Pompadour, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Duchesse de (1721–1764)
Pompadour, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Duchesse de (1721–1764)
French mistress of Louis XV who, for almost two decades, exercised great political influence and personified the elegance of the 18th century. Name variations: Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson; Marquise de Pompadour; Madame Lenormand d'Étiolles or d'Étioles. Pronunciation: JHAN ahn-twa-NET pwa-SO der POHM-pa-duhr. Born on December 30, 1721, in Paris; died at the Palace of Versailles on April 15, 1764, of heart and lung congestion; buried at the church of the Capuchins (no longer extant) on the Place de Vendôme; daughter of François Poisson (1684–1754, a supply agent for the Pâris brothers) and Louise-Madeleine de la Motte Poisson (c. 1699–1745, daughter of the meat supplier for the Hôtel des Invalides); educated at the Ursuline convent school at Poissy; married Charles-Guillaume Lenormand d'Étiolles (or Le Normand, Lenormant, Le Normant, and Étioles), in 1741; mistress of Louis XV (1710–1774), king of France (r. 1715–1774); children: son Charles-Guillaume-Louis (1741–1742); daughter Alexandrine d'Étiolles (1744–1754).
Father lived in exile because of fraud charges (1726–36); married and became socially prominent (1741–45); became the king's recognized mistress and her mother died (1745); opened an intimate theater at Versailles (1747); Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed, and Bellevue was begun (1748); had ceased sexual relations with the king and moved to a downstairs apartment (1751); was made duchess, and the Choiseul-Romanet affair threatened her position (1752); her daughter and father died (1754); met with the Austrian ambassador about reversing the alliances (1755); became a lady-of-honor to the queen, the Austrian alliance was signed, and the Seven Years' War began (1756); died after a long decline in her health (1764).
Despite her birth as a commoner, possibly no woman was more prepared to be the mistress of a king than was Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson. When she was nine years old, her mother, who had nicknamed her "Reinette" (Little Queen), took her to a fortuneteller, who pronounced the startlingly beautiful child a morceau du roi (king's morsel) and foretold she would be a king's mistress. The girl was deeply impressed. Henceforth, every care was taken to prepare her for marriage, against huge odds, to a wealthy man by cultivating her many talents to the utmost. When the prophecy came true 15 years later, Madame Pompadour gave the fortuneteller, Madame Lebon , an annual pension of 600 livres.
The odds were long indeed, for Jeanne-Antoinette's status seemingly doomed any such possibility: no king of France had ever made a commoner his officially recognized mistress (maîtresse en titre). When Louis XV chose her in 1745, the scandal was immense. Not only was her status impaired, but the reputations of her parents were well tarnished. To what did she owe her victory? Preparation, physical beauty, and luck.
Her father François Poisson was the youngest of nine children of a prosperous weaver in Provenchères-sur-Fave (Vosges). Clever and ambitious, he became an agent of the Pâris brothers, army contractors rapidly rising to immense wealth and influence as financiers to the crown and nobility. He was a childless widower when, in 1718, he married Louise-Madeleine de la Motte , a ravishingly beautiful and witty daughter of an army contractor who supplied meat to the Hôtel des Invalides. Their eldest child, Jeanne-Antoinette, was born in Paris on December 30, 1721, and a son, Abel-François (later Marquis de Marigny), in 1725. Abel's legitimacy has never been questioned, but Jeanne-Antoinette's has long been disputed, even though no hard evidence exists that François was not her father. The circumstances of the marriage have suggested that it was arranged as a respectable cover for an affair between Louise-Madeleine and, possibly, Secretary of War Le Blanc or one of the Pâris brothers, most likely Jean Pâris de Montmartel (1690–1766). The leading candidate, however, is a childless widower, Charles-François-Paul Lenormand de Tournehem (1689–1751), a fermier-général (tax concessionaire), director of the Indies Company, and former ambassador, who was known to be Louise's lover by about 1721 and whose intimate involvement in Jeanne-Antoinette's life thereafter is a matter of record. François Poisson knew of his wife's infidelities, which were exaggerated later by Madame de Pompadour's enemies; but he always treated Jeanne-Antoinette as his own until he made out his will, when (contrary to normal practice) he left everything to his son. Obviously, the mystery of her exact parentage, if mystery there is, can never be solved.
François spent much time away on missions, e.g., a long stay in Marseille during the plague of 1721–22, which won him a commendation for courage. In 1725, however, Paris was struck by famine and a political crisis. François was made a scapegoat for some fraudulent grain purchases by the Pâris brothers, who had been charged with supplying the city. He fled to Germany to escape arrest. In 1727, he was sentenced in absentia (to death, it is said, but the records have disappeared) and remained in exile loyally working for the Pâris brothers until 1736, when they arranged for him to return without being jailed. He was finally cleared in 1739.
During these years, Jeanne-Antoinette's hard-pressed mother was taken in tow by Tournehem. In the late 1720s, Jeanne-Antoinette was sent to the fine Ursuline convent school in Poissy (Seine-et-Oise), where her mother's sister was a nun, and stayed until the early 1730s, when her mother removed her because of a perpetually delicate chest condition. Jeanne-Antoinette received a sound elementary education suffused with ideals and orderly habits. In later life, she gave generously to the school's support.
With her father back, a hefty inheritance from the de la Mottes in her mother's hands, and Tournehem's and the Pâris brothers' connections securing an entrée into society, Jeanne-Antoinette blossomed. Guibaudet taught her dancing and graceful movement, Pierre Jéliotte of the Opéra gave her singing lessons, and Lanoue and the dramatist Prosper Crébillon père taught her acting and elocution. She played the harpsichord well, learned to draw, paint, and engrave, and collected plants and birds. The famous salon of Madame de Tencin , who befriended her mother despite her reputation, brought her together with some of the Enlightenment's elite—Baron de Montesquieu, Bernard de Fontenelle, the Abbé Prévost, Claude Helvétius, and Pierre de Marivaux. A "suitable" marriage to great wealth and noble (if possible) social rank posed a problem, nevertheless, because of her parents' checkered past.
