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 (3)

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Illustration by Fragonard of Letter 10 ‘O mon ami, lui dis-je… Pardonne-moi mes torts, je veux les expier à force d’amour’, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1796 edition) Image source: Wikipedia

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Illustration by Fragonard of Letter 44 ‘Je ne lui permis de changer ni de situation ni de parure’
for 1796 edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Image source: Wikipedia

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Illustration by Marguerite Gérard, who was the sister-in-law and pupil of Fragonard, of Letter 96 ‘Valmont entrant dans la chambre de Cécile endormie’ for 1796 edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Image source: Wikipedia

The greatest novel about erotic power, gender politics and psychological manipulation was written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and first published in 1782. It became famous again towards the end of the 20th century when it was adapted into a play (1985) and subsequently a screenplay (1988) by Christopher Hampton. There have been several other adaptations, in period and modern dress, including the 1959 French film directed by Roger Vadim, starring Jeanne Moreau, the TV mini-series starring Catherine Deneuve (2003) and the Hollywood teenage treatment in three films.

Its influence extends far beyond officially credited versions; Merteuil and Valmont have reappeared in different incarnations ever since, as sexual, social or political schemers, because Laclos demonstrated psychopathological prototypes in their characters.

The original epistolary book is unsurpassed, both for the shock at the amorality and cruelty inherent in civilized society, and the subtlety of Laclos’ understanding of human nature, including his recognition of sexual equality far ahead of his time.

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Fragonard The Bolt c. 1777 Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Fragonard painted many voyeuristic, sexually suggestive scenes, far more blatantly erotic than the insouciance of The Swing – naked young girls rolling about with fluffy dogs, that sort of thing – with his characteristic joyful lightness of touch, but this painting, as noted on WGA, shows signs of a serious moral involvement on the artist’s part. There’s none of Boucher’s artificial pastoral sauciness; there’s real violence in the strong diagonals, the turbulent swirl of her skirts, the closest to a condemnation of forced seduction as rape we will find in Rococo art. “No” means no, here. The woman could be the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, struggling with her conscience as she succumbs to Valmont.