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Pompadour, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson (1721–1764)


POMPADOUR, JEANNE-ANTOINETTE POISSON (17211764), artistic and political patron and favorite of Louis XV from 1745 to 1764 at the court of Versailles. Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson to François and Louise-Madeleine Poisson in Paris. She was groomed for court by her uncle and alleged father, Lenormant de Tournehem, and, educated by the Ursuline order, became proficient in literature, mathematics, religion, history, the arts, and music and as an amateur artist and actor. Tournehem's ties to Parisian society opened doors for Pompadour to the celebrated salons of Mesdames Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, Claudine-Alexandrine Guérin de Tencin, and Marie Vichy-Chamrond, marquise du Deffand. Pompadour's heritage connected her to the financial class of the farmers-general, and her background as a non-noble caused great resentment when she arrived at Versailles. Her portraits reveal her beauty and intellect; the iconography identifies her patronage of the arts and the Enlightenment.

Pompadour married Tournehem's nephew Charles-Guillaume d'Etoiles in 1741, and initially their stable union was founded on love. They had two children, a son, born in 1742, who died suddenly, and a daughter, Alexandrine, born in 1744. Alexandrine's death in 1754 from acute appendicitis and peritonitis shattered Pompadour. Marriage bound her forever to the tax farmers, and later questions about her financial ties advanced by her foes at court discredited her throughout her life. Tournehem, a prominent farmer-general, fashioned and educated Pompadour from her childhood for the intimate quarters of Louis XV, whose predilection for royal mistresses was legendary. What began initially between the king and Pompadour as flirtations on horseback and a tryst at a masked ball resulted in her marital separation and presentation at court in 1745. In that same year Louis XV conferred the marquisate de Pompadour on his new mistress, who shared the king's bed for nearly five years. In 1750 she began the transition from mistress to friend and remained at court for fifteen more years as the king's closest adviser and friend.

The extent of Pompadour's influence reaped high praise from her admirers as well as intense scorn from those who vilified her power during the period when France faced monumental challenges in the War of the Austrian Succession, 17401748, and the Seven Years' War, 17561763. The Children's Riots of 1750, the assassination attempt on Louis XV in 1757, and debates about moral reform dominated Pompadour's ascendancy from 1745 to 1764 and anticipated the French Revolution in 1789. Pompadour was part of these currents of intersecting artistic, political, intellectual, and moral change. Though she was initially dismissed as vain and frivolous by some historians, scholars have come to consider the discerning and influential nature of her impact on eighteenth-century culture. Pompadour played a key role in the arts and politics; to understand the sea changes of this period, one must consider her position within it.

As a political patron, Pompadour participated in the diplomacy surrounding the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War, unprecedented for a king's mistress. Her connection to prominent generals demonstrated her keen input in military affairs. By 1756 she was a principal negotiator in the terms of the Diplomatic Revolution and alliance between France and Austria. Pompadour's artistic patronage is seen through reform initiatives first instituted in 1745 at the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture under her appointees as director-generals of the royal buildings of the king, Tournehem, and her brother, the marquis de Marigny. From the rococo to the early stages of neoclassicism, Pompadour employed art as a force for change, patronizing artists and sculptors from François Boucher (17031770) to Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (17141785). One of her lasting contributions included relocating the Manufacture Royale de Porcelaine from Vincennes to its new site in Sèvres in 1756. Her advisory role at Sèvres and in other factories, including Beauvais, Gobelins, and Aubusson, revived the strapped coffers of France, reinstating governmental protection and ownership by 1759.

Pompadour endorsed the embattled Encyclopédie throughout the censorship of the 1750s. She hosted intellectual gatherings at Versailles and in 1762 wrote on behalf of the philosophe Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (17171783), one of the Encyclopédie 's authors. She was ideologically aligned with the Physiocrats, providing fuel against the critics of economic, intellectual, and cultural change. The association Pompadour discerned between aesthetics and philosophy inspired her to express basic tenets of natural law through the art she favored, particularly chinoiserie (the decorative arts). Remarkably Pompadour's influence was greatest after she left the king's bed. A virulent street discourse relentlessly indicted her as complicit in the monarchy's failings, yet she defied her critics. It was observed that Pompadour had not been afraid to joke that, if the irate mudslingers were right in their opposition to the Encyclopédie, burn it; if not, burn the mudslingers. Her achievements resulted from collaborative political negotiations and numerous artistic commissions and the state institutions she supported. Deffand sadly wrote to Voltaire of the misfortune of Pompadour's impending death from bronchial pneumonia. She left Versailles in a solemn nighttime procession, with Louis XV grieving in her wake. The time line of France from 1745 to 1764 bears Pompadour's unforgettable purpose to serve Louis XV with loyalty and love.

See also Encyclopédie ; Enlightenment ; Louis XV (France) ; Physiocrats and Physiocracy ; Versailles .


Goodman, Elise. The Portraits of Madame de Pompadour: Celebrating the Femme Savante. Berkeley, 2000.

Jones, Colin. Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress. London, 2002.

Lever, Evelyne. Madame de Pompadour: A Life. Paris, 2000.

Pompadour, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, marquise de. Correspondance de Mme de Pompadour avec son père M. Poisson, et son frère M. de Vandières. Edited by M. A. P. Malassis. Paris, 1878.

Rosamond Hooper-Hamersley

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