As usual, Tournehem was there; he turned to the son of his impecunious oldest brother, his nephew Charles-Guillaume Lenormand d'Étiolles (1717–1800). Jeanne-Antoinette knew him, for Tournehem had "raised" them simultaneously, seeing to his education, starting him in the tax-farming business, and even secretly making him his sole legatee. In the marriage contract, Tournehem promised to support their household for life and gave them an advance on Charles' inheritance. She also received substantial money and some property from her own family. On March 9, 1741, they were married in Paris at Saint-Eustache.
Though not handsome, Charles was physically sound, an educated man of taste and attractive character. In hindsight it would be said that he lacked the brilliance needed to hold the interest of his sparkling, talented wife. Yet, until she suddenly left him for the king, the marriage appeared happy. She gave birth to a son, Charles-Guillaume-Louis, on December 26, 1741, but he died a few months later. On August 10, 1744, a daughter Alexandrine arrived, named for Madame de Tencin. Meanwhile, marriage opened society's doors to Jeanne-Antoinette and her mother as never before. When Tournehem moved to a mansion on the fashionable rue de Saint-Honoré, they gained entrance to the most famous salon of the time, Madame Geoffrin 's. The embarrassment Jeanne-Antoinette
still experienced at her mother's side faded when her mother ceased attending because of the cancer that would eventually kill her. During the summers, Jeanne-Antoinette's husband's château at Étiolles near Corbeil (Seine-et-Oise) began to attract Paris acquaintances and even members of the court, for it was near the royal residence of Choisy and an entrance to the Forest of Sénart, a favorite royal hunting ground. Fontenelle, Crébillon fils, Montesquieu, the Abbé de Bernis, and the great Voltaire visited Étiolles for days at a time. Still relatively obscure in 1741, by 1744 Jeanne-Antoinette, now known as Madame Lenormand d'Étiolles, was drawing attention.
Word even reached the king. Perhaps she was mentioned by his valet Dominique Lebel, reputedly a former lover of her mother; or by her mother's cousin Sieur Binet, Baron de Marchais, first valet to the dauphin (the king's heir); or by the king's equerry De Briges, a sometime guest at Étiolles. Probably they spoke up only after the king had noticed her in the Forest of Sénart. It was customary for the king to allow neighboring landowners to observe his hunts, and afterward he would send them a piece of venison with his compliments. By coincidence, Choisy had become the king's in 1741. The prophecy perhaps stirring a deep urge to see her handsome king in the flesh, Jeanne-Antoinette on several occasions casually crossed his path in the forest, fetchingly dressed and expertly driving her own dainty carriage. He saw her, asked his entourage who she was, and sent her venison. The chase had begun. It climaxed in the first months of 1745, after the death (December 8, 1744) of Louis' latest mistress, the Duchesse de Châteauroux , had opened the lists to a bevy of candidates longing to be the "left-handed queen" of France.
Louis XV was an enigma. On her deathbed Pompadour, who had spent more time with him than had any other human being, confessed she found him "undecipherable." He was called "the handsomest man in France" and had a truly kingly presence. He was a charming companion in intimate company, intelligent, informed, and gifted with an excellent memory, was courageous on the battlefield (but a lover of peace), skillful in negotiation, a doting father, and a pious respecter of religion. His failings, alas, were also numerous. He was excruciatingly timid, finding it almost impossible to speak to strangers or endure formal occasions. He avoided confrontations, could not simply praise people or tell them bad news, and distrusted his own judgment (often very good), which made him irresolute, forever postponing hard decisions. He was highly mistrustful and loved secrecy. A creature of habit, he preferred to keep familiar faces around him at almost any cost. Suddenly orphaned at three and king since the age of five, he had been spoiled as a child and hence was extremely self-centered. Although described as lazy, he in fact spent far more time on public business than all but a few intimates knew; but he did not relish being king as had his great-grandfather Louis XIV. He was easily bored and given to melancholia, lapsing into morbid musings on death. To soothe the pain of depressions, he indulged to the fullest the Bourbon passions for good food, hunting, and sex.
Such was the creature on whom Jeanne-Antoinette set her sights. The man was vulnerable. He had begun to stray from Queen Marie Leczinska 's bed around 1732 after the birth of the dauphin. He was 15 when he married her in 1725; she was seven years older, the daughter of Stanislaus Leczinski, an exiled king of Poland. Pious and the soul of courtesy, she was not unintelligent and had some wit. Nevertheless, she was dowdy and rather dull. In 12 years, she gave birth to ten children, of whom six daughters and a son survived to maturity. Worn and prematurely aging, she refused further relations with Louis. By then he had turned to the daughters of the Marquis de Nesle, three of whom became his mistresses: the Comtesse de Mailly , from 1732 to 1738; the Marquise de Vintimille , from 1738 to 1741; and the Duchesse de Châteauroux, from 1742 to 1744, an unpopular intriguer who died of peritonitis at 27. Besides two more Nesle sisters, candidates included several court ladies plus aspirants from the judicial and administrative nobility and even—a sign of the times—some bourgeois young ladies from the worlds of finance (like Jeanne-Antoinette) and commerce.
