she opened her own salon which became one of the most frequented place for thinking people.
During their married life, they had a son, who died quite young, and then a daughter, Alexandrine, who died at the age of nine of severe peritonitis. It was a horrible blow for her parents and Jeanne took it really hard, but she never gave up the dream of having a child, only… not with her husband. They had a property, neighboiuring the hunting grounds of King Loius XV. Despite her marriage, Jeanne had not forgotten the fortuneteller’s words and one day she parked her carriage on the path, where he would pass. The carriage was pink and she was wearing a blue dress. The next day she parked again in a blue carriage and a pink dress. And he noticed her and remembered her.
However, it wasn’t until seven month later, when she was invited to a ball at Versailles . The reason for that delay was that Lous XV was faithful to his mistress at the time and moved on to Jeanne after his mistress had died. At the ball she was dressed as the Goddess Diana of the Hunt. That was the most crucial moment of her life – at the ball the King officially declared his feeling for Jeanne. When she was introduced to the Queen, she promised her that she had no intention of taking her place in the King’s heart. Apparently, open marriages were a common thing in those times and the Queen was charmed by her Jeanne’s openness and honesty. I don’t see it happening in a royal family these days. Do you? Kings and emperors cheated anyway, so why not make it official?
In the meantime, Charles was heartbroken by his wife’s betrayal and soon they were officially separated, but not before Luis XV had offered Charles a position as an ambassador in Turkey as a compensation for taking his wife. Yet, Charles declined the offer. He moved on to other women and had children. By 1745, Jeanne was officially pronounced mistress of Louis XV. She was given apartments, a marquisate, which made her a marquise. In order to be present at court, one needed a title and hers was Madam de Pompadour – the name by which she went down in history, a name that was never forgotten.
Madame de Pompadour was not only the King’s lover. She was his best and most trusted friend, the only person he went to for advice, totally neglecting the court counselors. That was the time she was appointed the Thirteenth Lady in Waiting – the highest position for a woman at court. While reading about her life, I was really wondering what the Queen was grateful for, but probably Jeanne took off some of the burdensome marital duties and what he King did in his spare time was of no concern to the Queen.
Madame de Pompadour acted the way a Prime minister would – she intervened in domestic and foreign affairs and when France lost the Seven-year war, leaving the country in bankruptcy and ruins, she was there to take the blow, to comfort him, to offer her support. Many blamed her and hated her for her decision-making, for talking the King into making brave choices, but many adored her. Most people in court feared the fact that so much power was put in the hands or a commoner. And a woman. Political circled never warmed up to her, but the artistic circles were at her feet. She was the woman who introduced the Rococo style.
She favoured not so popular beliefs in necessary changes in infrastructure, trade, economy and income taxes. Her decisions helped France slowly come out of the war. Although disliked by many, she was supported by the King even after their sexual relationship had ended in 1750 due to her health problems. She remained his only and closest friend and advisor. Louis XV suffered fits of melancholy and she was the only one to help him pull through. She threw parties and hunting trips only for him. She loved him deeply and she understood him. Even though she was no longer his official mistress, he never brought any of her successors to the court, staying faithful in his heart to her. “It’s his heart I want. I am not afraid that any of these young girls will take him from me”, she would say. And she was right – she had no reason to fear.
Madame de Pompadour was not just a mistress, as many shallow publications would argue. She had enormous influence, she gave her entire support to arts – literature, paintings, music, plays, books, architecture – she cherished any creation, any effort towards broadening people’s knowledge and sharpening their senses. She inspired. It is Madame de Pompadour we must thank for the Physiocrates School which gave birth to Adam Smith’s theories. She bought a porcelain factory, encouraging the production of fine porcelain items. She helped printmakers. She was a guardian of talented actors and actresses, who she introduced to the Palace. She was the woman who created that image we have of Paris today – the city of culture and love for beauty in all its forms.
She relentlessly fulfilled her role and obligations out of love for the King and for beauty and arts despite her poor health. After the three miscarriages, while in sexual relationship with Louis XV, her health was in a bad state. As a consequence of the whooping cough she suffered as a child, she often had bronchitis and spat blood. She also had severe headaches.
Madame de Pompadour died at the age of 42 having contracted tuberculosis. Louis XV tried so hard to help her get better and was shattered while witnessing his own failure. The King remained devoted to her to the last day. On the day of her funeral here was a roaring storm with thunders and lightning. Her haters rejoiced, but the King and all the artists and thinkers, everyone she had helped create and urged on with her inspiration, were devastated. Voltaire wrote: “I am very sad at her death. I was indebted to her and I mourn her out of gratitude. It’s a shame that an ancient pen-pusher like me, who can hardly move, is still alive, and a beautiful woman should die in the midst of a splendid career at the age of only forty-two.”
While watching the stormy rain during the departure of the carriage with her body, the King is reported to have said several times. “The marquise will not have good weather on her journey.”
When I look at the exquisite painings of Madame de Pompadour by Boucher, I mourn a time I never witnessed, I was not even close to experiencing even through books, operas and plays and films set in that time. There is something pulling me to the ribbons, to the lacy pink elegance, to the corsets, to the hand-made shoes, to the bright sunny colors, to the clatter of objects I would never buy in my life, and I thought I hated pink. I hate pink and corsets, and I hate ribbons. Or do I?
In every woman there is that little girl, who dreams of spending one day in those surroundings, in clothes belonging to another time, when they say women had no power. But Madame de Pompadour did, didn’t she?
There were times when women stood behind the men they loved wearing nothing, but a smile. There were times when the heroines wore dresses, took them off when they saw fit, used their wit and made their way through life in spite of all prejudice, going against the morals of a society which was not moral then, would not be, has not been and I seriously doubt it will ever be moral. It’s the pretense that counts now, as it did then.