Foreshades of Grey (12)

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. Continue reading

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Foreshades of Grey (10)

or, Fashioning a Library of One’s Own

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Boucher, Marquise de Pompadour 1758, Oil on canvas Victoria and Albert Museum. Image source: WGA
Is this escapism or fashionable accountability? Is she trivial, or transcendental?

In this charmingly informal publicity portrait, the most powerful woman in France during the reign of her lover and friend Louis XV is momentarily distracted from the pages of an edifying book by the beauties of nature.

It is the characteristic pose of 18th century sensibility and reason, but the gentle, almost elegiac, romanticism of the painting is unusual for Boucher, who peddled decorative erotica to the French court. He wasn’t interested in real trees, but in the silky texture of cloth and flesh, the translucence of pearls, rose petals and female skin. Here, he restrains pinkiness, he creates a contemplative mood, of private communion, of an innocent wistfulness foreign to Versailles.

The relative unfussiness, and high necked modesty, of her dress is significant, too; Madame de Pompadour understood fashion language, and not a nuance or ruffle is without profound meaning.

Within the confines of etiquette and politesse, she is ahead of the Romantic trend, anticipating the graceful simplicity of dress of pre-Revolutionary Europe adopted in the 178os. Rather as Napoleon admitted that he could not have conquered Prussia if Frederick the Great had been alive, it is impossible that the gross excesses of the high hairstyles and enormous paniered skirts of the CoiffureBellePoule1770s would ever have taken hold if Madame de Pompadour had still been around.

They are fun for us, as fantastical art exhibits, fashion for fairy tales, powdered beehives carrying ships and mice, but in the real wearing they mocked good taste, hygiene and the deprivation of the rest of humanity.

Madame de Pompadour was an actress who knew the difference between escapism and accountability; she could tell a metaphor from haute couture.

As is evident from the detail of the book and the woodland setting – well, Boucher’s idea of a woodland setting – she was a patroness of Rousseau and embraced the new sensibility to feelings and humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

She read his books attentively, as well as the works of Voltaire and other philosophes, and kept in touch with their progressive thinking even after twenty years of living at Versailles. She lived in the moment, but she was not in denial of national crises, or of the disastrous consequences of royal policy. The king’s problems became her problems.

Towards the end of her life, she was heard quoting from Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762): “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man who thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are”.  In her compassion for Louis the man, she was trying to give the king a moral get-out clause, an excuse for his lethargy towards reforming the French State. Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey (9)

or, The Lover of Apollo

revealing himselfBoucher, 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. Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey (5 and a half)

or, To understand all is to forgive all

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Hyacinthe Rigaud, State Portrait of Louis XV, 1715, Musée National du Château, Versailles. Image source: WGA
An hereditary absolute monarch plays with his toys.

Louis XV’s contemporary Rousseau (1712 -1774) was the first educationalist of the modern era to impress upon parents who could afford to educate their children in the first place, that they should not be treated and dressed as miniature adults.

Forming habits early on was bad for personality development. In a natural education, parents and guardians should provide “well-regulated liberty” for the child to play and follow his or her natural instincts. Before reaching the age of reason, the child learns through sensation, not through having ideas of right and wrong, and certainly not of entitlement, forced on him.

There was nothing remotely natural about Louis XV’s childhood.

Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” is a French proverb of disputed origin. Madame de Staël wrote in her novel Corinne (1807): “Car tout comprendre rend très indulgent, et sentir profondément inspire une grande bontée” .
“To understand everything makes one tolerant, and to feel deeply inspires great kindness”.
With grateful acknowledgments to Fake Buddha Quotes

Foreshades of Grey (5)

or Erotica and the Rational Woman

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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. Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey (4)

Reinette/Putain/Marquise

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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.