It is impossible to know for certain more than a few features of the courtship which ended with Jeanne-Antoinette's becoming the king's mistress. Not being a member of the court, she needed assistance to make the first contact at Versailles. Who was part of the plot is a matter of conjecture, though it probably included her mother, Tournehem, Madame de Tencin, and the equerry and valets. One or more of the Pâris brothers also seems a strong probability, because they had entrée to the king's most intimate circle. A series of Versailles and Paris balls celebrating the dauphin's marriage in February provided occasions. Traditional accounts place their first meeting at the magnificent masked ball at Versailles on February 25, when the king and several friends came disguised as yew trees and Jeanne-Antoinette as the huntress Diana; they go on to say she first gave herself to the king after the Paris ball of February 28. But almost certainly meetings had begun at least as early as the February 7 ball at Versailles. However that might be, frequent clandestine trysts marked the courtship. Only gradually did the court realize that indeed it was Madame Lenormand d'Étiolles who was the king's new love. It became "official" when she appeared in public at the theater at Versailles on April 1, seated alone in a front box. Still, everybody thought she was no more than a royal passing fancy.
During the courtship, Jeanne-Antoinette's husband Charles-Guillaume Lenormand d'Étiolles was far in the south on a business trip arranged by Tournehem. Upon his return in April, Tournehem broke the news. Shocked, Charles threatened to cause an uproar because of his grief and besmirched honor, but Tournehem led him to see that there was little he could do. In May, Charles consented to a legal separation. Tournehem gave him his fermier-général position; though Tournehem kept half the income, it was a lucrative settlement. Charles also agreed to go to Grenoble for 18 months. Jeanne-Antoinette never saw him again, but he remained close friends with her brother, and his family stayed on good terms with her.
Châteauroux, Marie Anne de Mailly-Nesle, Duchesse de (1717–1744)
French mistress of Louis XV. Born in 1717; died on December 8, 1744; fourth daughter of Louis, marquis de Nesle (a descendant of one of Mazarin's nieces) and Madame de Nesle (lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie Leczinska); sister of Pauline, marquise de Vintimille (1712–1741), Louise, comtesse de Mailly (1710–1751), and the Duchesse de Lauraguais; married the marquis de la Tournelle.
In 1740, upon the death of her husband, the marquis de la Tournelle, Marie Anne de Mailly-Nesle, duchesse de Châteauroux, attracted the attention of Louis XV. With the aid of the duc de Richelieu, first gentleman of the bedchamber, who, spurred on by Madame de Tencin , hoped to rule both the king and the state, she replaced her sisters, Louise, comtesse de Mailly and Pauline, marquise de Vintimille , as titular mistress in 1742 and convinced Louis to eject Madame de Mailly from court. Châteauroux also treated Queen Marie Leczinska with contempt and drove a wedge in the relationship between king and queen from which it never totally recovered.
Directed by Richelieu, the intelligent and ambitious Châteauroux tried to arouse the king to pay more attention to affairs of state and joined him on his army campaigns. But when Louis became dangerously ill at Metz, Châteauroux and Richelieu allowed no one in to see him and pretended that his illness was a passing one. Louis gave orders that she should leave and send for the queen, but it took the bishops of Metz and Soissons to see that Châteauroux and her sister Madame de Lauraguais left town for Paris.
The French, who at the time doted on their king, were greatly relieved when he recovered. But the news of the duchesse de Châteauroux's actions had been made public, and the French detested her. "Whenever she appeared in public," writes Nancy Mitford , "she was booed, hissed, pelted with eggs and almost lynched. She retired to her bed with a complete breakdown." Though the king forgave her, she died of pneumonia on December 8, 1744.
Goncourt, Ed. and J. de. La Duchesse de Châteauroux et ses swurs. Paris, 1879.
Mailly, Louise Julie de Mailly-Nesle, Comtesse de (1710–1751)
French mistress of Louis XV. Name variations: Comtesse de Mailly. Born in 1710; died in 1751; daughter of Louis, marquis de Nesle (whose family name was Mailly) and Madame de Nesle (lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie Leczinska ); sister of Pauline, marquise de Vintimille (1712–1741), Marie Anne de Mailly-Nesle, Duchesse de Châteauroux (1717–1744), and the Duchesse de Lauraguais ; married her first cousin.
Comtesse de Mailly was a "sporting woman" who never asked for favor or power, writes Nancy Mitford . Indeed, during her four-year relationship with Louis XV, she actually loved him. Then he fell in love with her sister.
Vintimille, Pauline Félicité, Marquise de (1712–1741)
French mistress of Louis XV. Born in 1712; died in childbirth in 1741; daughter of Louis, marquis de Nesle (whose family name was Mailly) and Madame de Nesle (lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie Leczinska ); sister of Louise, comtesse de Mailly (1710–1751), Marie Anne de Mailly-Nesle, Duchesse de Châteauroux (1717–1744), and the Duchesse de Lauraguais ; children: (with Louis XV) son (the comte de Luc, b. 1741).
During her three-year liaison with Louis XV, Pauline, marquise de Vintimille, became pregnant and died while giving birth to their son, the Comte de Luc. Her sister, Louise, comtesse de Mailly , adopted the baby, while Louis turned for affection to another of her sisters, Marie Anne, duchesse de Châteauroux .
Through the spring and summer of 1745, Louis was absent with his army (the War of the Austrian Succession had begun in 1741). The victory at Fontenoy brought him temporary popularity. Jeanne-Antoinette stayed at Étiolles, corresponding with him and being tutored in the peculiar ways of the court by her cousin by marriage the Comtesse d'Estrades , the Abbé de Bernis, and Voltaire. Shortly before Louis returned, he made her "Marquise de Pompadour" by purchasing a lordship in the Limousin near Brive (Corrèze), for she needed a noble title to be presented at court. The ceremony took place on September 14, 1745. The presenter was the Princesse de Conti (1693–1775), who had her gambling debts paid and her son promoted in the army in return for doing a service the other court women refused. The new marquise performed the difficult curtsies well, all admitted, as she made the prescribed rounds. Louis appeared embarrassed, and the dauphin stuck his tongue out when Pompadour turned her back. But Queen Marie surprised everyone by being gracious, to which Madame de Pompadour replied with gushing promises of respect and affection—promises she kept in full.
If there must be a mistress, better her than another.
