or, The Power of Pink: She’s a Girl, get over it
Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour by Boucher, 1759. Oil on canvas © The Wallace Collection, London
So here, at last, it couldn’t be resisted, the most familiar and most delectable of all the images of Madame de Pompadour that enchanted my childhood is posted here for DvP, like everything else that matters in life.
It is not just the story of a dress, though what a dress, which can transform a woman into a rose, it is the story of the balance of feminine power between personal ambition and love for another person. She sacrificed peace of mind for ambition, and then fell in love, first with a king, then a man, then a country, and finally a civilization which she made universal.
Notorious as the quintessential courtesan, sneered at by the court for being bourgeois, called “putain” by the king’s sour doughball of a son, reviled by the public, viewed ambivalently today as a well-dressed figurehead of a rotting totalitarian system, there was nothing vulgar, tarty or heartless about her. The illegitimate daughter of a financier showed the world how a cultural leader and benevolent queen should behave.
She was not a parasite; she graced the ancien regime, she gave it lustre and refinement, and it is to Louis XV’s credit that he recognized her contribution to French culture, beyond her private services to him. She transcended the official position of royal mistress through her own accomplishments and charm, of which sex was the smallest part.
If you examine her portrait closely, with the same forensic intensity we study photo-shopped celebrities for flaws today, you might be thinking, by this time, 1758, she was in her late thirties, her looks deteriorated prematurely by anxiety, poor health and rich food, she wanted to hide her ageing neck and chin with that chic ruffle round her neck, then, yes, you are right, of course she did, and let her alone, for heavens’ sake; she lived to please; one person’s vanity is beauty’s gift of happiness to everyone with eyes to see, and shame to you who evil thinks.
She lived beautifully, and showed the rest of us how to do it, too. She united femininity with power, without concessions to coarseness or snobbery. She was a talented actress who knew how to put on a good show with complete sincerity. That is not a contradiction; good acting is about unpeeling layers to the truth underneath, however you are feeling. No-one has ever achieved and exercised power in quite the way she did, in such elegant style, on such a grand scale, and being nice to everyone along the way.
She is leaning on Pigalle’s statue of ‘L’Amour embrassant l’Amitié’, Love embracing Friendship, which she had commissioned in 1754 to aggrandize her new relationship with the king. They agreed they would not sleep with each other more, but that she would keep her job, because Versailles and French civilization were better with her, and he needed her, he couldn’t rule or live without her, and promiscuous lover though he was, he would be the most faithful of friends.
A lot of us can’t live without her, either. She’s one of the most enduring and likeable of icons, a woman for all seasons. We love her for the beautiful display, and the vulnerability.
Unlike many public figures, she knew the difference between reality and theatre. She even let us see her putting on her make-up.
Marquise de Pompadour at the Toilet-table, by Boucher, 1758, oil on canvas,
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge. Image: Wikiprdia
She is in the middle of applying rouge – more would not seem to be necessary, but that’s beside the point. It is an idealized picture of her appearance at the time; she and Boucher are playing together again at performance art. She presents the cameo portrait of the king’s head out front, like product placement.
Putting on her mask of beauty was not a sign of sexual availability – she was no longer the king’s or anyone else’s sexual partner – but she was still supposed to be a trophy of the monarchical institution itself. She was in the fashion and beauty business. People constantly bitched about her. She retained her right to control her image.
She had a lot to cover up under her skin – physical frailty, emotional pain, mental stress – all of which she kept secret. Make-up is the armour of the soul. Let her wear rouge.
Madame de Pompadour putting on rouge is the performance of a joy-giver, one of many different aspects of her feminine personality. You can’t give joy if you don’t look happy yourself.
Nowadays, a photo-shopped image of a glamorous celebrity would provoke an outcry against unachievable standards of eternal youth and beauty, as if the purpose of all portraits is investigative dermatology, rather than artistic collaboration in the creation of an ideal in which we can all rejoice. The big fake is not the manipulated image of a real woman, but the hypocritical reaction, masking jealousy and spite.
She proved that a woman at the heart of patriarchal society need no longer trade sexual services for a modicum of influence and personal liberty; she could be loved and trusted for her beautiful mind.
And she never gave up wearing rouge.
She was a superb political hostess, but not a great politician, partly because she was unlucky, partly because she was sincere.
She was mistress of the art of rational illusion. She proved that all the beautiful things we think of as transient and frivolous, the love of exquisite clothes, pretty objects and elegant houses, the tender-petalled roses at her feet, the taste of champagne, the echo of music, a witty remark, a sweet smile, the audience’s laughter at the end of a comedy, the out-stretched hand of a child grabbing reassurance in momentary delight, the sudden joy in life despite the horror of living, do live for ever.