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Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour

French mistress Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) came to fame as the paramour of King Louis XV (1710-1774). She was a woman of great beauty, tremendous talent, and enormous influence, despite her humble origins. Often reviled by the court for her bourgeois background, the public for her profligate spending, and sometimes by both for each reason, Pompadour nonetheless remained in the king's favor throughout most of her life and wielded enormous power in eighteenth-century France. From politics to the arts, her stamp was indelible and lasted far beyond her comparatively short time on the earth.

Groomed for a King

Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson on December 29, 1721, in Paris, France. Her mother was Louise-Madeleine de La Motte, a lovely darkhaired woman with a certain “joi de vivre.” Her legal father was Francois Poisson, who had made a fortune as a steward forpowerfulfinancierstheParisbrothers(Parisde Montmartel and Paris-Duvereny). Poisson traveled a great deal in his work, and even lived abroad for nearly ten years in order to avoid a prison sentence for speculating in wheat during a famine. Those frequent and sometimes prolonged absences, coupled with his young wife's comeliness and alleged taste for the company of the opposite sex, rendered the identity of Pompadour's biological father less than certain. Biographers, historians, and Pompadour's contemporaries have put forth several candidates, including Paris de Montmartel and tax collector Charles-Francois Lenormand (also known as le Normant) de Tournehem. Nor, of course, could Poisson himself have been ruled out completely. But the true paternity of the pretty little girl remained a topic of debate and conjecture into the twenty-first century.

No matter who Pompadour's sire really was, it was certain that she was born to please. From the Ursuline nuns with whom she spent the first few years of her life to her maybe, or maybe not, papa, Tournehem, she apparently captivated all who came across her path. When Pompadour was nine years old, the famous fortune teller Madame Lebon predicted that she would become the mistress of Louis XV, then a dashing young man of 20. Such a prophecy might have been dismissed by another family, but Pompadour's mother took it at face value and set about grooming her daughter accordingly. Tournehem saw to it that she was properly and thoroughly educated, not a difficult task with such an apt student. He then arranged her marriage to his nephew Charles-Guillaume Lenormand (le Normant) in March of 1741, and sponsored the new bride's entrance into society. (Tournehem had given the newlyweds the estate Etoiles as a wedding gift, and they were known thereafter as “Monsieur and Madame d'Etioles.)

The fetching young matron bewitched Parisian society much as she had the companions of her childhood. Pompadour became a welcome fixture at fashionable salons, hobnobbing with the aristocracy and intellectuals alike. It was during this period that she embarked upon a lifelong friendship with famed author and philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), who, naturally, found her charming and amiable. But Pompadour had higher aspirations than merely conquering polite society. Indeed, she had been bred to strive for the most royal of prizes. And that is precisely what she did.

Mission Fulfilled

Even royal blood had not protected Louis XV from having a particularly difficult childhood. He had lost his entire immediate family to disease when he was just two, in 1712. At the age of five, he had inherited the French throne from his redoubtable great-grandfather Louis XIV (1638-1715). He had been married to the Polish Princess Marie Leczinska when he was but 15 years old, and although she had borne him seven children, the union was nobody's idea of a love match. Thus, the king had grown to become a moody, pessimistic soul, easily given to flights of boredom and melancholy. This was not to imply that he did not have his strong points or the love of his people (at least at one time), but rather suggests possibilities as to why he might have been especially susceptible to a woman of Pompadour's energies and talents. Or perhaps it was simply love.

Whatever Louis XV's psychological makeup, the keeping of an official mistress was, in itself, nothing more than a long tradition of the monarchy. In 1745 the king was in the market for a new favorite after the untimely death of his previous one. Pompadour, given her social circles, could hardly have been unaware of that fact, and perhaps believed that her moment had come at last. Her chance came in February at a masked ball at Versailles in honor of the nuptials of the Dauphin. The king did not fail to notice the enchanting Madame d'Etioles, and before very long, all the careful planning and fondest hopes of the Poisson family were fulfilled as Pompadour was installed as the mistress of Louis XV.

Before Pompadour's actual elevation to the coveted role, however, at least one obstacle had to be overcome, and further training was in order. The first was the circumstance of her birth. Custom dictated that the king's mistress must be high-born, certainly not a commoner who had risen to the disdained ranks of the bourgeoisie through money alone. This problem was dispatched by making the new favorite the marquisate of Pompadour, thus a commoner no more. The second was the polishing of the fresh mistress's already considerable gifts to be appropriate to her rise in station. So, with Voltaire in attendance as one of her tutors, Pompadour set about mastering court etiquette and the manners of a noble lady. This, too, was accomplished, after which Pompadour was presented at court and settled into quarters at Versailles. Her unhappy husband, understandably, reportedly never spoke to her again.

