or Erotica and the Rational Woman
Boucher The Setting of the Sun 1752 Oil on canvas Wallace Collection, London. Image source: WGA Mythologically disguised, Madame de Pompadour is welcoming Louis XV to bed.
In real life their sexual relationship had ended a couple of years previously. When this huge painting of mutual sexual fulfillment was first exhibited, men thought it was too shocking for their wives and daughters to see, always a good sign in the past that art was being effective.
The king’s apparent dependency on the bourgeois Madame de Pompadour made her hated by the aristocracy, who wanted complete control over the monarchy, and by the public, who wanted an infallible father figure, not one emasculated under female domination.
Her indirect influence on foreign policy was unfairly held responsible for the disasters of the Seven Years War and the suffering it brought to the nation at home – because it was easier to blame a meddling woman than incompetent men – but her direct influence on French culture and manufacturing of luxury goods was benign. She was a joy-giver who brought good taste into the soulless gambling palace of Versailles before the deluge.
This blogger defends the escapism of Madame de Pompadour and Boucher. They understood the importance of being frivolous.
Boucher’s interpretation of Rococo was meant to be a sophisticated play on lost innocence, an alternative from ghastly reality, but it came over to many contemporary artists, art critics and intellectuals as decadent and irrelevant. They were as disgusted by his cheesiness as a lot of people are today. By the 1750s he was old hat, but still employed by Madame de Pompadour, a loyal friend and patron.
Boucher was a brilliant decorator, with none of the poetic truth of Watteau a generation before, or of his own pupil Fragonard, but, seated as she was at the centre of an artifice, Versailles and the monarchy itself, Madame de Pompadour was too worldly-wise to be consoled by either ethereal visions of the ancien regime, which she was more than intelligent enough to know was destined for catastrophe, or of a neoclassical revolution in perceptions and principles.
Boucher Are They Thinking About the Grape? 1747 oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA
The eroticism and innuendo in Boucher’s pastoral fantasies suited Madame de Pompadour’s purpose as maîtresse-en-titre, before and after her sexual relationship with the king ended. The physical demands of her job comprised its least pleasurable aspect for her, and she successfully turned “l’amour” into “l’amité”. The transition was a risk to her absolute power over the king because Louis XV, like many of the Bourbons, was oversexed.
The easily bored king was in constant need of diversion and entertaining companionship. Madame le Pompadour’s position depended on the king’s favour, and that could only be held by amusing him. She was an accomplished actress who knew that not everything deeply felt has to be stated. Comedy, is, after all, deflected tragedy.
Boucher created scenery for her on and off stage, set designs for her theatre productions and decorative panels for her appartements, where his shepherds and shepherdesses and naked nymphs, happy in their rose-tinted skin, were allowed to play freely over the walls and above the doors. She and the king found relief in Boucher’s shallowness, where artistic depth could only be found in its absence.
She was not retiring from her post; she simply refined it. She still had to use all the sensual powers at her disposal to maintain her influence over the king, and to minimize the threat from other women. She kept his innumerable other liaisons within her orbit.
Madame de Pompadour as the Goddess of Friendship, 1753, terracotta by Pigalle. Private collection. Image source: WGA
She was a loyal friend to her king and to the intellectuals and artists of whom she was patron.
“Born sincere, she loved the King for himself; she had righteousness in her soul and justice in her heart; all this is not to be met with every day.” Voltaire
She remained his closest friend and confidante until her death, his aesthetic collaborator and domestic comfort. They had more in common than most married power couples. It is easy to be cynical about Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, but it is likely, from all the evidence, that they had deep affection for one another within their symbiotic relationship.
Getting too sorry for self-centred, licentious absolute monarchs, however dysfunctional their childhoods and insuperable their responsibilities, is specious, but it is impossible to deny that Louis XV had a well of loneliness inside him.
He had only the dimmest memory of a time before he was king, and that can’t have been happy. He had succeeded his great-grandfather Louis XIV, the grand architect of his troubles, when he was five, after small-pox had wiped out his parents and elder brother. The disease caught him in the end, when he was sixty-four. He grew up emotionally dependent on his advisers and then on his mistresses, above all on Madame de Pompadour.
The contract between the king and the commoner developed into a relationship in which he needed her more than she needed him. She understood him, she could see into the depths of his depression, so however she was feeling, she had to play everything light, everything had to be fun.
Anonymous costume design for Madame de Pompadour’s production of Voltaire’s play Alzire, c 1750, performed at Versailles with Madame de Pompadour herself in the title role. She had known Voltaire for several years in Parisian society, where she held a prominent salon, before she became the king’s mistress at Versailles.
[The best biography of Madame de Pompadour remains Nancy Mitford’s (1954) partly because it is so wittily written, like all her fiction and historical writing, partly because she understands the minds and manners of the 18th century.]