—Queen Marie Leczinska
The most important year of Pompadour's life ended with the first demonstration of her growing political importance, and then a personal sorrow. In December, Philibert Orry, the controller-general (minister of finance) since 1730, was dismissed. He had come into conflict with the Pâris brothers, while Pompadour found him hostile to her ambitious building projects. With Orry gone, she got Tournehem named Intendant of the King's Buildings, a post he ably filled until his death in 1751; her brother succeeded him and (as the Marquis de Marigny) went on to become one of the most renowned holders of that important position. The personal sorrow followed when, on Christmas Eve, her mother died of cancer at age 46.
By now the court was beginning to understand Louis' infatuation. The new Favorite was a treat for the eyes. In 1749, English naval officer Augustus Hervey wrote in his journal: "She was at her toilette, and the handsomest creature I think I ever saw, and looked like a rock of diamonds." In his memoirs, Austrian diplomat Prince Kaunitz wrote:
Her eyes are blue, set well apart, quite large, her look charming. The contour of her face is oval with a small mouth, pretty forehead, an especially nice nose. She has a good complexion and it would be much more so without the quantity of rouge that she puts on…. For the rest she is tall rather than short, thin rather than fat; her carriage is noble, her graces touching…. Her form has some thing distinguished about it, so uncommon that even women find in her what they call the air of a nymph.
Others spoke of "an aura of elegance, taste, opulence, and irresistible seduction," "the lively, triumphant look, the eyes flashing with spirit and intelligence." More often than "beautiful" in the classic sense, the word tended to be "pretty." Her face, framed in light chestnut hair, was extremely expressive; painters despaired of capturing its "true" form, for it changed so freely. She had a "delightful" smile and an "enchanting" laugh. Unfortunately, her health did not match her appearance, for she was frequently ill, mainly from throat and chest ailments, and coughed blood most of her life. She chilled easily and kept a fire going near her year round.
Besides Pompadour's physical charms, the king was attracted most by her high intelligence and freshness. He yearned for pleasing feminine companionship in an intimate, relaxed atmosphere, and she supplied it in the fullest measure. She was good natured, amusing, witty, sincere, frank, usually tactful, and, by comparison with some of the other women at court, unspoiled. Unlike so much of the court, she forbade hurtful gossip and intrigue in her entourage. Her bourgeois mannerisms and speech, which put off the court crowd, were to Louis a breath of fresh air, and he took no offense when she proudly talked (sometimes too much) about her family. To all these assets she added a beautiful singing voice and was a talented amateur actress, able to recite reams of poetry and play passages from memory.
This formidable assemblage of attractions fed a high self-esteem which spilled over into vanity. People soon learned she was susceptible to flattery. She was coolly ambitious: she did not float up to her exalted position but took wellcalculated steps. A loyal friend, she would not forget a disloyalty to herself and ruthlessly guarded her position with the king. Although she might not appear to notice the offense, her stroke would fall one day, even years later. Probably her most serious failing, for one involved in high policy and especially in appointments, was a tendency to judge people by how she thought they judged her—that is, to view government too much as a matter of personalities or personal relations. Fortunately, her intelligence helped redeem her faults.
Pompadour remained the Favorite for 19 years, with death alone ending her reign. Her life became entwined with the general history of France; hence only a summary account is possible here. Her reign might be divided into three phases: 1745–c. 1751, from her establishment until sexual relations with Louis ceased; 1752–58, when she survived some threats to her position and probably exerted her most important political influence; and 1759–64, when the Duc de Choiseul dominated the government and her health declined.
Pompadour made her voice heard in foreign affairs from the start when she helped get Marie Josèphe of Saxony chosen as the new wife of the dauphin, his first wife Maria Theresa of Spain having died in childbirth. The move helped Pompadour in the struggle (never wholly won) to win favor with the royal family. More significantly, she weighed in on the side of establishing contacts with Austria in order to end the war. If nothing else, the war threatened to keep Louis from her side to be with his armies, thus endangering her position. Ministerial rivalries and Louis' own pacific leanings resulted in the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. France returned its conquests in the interests of peace, and the colonial situation with Britain was restored to the status quo before the war—all of which meant that seven years of bloodshed had settled nothing and only prepared the way for a worse conflict, the Seven Years' War (1756–63). "As stupid as the peace" became a popular epithet, while scorn rained down on Louis and Pompadour. The Parisian writers of scandalous verse, subsidized by members of the court, produced dozens of ditties called "Poissonades," after Pompadour's family name, Poisson ("fish"), and kept it up for the rest of her life. She professed to disdain them, but it is clear they hurt her deeply.
Pompadour had played a minor role, if any, in the forced resignation (1747) of the Comte d'Argenson, the minister or war, but he blamed her and thereafter pilloried her in his diary, a major historical source for the period. The case with the Comte de Maurepas, minister of marine since 1723, is much clearer. He wanted her gone and used his famed wit against her, finally going too far when he wrote a mocking verse alluding to a gynecological problem (leukorrhea) from which she was suffering. She had also become convinced he was going to poison her. Her plea helped persuade the king to dismiss him. His departure (1749) left a large hole in the government, for he was an able man and could have been used to advantage in the mid-century confrontations with the parlements.
Sometime between late 1750 and early 1752, sexual relations between Louis and Pompadour ceased. Although she tried special diets and aphrodisiacs, she found that meeting his demands was becoming impossible and harming her health. Between 1746 and 1749, she suffered at least three miscarriages. The year 1751 was critical for her future. It was a Holy Year, and Louis felt pressure to receive the sacrament, which meant sending her away. Pompadour turned to religion and pleaded with her Jesuit confessor that because they no longer were having adulterous relations, they should be able to receive the sacrament. The Church agreed on condition that she also leave the court. She reluctantly refused, but the king's attitude was crucial. He would not part with her, saying she was necessary to his happiness and his work, that she was the only person who dared tell him the truth. Pompadour—whose residence meanwhile had been transferred from a cozy apartment above the king's chambers reached by a private staircase to a grand apartment on the ground floor (but still connected to the king's)—henceforth remained as his most intimate adviser and dearest friend. In October 1752, he made her a duchess (but only for life), the highest title he could bestow. She tactfully continued to use the title of marquise.
