or, The Royal Stag
The king’s promiscuity was an affair of state. It made government vulnerable to abuse from the wrong kind of woman pushed on him by a court faction, with domestic or foreign policy agendas, a scenario as familiar to modern republics as autocracies of any time. He was very lucky to find the rational, loyal and responsible Madame de Pompadour, or rather, that she introduced herself to him.
Nattier, Portrait of Louis XV of France, 1745. Oil on canvas The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
He was known as the handsomest man at Versailles; he was also the most libidinous and depressed. Here, portrayed in the year he moved his new mistress Madame d’Étioles, into Versailles, he looks disconcertingly like a chubby Dan Stevens, but Ryan Gosling would be better casting to convey his enigmatic emotional isolation.
Details of his sexual proclivities, especially his liking for young girls, later provided propaganda for the Revolutionaries in his grandson’s reign. He needed but was not obsessed with sex; he spent far more time gambling and hunting, anything to distract him from l’acédie. Unlike a lot of world leaders in the modern era, and the Marquis de Sade in Louis XV’s own time, there was no open suggestion during his reign even from his greatest enemies that the king abused or assaulted women, or that his tastes were perverted or paedophiliac; but there’s no doubt that he slept with a lot of young teenage girls.
How young is still disputed; the ones history is sure about were aged about fifteen or sixteen. This was considered just old enough for aristocratic and wealthy virgins to start sexual activity in arranged marriages with often much older men, but very early by the contemporary standards of poorer, working class girls, unless they were already prostitutes. The average age of marriage among peasant or working class women in the mid 18th century was as surprisingly, and sensibly, late as 26, suggesting they had much more power of choice than their more pampered upper class counterparts, pawns in mummies and daddies’ powergames.
Madame de Pompadour was essential to the king’s happiness, and she lived to make him happy. After their relationship became platonic, neither she nor the king, let alone his wife and daughters who preferred the Marquise as his official mistress to anyone else, wanted their harmonious ménage disrupted by some arrogant aristocrat or pushy parvenue whose abuse of patronage and mindless extravagance would cause national scandal. Flash-forward to the sad years after La Pompadour’s death, and cue slutty Madame du Barry moving in to Versailles.
The brain-teaser while Madame de Pompadour was alive was that the king was not expected, except by the Church, to suppress his sexual urges, and he had to be protected from infection and political intrigue. A rational way of regulating the king’s sex life had to be found which would secure everybody’s interests.
Illustration by Marguerite Gérard of Letter 96 ‘Valmont entrant dans la chambre de Cécile endormie’ for 1796 edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Image source: Wikipedia
The solution was that most of Louis XV’s casual sexual partners were specially recruited young girls, bought by his agents from bourgeois families outside the court, who were groomed for sex with the king in a house on the outskirts of Versailles in the quartier known as The Deer Park, only a short carriage drive to the royal apartments where they were taken when required.
It was all quick and discreet; the king was always polite, however bored he was. After use, they continued to be well-looked after and were respectably married off. Royal bastards were acknowledged and provided for.
It was intended as a safe, hygienic, pragmatic solution to royal necessity, a matter of state handled discreetly by sophisticated people, hurting no-one, including the girls themselves, but the house in le Parc aux Cerfs became an emblem of the sleazy excesses of the ancien regime.
Le Parc aux Cerfs represented the worst most contemporaries in France knew about their king’s sexual proclivities; if his taste extended to even younger girls, which is a possibility, it was kept secret.
Carle van Loo, ‘Sultane’, Madame de Pompadour in Turkish dress, 1747. Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Image source: Wikipedia
In the early years of their relationship, La Pompadour celebrated her sexual power over the king in imagery evoking the harem.
It is difficult adjusting our moral spectacles when viewing the sexual exploitation of women in the long distant past. All daughters and wives were men’s chattels anyway, with no economic or political rights of their own; marriage itself can be perceived as legalized prostitution into which women were often sold against their will, hardly knowing the man they were about to sleep with, and sometimes so repelled by him at first sight that conjugal duties resembled institutionalized rape.
Some of the girls sold by their parents to le Parc aux Cerfs – and let’s hope some dared refuse to sell – were being rescued from far worse. Being the handsome king’s mistress was an aspiration, not a disgrace, a chance to be Cendrillon, or Cinderella, safer than being a child prostitute on the streets.
Fairy tales get less and less innocent the older you get.
Gustave Doré, illustration for ‘Cendrillon’ (Cinderella) in 1862 edition of Charles Perrault’s collection of fairy tales (1697). Image: Wikipedia
The closest equivalent we have is probably a luxury trailer in Hollywood where a cast of young starlets waits to be called one by one to the set of ‘Versailles’, the biggest budget movie ever made about politics and sex, all of it built on a swamp, just like the Sun King’s palace itself, the absolutist dream factory turned nightmare.
Nobody calls it pornography, because it’s a mainstream movie, with powerful backers and distributors, and enough big star names and reputable actors willing to strip naked and simulate sex scenes to sell it as art house.
The theatre within a theatre: Gabriel, Elevation Drawing of the Stage, Versailles Opera House 1760s Pen and ink wash. One of Madame de Pompadour’s most passionate interests was theatre, in all its aspects – acting, dancing, singing, supervising set design and direction – and she staged spectacular entertainments on temporary stages in Versailles. The economic disasters of The Seven Years War delayed her and Louis XV’s plans of building a permanent theatre and she died before building work began. The Opera House was completed in 1770
Archives Nationales, Paris. Image source: WGA