The First Five Years

At court, Pompadour quickly demonstrated a shrewd grasp of the king's needs. Interestingly, one of the most prominent of these appeared to be simple entertainment or distraction. And Pompadour was admirably suited to providing such things. She rode, played cards, toured palaces, and gave intimate dinner parties for the king. The pair shared interests in architecture, the decorative arts, botany, ornithology, and animals as well. Pompadour was also a gifted singer and actress. She organized over 120 court theatricals of exceptional quality, including operas, plays, and ballets, that she both starred in and directed. In short, Pompadour brought liveliness and fun to a court that had once tended toward the dour.

Pompadour also displayed a flair for domestic politics, establishing a polite relationship with the queen that Louis XV's former mistresses had never bothered with. Early in her relationship with the king, for instance, she convinced him to pay off Her Majesty's gambling debts and redecorate her apartments. Perhaps more important, she displayed a deference to the queen that must have been soothing, if not gratifying, to the older woman's sensibilities. The royal children, however, proved invulnerable to Pompadour's charms. They called her “Mommy Whore.”

Finally, one cannot disregard the nature of Pompadour's position at Versailles—that of the king's mistress. Although she fulfilled the duties inherent to that role, suffering several miscarriages in the process, she was reportedly quite indifferent to sex. This may have been because of an ongoing gynecological illness from which she suffered, or even the miscarriages themselves, but it was certainly an odd situation for a woman who was depicted as one of great seductresses of all time.

Stranger still, it became apparent after a while that Pompadour's hold over her master had little to do with her beauty or sexual wiles. This was demonstrated when it became clear that Pompadour and Louis XV had rendered their relationship platonic around 1750. Colin Jones of History Today may have offered the best (and certainly most understated) comment on this surprising development when he said, “It was unusual for a royal mistress to be distinguished by chastity, sexual abstention being the shortest chapter in the annals of French royal mistresshood.” Yet, much to the disappointment of various courtiers and much of the public, not only was the king's mistress not dismissed, she actually gained in power and prestige in palace business.

Increased Influence

The demands of the royal bed behind her (although she did make certain that the king's new dalliances remained just that and were not the sort who could be presented at court), Pompadour became increasingly valuable to her sovereign in other ways. As Judith Thurman put it in the New Yorker, “There was virtually no high commission, ministerial portfolio, alliance, diplomatic post, important public-works project, royal favor, invitation, or marriage contract authorized against the will of the Marquise.” She even interfered in military tactics, although that was hardly her strong point, as she was widely seen as having orchestrated the changes in alliances that led to France's involvement in the Seven Years' War.

Pompadour also continued her patronage of the arts, surrounding the king with portraits (many of her) and objects of beauty. Two of her pet projects championed local craftsmanship and valor, the porcelain factory in Sevres and the Ecole Militaire. Her collection of books was vast, as were the decorative treasures in her various homes. She favored the French rococo style, especially encouraging its premier painter, Francois Boucher (1703-1770). Writers, sculptors, scientists, painters, and philosophers—all came under Pompadour's patronage and efforts to promote French culture at one time or another.

And despite frequent hopes and predictions that she would fall, Pompadour never lost the king's esteem. She had successfully evolved from an infatuation to an indispensable part of the king's world and, as Jones said, “bucked her sexual and social handicaps to become a major political player.” For a woman, a commoner no less, of her time, Pompadour's influence and accomplishments were unprecedented.

A Hummingbird's End

By the late 1750s, Pompadour's famous looks were fading. And by the early 1760s, her health was failing as well. She had always been rather frail. Appearances notwithstanding, she had long suffered from chronic migraines and lung ailments, not to mention the gynecological troubles mentioned earlier. Pompadour died on Palm Sunday, April 15, 1764, at Versailles. The cause was either tuberculosis or congestive heart failure. She was just 41 years old.

Louis XV made no public expression of regret at Pompadour's passing. Nor was there any outpouring of grief from a public that had seen her as a spendthrift who dabbled in disastrous foreign policy. The latter would hardly have surprised her, as her energies had always been geared towards the king, not his people. Jones wrote, “Her assiduous cultivation of her own image had muddied her appreciation of the wider public just as much as it muddied the public's view of her.” But perhaps Thurman characterized the remarkable mistress's legacy best as a mystery. “Did Pompadour fulfill a great destiny or betray one?”

Periodicals

History Today, November 2002.

Online

“A Brief Biography by the Late Lamented Mario Frejaville Taken from His Book: Madame de Pompadour Mi Ha Detto (Mme. de Pompadour Told Me),” Madame de Pompadour, http://www.madamedepompadour.com/_eng_pomp/home.htm (December 3, 2007).

“Eminence Rose,” New Yorker, October 7, 2002, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/10/07/021007crbo_books (December 3, 2007).

“Madame de Pompadour,” Visit Voltaire, http://www.visitvoltaire.com/v_pompadour.htm (December 3, 2007).

“Madame de Pompadour, Francois Boucher (1759),” Guardian, September 8, 2001, http://www.arts.guardian.co.uk/portrait/story/0,,740343,00.html (December 3, 2007).

“Madame Pompadour,” Everything2, http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1169401 (December 3, 2007).

“Voltaire: Author and Philosopher” Lucid Cafe, http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/95nov/voltaire.html (January 4, 2008).

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