Portrait by Boucher painted 1756, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Image source: WGA
She is the quintessence of 18th century Taste and Elegance. Her pose is often the same in her portraits, presenting her left three-quarters profile, faintly smiling, vitality sparkling, but not too much; her legs crossed casually, showing off petite feet slipped into chic mules, peeping out like shells under an ocean of embroidered silk; she pauses from reading a book – she is nearly always reading a book.
The same roses are cast down at her feet, next to one of her attentive spaniels, and tokens of her cultural pursuits are strewn around her – paint brushes, music sheets, writing materials, yet more books – her dress alone is a work of art – and yet there is always a subtle difference in each version of her, containing a subliminal message in the most seductive of advertizing campaigns.
Here she is enthroned in an opulent interior. She is relaxed about ownership of such splendour; she doesn’t mind you seeing – she wants you to see – the open drawer of her cabriole legged side-table. If she wasn’t so good at playing herself, you would almost suspect she was an actress in a divine drawing-room comedy.
She is more nonchalant than a nouveau riche wanting to show off would be, but, and here she proves her diplomatic brilliance, she is humbler than a queen, she is looking away from us, not seeking dominion over us. She is not completely abstracted, she is a sociable creature who would invite us in and be interested to talk to us, and say something witty to put us at ease.
This is the perfect hostess, the perfect leader of fashion and culture, not the most beautiful woman you have ever seen, it’s true, but the one who cultivates the most beauty around her. This is Madame de Pompadour.
She is the king’s mistress, and he needs her, more than anyone else, but they have not had sex with one another for years. She doesn’t mind you knowing that. It’s not the only way a woman can have power and show love.
The only thing she doesn’t want you to know is that the decorative and devoted dog is, as Nancy Mitford pointed out in her biography of Madame de Pompadour, her emotional substitute for her dead daughter.