Given Louis' character, however, she could never live free of fear of being sent away. A most serious threat came early, in the autumn of 1752, in the Choiseul-Romanet affair. Her cousin, the Comtesse d'Estrades, an intimate member of her entourage and an intriguer, had a niece, Charlotte Romanet, Comtesse de Choiseul-Beaupré , whom d'Estrades and her lover, the Comte d'Argenson, introduced to the king in hopes she would become his maîtresse en titre. A courtship ensued. But the Comte de Stainville (future Duc de Choiseul) wanted no blot on his family name, so he persuaded Charlotte to break off the courtship and then supplied key information to Pompadour, who used it in confronting Louis. Thus began the deep friendship between Pompadour and Choiseul which helped make him foreign minister in 1758.
Louis, disliking the complications at court, now had a small, private brothel set up in a house in the Deer Park district of the town of Versailles, which was kept supplied with girls of humble background. Contrary to legend, Pompadour did not start or supervise this establishment. She tried to ignore it, having no other choice. The only resident who posed any threat was Marie-Louise O'Murphy in 1753–54; but some intriguers put her up to denigrating Pompadour, which alienated Louis. In 1757, his affair with the Marquise de Coislin , a cousin of the Mailly sisters, caused Pompadour to despair of her future, but Foreign Minister Bernis ended the matter when he warned the king that replacing Pompadour would hurt France's relations with ally Austria and others. In 1761, Louis fell in love with Mlle de Romains , daughter of a Grenoble lawyer, but he soon tired of her after she gave birth to their son. A Mlle Tiercelin followed in 1762.
In domestic politics, Pompadour supported Controller-General Jean Baptiste de Machault d'Arnouville's vingtième, a 5% general property tax (1749), as a measure of fiscal justice, for even the nobility and clergy had to pay. Protests from the clergy brought a suspension of the tax on them in late 1751, which began to make Machault's position untenable; in 1754, she got him shifted to the ministry of marine. Meanwhile, the king found himself in a complicated struggle between the Parlement of Paris and the Church over the refusal of last rites to persons suspected of adhering to Jansenism, a puritanical protest movement declared heretical in 1713. Louis often (though not always) favored the clergy and nourished a strong prejudice against the parlements (13 regional high courts of justice and administration) because of their power to delay the necessary registration of laws, including taxes. For her part, Pompadour supported the king whenever he asserted his prerogative; she also resented the Parlement of Paris' distaste for her lavish spending. With war clouds gathering and national unity needed, she and Stainville (ambassador to Rome) urged Pope Benedict XIV to reach a conciliatory solution, which he produced in an encyclical (October 1756). To the end of his reign, however, Louis and the parlements clashed repeatedly. Late in the Seven Years' War, Pompadour had become so exasperated with their financial pressure and criticism that she wrote bitterly, "I think they are unworthy citizens and worse enemies than the king of Prussia or the English. If peace is not signed or if it is a bad one, they alone should be held responsible and I would like everyone to know it."
In 1754, Pompadour was thrown into a personal crisis when her beloved daughter Alexandrine died, on June 10, at age ten of appendicitis, and her father ten days later. Alexandrine's death appeared to Pompadour as a divine punishment; she became very devout, practiced her religion assiduously, and sought full reconciliation with the Church. Her Jesuit consultant advised that she return to her husband. Now a rich fermier-général and living with a mistress, Charles spurned her plea to her relief, for she was now dreaming of growing old with Louis in piety, as had Madame de Maintenon with Louis XIV. But the Church then stipulated that she must leave the court. This, she decided after some agonizing, she could not do. Her pious behavior did help when Louis fulfilled a longstanding ambition of hers by appointing her (February 7, 1756) a lady-of-honor to the queen. Thereafter, however, her penitential life faded, although she did good works (e.g., founding a hospital at Crécy) and attended mass faithfully. Contrary to many accounts, she appears not to have conceived some special animus against the Jesuits. When she and Choiseul left them to their fate, in 1763 she wrote on the eve of their suppression in France, "I believe they are honest, but the king cannot sacrifice his Parlement to them when [for financial reasons] it is so necessary to him."
O'Murphy, Marie-Louise (1737–1814)
Mistress of Louis XV. Name variations: Marie Louise Murphy; Louise O'Murphy; Mlle O'Morphi; Morphise. Born in Rouen in 1737; died in 1814; daughter of an Irish shoemaker; married Major Beaufranchet d'Ayat, in 1755; married François-Nicolas Le Normant, in 1757; married Louis Philippe Dumont (divorced 1799).
Marie-Louise O'Murphy, an Irish shoemaker's daughter, was mistress of Louis XV starting in 1753, until she was ousted for scheming to supplant Madame de Pompadour .
From 1755 until Choiseul took charge in December 1758, Pompadour was at the peak of her influence. She played a role in the famous Diplomatic Revolution on the eve of the Seven Years' War when the France-Prussia vs. England-Austria alignment of the War of the Austrian Succession changed to a France-Austria vs. England-Prussia scheme. Austrian foreign minister Kaunitz, while ambassador to France in the early 1750s, had cultivated Pompadour and stoked her vanity by showing her letters from Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (1717–1780) which spoke well of her. Knowing of her pro-Austrian sympathies and the strength of pro-Frederick II the Great (Prussia) opinion in the ministry, he secretly approached her to persuade Louis to agree to a neutrality treaty. Louis decided to listen, and it was Pompadour and her protegé Bernis who, in deep secrecy at her estate at Bellevue on September 3, 1755, received Kaunitz's opening proposals. Out of loyalty to his commitment to Prussia—and already engaged in an undeclared war with England overseas—Louis hesitated. But when Frederick the Great suddenly signed a security agreement with England (Convention of Westminster, January 16, 1756) without consulting France, the French were furious. The result was a defensive alliance with Austria (Treaty of Versailles, May 1, 1756) which Louis and Pompadour both hoped would assure peace, never dreaming that Frederick would attack. His sudden invasion of Saxony (August 29) began the war, and a year later (May 1, 1757) France and Austria signed a second, more substantial, alliance.
