or, The Lover of Apollo
Boucher, Apollo Revealing his Divinity before the Shepherdess Isse, 1750, oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours. Image source: WGA
Under cover of mythology, like in an Annie Leibovitz celebrity portrait, the love affair between Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour reaches apotheosis.
When the twenty-three year old Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Madame d’Étioles, achieved her ambition of gaining entry to Versailles, she was dressed as a shepherdess seeking shelter under a yew tree, which was revealed to be the king in disguise. The Rococo had a camp sense of humour.
She was the not quite fairytale intruder into the palace, a clever middle-class girl trained in acting, music, singing and dancing who would shine today in her chosen profession and go on to become a leader of the arts, or a minister for culture more gracious than any queen.
There are other sides to Madame de Pompadour than the carefully doctored portraits of her reveal. Her education, supervised by her mother, had included political studies, most unusually for a girl of that time. She was sent to listen to the debates at the Club d’Entresol, an academy of political and economic freethinkers, considered such a threat to the Establishment that it was closed down by the government.
The object was not to train her for a political career, which was unthinkable for a woman, but to groom her for a public one as the cultured companion and personal assistant of a powerful man, irrespective of the wishes of any bourgeois financier she might have married in the meantime.
As it turned out, Monsieur d’Étioles was not complaisant, and turned down generous offers of compensation from Louis XV who arranged a legal separation for the couple. He never forgave his wife for accepting the king’s indecent proposal. Society would have to be completely revolutionized before husbands would understand their contractual obligation to support their wives’ careers.
Courtesans came from a broad social background, from near-destitution on the streets to the relative affluence of the middle classes. If they got to the top of their profession they could attain influence and autonomy denied the majority of married women.
Some of them were articulate and well-educated, aspiring to their own cultural and intellectual achievements, beyond material acquisition. A few of them won social respectability by marrying their aristocratic lovers, though that meant giving up any independent wealth they might have accrued to their husbands. With the legitimate succession secured, Louis XV’s widowed great-grandfather Louis XIV had married his ageing mistress Madame de Maintenon.
The most successful 20th century descendant of the courtesans was Grace Kelly, who achieved Hollywood success as a paragon of virtuous fragile beauty with an off-screen reputation for sleeping around, and then married the constitutional monarch of a small Mediterranean state, a cliff-top casino and playground for the super-rich to which she contributed the lustre of personal charm and philanthropic work for the performing arts and children’s charities.
Some courtesans, as Madame de Pompadour’s career proved, were monogamous by nature, unlike many of their respectably married, promiscuous sisters.
As the married Madame d’Étioles, she had been a social success in Paris, a difficult city to conquer, before she moved into Versailles. She was already a leader of fashion, an admired amateur actress (being professional would not have been respectable), a refined conversationalist and hostess of a salon which attracted the prominent intellectuals of the day.
She would have had a less stressful life if she had stayed with her husband, and not pursued the glittering, dangerous path of ambition at Versailles. Maîtresse-en-titre was a glamorous, well-paid but not permanent position. She could have been booted out of her appartements and pensioned off when she lost her looks, but she had made herself indispensable to the king, and turned her official position of mistress into unofficial minister for culture, and the king’s most intimate friend and advisor.
Quentin de la Tour, Marquise de Pompadour c. 1755 Pastel on seven sheets of blue paper mounted on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: WGA
No longer a sensual Sultane, but a femme savante, at ease surrounded by the accoutrements of her artistic, musical, and intellectual interests, exquisitely dressed in embroidered French silk, seated in an elegantly furnished room, designed by French craftsman, the minister for culture is planning her next national project to show the world, symbolized by the globe on the table next to her. Like all La Pompadour’s portraits, it is a marketing triumph.
She sacrificed peace of mind, and complacency. She was treated vilely by political rivals among the old aristocracy who despised her bourgeois origins. The extravagance of her building and decoration projects shared with the king, her clothes and theatrical entertainments, was resented by the overburdened French people. She was the public’s scapegoat for all the scandals and military defeats of the regime, all the shame and privation and suffering that befell the country; she endured les Poissonardes, dirty songs attacking every part of her appearance and character.
Anyone of less fortitude would have given in to acedie, to despairing sloth and self-indulgence, but Madame de Pompadour was a woman conscious of destiny who took her responsibilities seriously. Underneath the lace ruffles, the powder and rouge, she was stoical; underneath the ormolu was superb clock-making.
She made sure her love of the arts benefited the nation; she put back as much as she could. She kept architects, artisans and artists employed. She stimulated the Gobelins tapestry works and the recently established French porcelain manufactory, which was brought under royal protection and moved from Vincennes to a new site at Sèvres near her own chateau of Bellevue, signifying her close involvement in its development.
No princess or courtesan has executed their jobs with more good humour, good taste and intelligence than Madame de Pompadour, who raised the economic fortunes and prestige of French decorative arts through her patronage and example.
Ship Potpourri with Pink Ground and Chinese Decor c. 1760 Soft-paste porcelain, with Chinese style scene painted by Dodin after a painting by Boucher (of course). Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: WGA
The famous, instantly recognizable colour of the porcelain was created in her honour and is still called “Pompadour Pink”