France thus found itself in a continental war supporting Austria's effort to retake Silesia (lost in the 1741–48 war) from Frederick the Great, making it impossible to devote full resources to the struggle with England for empire in North America and India. When Pompadour's favorite general, the Prince de Soubise, suffered a disaster at Rossbach (November 5, 1757), public opinion, never strongly pro-Austrian, turned against the alliance and its "maker" Pompadour as responsible for the ensuing string of defeats in Europe and overseas. Research has amply proved, however, that Louis (who also was reviled) made the decision to ally with Austria on his own and that she was only a useful go-between. This is not to say that she was anything less than fully committed to the alliance from beginning to end; she regarded it as "hers," basked in the praise Maria Theresa gave her via Kaunitz (for it conferred the respectability she craved), and used her influence to encourage Louis to persevere against "the Attila of the North," as she described Frederick the Great after Rossbach.
If in the early years of the war Pompadour saw her influence reach its zenith, she also suffered her worst crisis of fear that she would be dismissed. On January 5, 1757, Robert Damiens, a madman, stabbed Louis. The wound proved slight, but for days he did not leave his bed. A religious man, at such times he would be tortured by fears of divine punishment. Everyone recalled his serious illness at Metz in 1744 when he sent his mistress (Châteauroux) away—temporarily—in a fit of pious remorse. Pompadour sickened with dread when Louis sent her not a word. Machault, her protegé and friend until now, told her (probably falsely) that the king had said she must go. Pompadour was packing in despair when her closest friends told her to stick it out: "Who leaves the game loses," warned Mme de Mirepoix . Eleven days after the stabbing, Louis suddenly went to Pompadour, who reassured him there was no plot and that the public's horror at the crime proved he was still loved. His self-esteem restored, he emerged smiling.
Two weeks later, the two most important and able men in the ministry, Machault and the Comte d'Argenson, were summarily dismissed (February 1). Louis may have been contemplating a major shakeup for some time. The two ministers hated each other and disliked the Austrian alliance. And Machault was at loggerheads with the Parlement, whereas Louis wanted a settlement so as to ensure his finances. But there is little doubt that Pompadour played a major role in the crisis. Both men wanted her gone. Machault had betrayed her. D'Argenson, an enemy since her arrival and lately surreptitiously feeding a slander campaign against her and even the king, perhaps to intimidate them, had in a private interview contemptuously refused her offer to reconcile. The axe fell. The Comtesse d'Estrades accompanied d'Argenson into exile.
Machault and d'Argenson's fall boded ill. Until Choiseul managed some hold on affairs in 1759, the ministry was directionless, filled with a parade of Pompadour's favorites who, save perhaps for Bernis at foreign affairs, proved mediocre at best. The war effort bled from defeats on land and sea and from growing public contempt for the king and his uncrowned queen. Anonymous letters, some pornographic, came in her mail, and obscene postcards depicting Pompadour and the king circulated. Refusing to bend before the gale, standing daily at the breech to stiffen the resolve of the hesitant, self-doubting king, writing letters of (mostly sound) advice directly to generals and diplomats in the field, she wished she really were the queen despite the strain on her delicate health: "I would have preferred the large niche," she wrote to a friend, "and I am angry at being obliged to be content with the little one; it does not comport at all with my humeur [mood]."
Bernis was named foreign minister on June 29, 1757, courtesy of Pompadour, who was encouraged by her increasingly close friend the Comte de Stainville, now ambassador to Vienna but hoping to succeed Bernis some day. Bernis was a competent diplomat, but his nerves began to fail after Rossbach. He continually predicted disaster and pleaded for Pompadour to persuade Louis to get out of the war. She and Stainville, however, were determined to see it through. It took her ten months of quiet work to persuade Louis to drop Bernis. An attempt by Bernis to sidetrack her in decision-making by revising ministerial procedures hastened his fall. On December 14, 1758, Louis dismissed him and brought in Stainville, now Duc de Choiseul. By then, however, the war—certainly the one against England—was probably past winning.
Choiseul—short, ugly, witty, dynamic, exceptionally capable—did not become Pompadour's lover, as gossip said, even though scores of women found him irresistible. He became, next to Louis, her dearest friend. With his strong hand on the tiller, Pompadour, her health sagging under the strain, became steadily less involved, although she still received state papers and retained her power in appointments and rewards. She, Choiseul, and the king, whom Choiseul began to dominate through her, stayed loyally in the war, hoping and working for a break. In gratitude for her steadfastness, Maria Theresa in 1759 had a magnificent, jewel-encrusted little writing desk built for her. Pompadour sold most of her diamonds and much of her silver to support the war effort. Contrary to charges she was only mildly interested in the overseas war, she also gave a million livres to defend Canada, bought shares in 18 warships, and armed several more.
As with all 18th-century wars, the Seven Years' War ground to a halt when the combatants ran out of money. France acquired nothing in Europe and lost Canada and the prospects of empire in India. Despite the humiliation, Choiseul managed to retain France's main economic assets abroad. He and Pompadour regarded the Peace of Paris (February 10, 1763) as no more than a truce. As she said of it just before her death:
It is neither happy nor good, but it had to be made. We have still kept a fine empire. The King is convinced, moreover, that the King of England will not keep his American possessions. This will be our revenge, and we have taken steps to have, at the right time, the Navy we have lacked.
Twelve years later the prophecy began to come true.
As much as affairs of state came to occupy Pompadour, especially after around 1750, they could never do so at the expense of her providing amusements for Louis lest she lose him. Her life with him was one long campaign to conquer his boredom and depressions. Very shrewdly, she especially encouraged interests he already had in architecture, science, handwork, and cooking. Testimony to the effect that he seemed happier, felt healthier, was more emotionally balanced, and spent more time on business than he had before she became his mistress proves her general success. To cope with his shyness, she quickly set about creating a cocoon in her small, exquisitely appointed upstairs apartment where he could while away hours in an exclusive circle of friends, eating, gambling, and playfully chatting. "What I like above all," he confided to her, "is your little staircase." She was a marvelous conversationalist, cheerful, witty, and informed (by a legion of spies in society and the ministries) of all the latest news and gossip. She introduced Louis and the court to a freer, much less artificial language drawn from her bourgeois roots. One of her most notable efforts in her first years went into a tiny theater (seating 15) where she and a few talented courtiers entertained the king's circle. Louis loved it. On January 16, 1747, it opened with Tartuffe. In 1748, it was transferred to a space under the Ambassadors' Stair seating 24, with the whole affair made portable. Money being tight after the War of the Austrian Succession, she was forced to close it on April 18, 1750. By then, however, the Château de Bellevue with its own theater was completed.
Bellevue, one of the most beautiful structures of the age (destroyed, sadly, in 1823), epitomized the most famous, and expensive, distraction Pompadour shared with Louis, viz., building projects. They spent countless hours examining plans and inspecting sites with the architects and the superintendent, Tournehem, succeeded in 1751 by her brother, the Marquis de Marigny. Bellevue, completed in 1750 but sold to the king in 1757 to pay off debts, was magnificently sited overlooking the Seine with a distant view of Paris. She also built the Hôtel des Réservoirs in Versailles to house overflow guests and her collections, and "hermitages" (country-style "cottages" to escape court formalities) on the palace grounds of Versailles, Fontainebleau, and Compiègne. She owned and refurbished châteaux: Montretout (1746–48); Crécy, a gift from Louis (1746–57); La Celle (1748–50); Champs-en-Brie (leased, 1757, but soon returned); Saint-Ouën (leased) and Auvilliers in the late 1750s; and Ménars (near Blois, 1760), where she intended to retire some day. In Paris, she bought the Hôtel d'Evreux (1753), now the Élysée Palace, residence of France's presidents, and assisted in the construction of the Place Louis XV, now the Place de la Concorde. She also oversaw reconstruction at Compiègne, added a wing at Fontainebleau and rooms at Versailles, and began the Petit Trianon. The grand École Militaire in Paris (built 1751–70) was proposed and financed by Joseph Pâris-Duverney, but it was she who ignited Louis' interest in a military school for sons of worthy but needy nobles.
As a patron of the arts, Pompadour has always been ranked high. She acquired a huge collection of works, and the decorative arts during her reign took on a splendor unmatched before or since in Western civilization. She spent lavishly, looked after artists, and paid them well and promptly. On the other hand, it would appear that she had no marked passion for art for its own sake or particular principles about it. She is, for example, identified with both the rococo style (style Pompadour, something of a misnomer) and early neoclassicism (style Louis Seize), first promoted by her brother in architecture—which underscores the randomness of her patronage. Nor did she discover and promote new talents. She simply bought the best from the very best artists around. The purpose of her buying was not the promotion of new ideas or initiatives but, writes Donald Posner, "to proclaim her position and ornament her person and surroundings." Fortunately for the world, the taste that channeled this tide of money was superb. Artists linked with her name comprise an 18th-century roll of honor. Among them were painters Carle van Loo, Oudry, Quentin de La Tour Greuze, Roslin, Liotard, Tocqué, Vigée, Deshayse le Romain, Carmontelle, Subleyras, Drouais, Nattier, above all Boucher; artists and decorators Verbeckt, Christophe Heut, Dupléssis père, Van Blarenberghe; sculptors Pigalle, J. J. Caffieri, Coustou fils, Falconet; engravers Cochin fils, Portail, Charpentier; cabinetmakers Gaudreax, Vanrisamburgh, Dubois; jeweller Guay; silversmith Durand; architects Cailleteau de Lassurance fils, Jacques-Ange Gabriel IV; and landscape architect Garnier de l'Isle.
Forever associated with Pompadour is the establishment of the French porcelain works at Sèvres. She encouraged an old idea of Louis' to transfer the works at Vincennes to Sèvres (below Bellevue) and enlarge them, which was done in 1756. Thereafter, she helped with funds, artists, and models, especially for the famous biscuit (unglazed) figures by Pajou, Pigalle, Caffieri, Falconet, and Clodion. The purpose of this operation was, again, utilitarian, viz., to promote the prestige of French manufactures and surpass the reputation of Germany's Meissen ware. Sèvres porcelain became world renowned.
She also was a notable patron of literature. Voltaire, for whom she gained membership in the Académie Française and appointment as royal historiographer, said of her, "She thought the way one should"—meaning as an adherent of the Enlightenment. She liked to visit her longtime personal physician, François Quesnay (more famous as the founder of the physiocratic school of economics), and converse with him and his friends Diderot, d'Alembert, Helvétius, Marmontel, Duclos, Buffon, Turgot, and others. Louis, however, while a generous patron of literature, greatly disliked the philosophes because of their attacks on the Church. Consequently, Pompadour had to be careful. After the banning of the Encyclopédie (in 1752), she had the order modified to allow subscribers to receive their personal copies. The amelioration turned on a famous incident in which she took advantage of an opening at a soirée when someone wondered about how gunpowder really works. Nobody could say. "Now if you had not banned the Encyclopédie, Sire," she sweetly chided, "we could have found out in a moment." Louis sent off for his private copy to settle that and other points, and the relaxation soon followed. After the mid-1750s, when she became more religious, she grew cool toward the philosophes. She did intercede to help Helvétius in 1759 after De l'esprit was banned, and shortly before her death she talked Louis into supporting revision of the Calas case, a judicial lynching of a Huguenot made famous by Voltaire. But the philosophes' mockery of Louis and their heroworship of Frederick the Great during the Seven Years' War enraged her. As she wrote in a letter: "What has become of our nation? Parlement, the Encyclopaedists, et cetera, have changed it completely. When one lacks principle to the extent of acknowledging neither God nor master, one soon becomes the scum of the earth and that is what has happened to us." She remained "enlightened," but for her the bloom was off the Enlightenment.
How did she finance an estimated 37 million livres' worth of building, buying, charities, and patronage? (A livre is nominally worth about 20 francs or four dollars in the year 2000, but it is impossible to compare prices and purchasing power over centuries.) It took two lawyers more than a year to inventory her possessions after her death—everything from houses and horses to earrings and paintings—even though she died with only a few coins in her dresser and 1.7 million livres in debts. Surprisingly, Louis' allowances and gifts varied greatly and averaged only about 50,000 livres per year, perhaps to dampen public criticism, while pay for her staffs alone ate up over 42,000 livres annually. The answer can never be fully known. She speculated, made large sums gambling (a court passion), and owned income-producing property. The "secret" of her operations, however, was that much was paid for out of royal accounts. Pâris de Montmartel acted as her banker and settled directly with the king rather than the controller-general, with Louis often finding money outside the state budget. Her position gave her in effect an unlimited line of credit, while "her" people filled the controller-general's office and Tournehem and her brother ran the royal building program. In defense of her spending it might be noted that most of it was on objects of permanent value, not consumables, and gave employment to a host of persons, many of great talent.
As the Seven Years' War expired, fatigue, long suppressed by her will, swept over Pompadour. Remorse over a war she had hoped would bring glory to Louis' reign mingled with chagrin at the wound to her pride: "If I die," she wrote, "it will be of grief." In a remarkable scene early in 1764, during a conversation with her dear friend Madame de la Ferté-Imbault , "She expatiated with all the vivacity and gestures of an accomplished actress on how much she was worried by the present deplorable state of the kingdom." She wanted to retire to Ménars, "but the King would be lost without her." Then she broke down. "She described her torments with an eloquence and energy that I had never known her employ. In short, she struck me as quite demented and enraged, and I have never listened to a more effective sermon to illustrate the miseries inseparable from worldly ambition…. I left her presence after an hour of this conversation with my imagination convinced that no hope remained to her except in death."
On February 29 at Choisy, Pompadour fainted from an attack of pneumonia. Her heart, long growing weak and congestive, began to swell. A month later, she had recovered enough to return to Versailles (March 31), but on April 7 bronchial pneumonia took over and her state soon was desperate. In agonizing pain, forced to sit in a chair so that she could breathe, she bravely awaited her end. Louis—"in great affliction," the dauphine Marie Josèphe reported—saw her for the last time on the 14th. They agreed to part so she could take the sacrament. She received the last rites that night. As the priest started to leave near 7:30 PM on the 15th, she made a little joke: "One moment more, Monsieur le Curé, we'll go together." Minutes later she died. She was in the fourth month of her 43rd year.
Her funeral on the 17th was a grandiose affair at Notre-Dame de Versailles. A terrible rain storm raged as the long procession moved past the palace on its way to Paris, where she would be interred between her mother and daughter at the Capuchin church (no longer extant) on the Place Vendôme. Louis emerged with his valet on the balcony over the Marble Court and stood in the gale until the cortege disappeared far in the distance. As he returned inside, two large tears rolled down his cheeks. "Well, that is all the honor I can pay her," he murmured.
Nobody who observed them over their 19 years together doubted that Pompadour loved Louis deeply and that, so far as he could ever love anyone but himself, Louis loved her in return. The intensity of her involvement helped bring on her death. A mistress' first duty is to be available and pleasing. Day after day and night after night she had to be nearby, indoors, passing endless hours conferring, writing, and reading. A gnawing fear that he would send her away never left her. This unhealthy existence fatally undermined her delicate constitution.
The degree of her influence on policy has been variously estimated. If anything, 18th- and 19th-century accounts err on the side of overstatement. Even Choiseul, who was exceptionally well placed to observe, wrote in his memoirs: "She gave the king advice and it was rare that it was not judicious. Louis acquired the habit of letting himself be guided by her advice, and she became the arbiter of the destinies of the kingdom. It was a role of which she had scarcely dreamt and which she was obliged to assume in spite of herself." Choiseul by then, however, was bent on portraying Louis in a bad light. In the 20th century, research has constructed a more complex picture of Louis—an extraordinarily secretive man—and ascribed to him a stronger, more independent role in policy decisions. At all events, nobody will ever know more than a fraction of what passed between them during the thousands of hours they were alone together. Indeed, a truly major reason for her hold on him was that she was never known to have betrayed his confidence. Certainly she was highly informed, for ministers routinely submitted plans to her in detail before meeting with the king. Given his mysterious ways and "undecipherability," she became the natural channel to reach him.
On the other hand, her influence on appointments and favors was enormous. Less uniform are estimates of the quality of "her" appointees. She tried hard to select worthy people, and she detested hypocrisy and bootlicking among supplicants. She did no undeserved favors (within the mores of the times) for her family; her father was ennobled in 1747 and received an estate, Marigny, in 1749, but that was all; her brother's ability merited the high appointment he received. Contrary to legend, she did not promote utterly incompetent types; perhaps inevitably, given the law of averages, most of her appointees proved little better than mediocre. Still, all judgments about the matter are risky, for the grotesque complexities of royal administration, rendered worse by long-entrenched practices of sale of offices (vénalité), nepotism, and financial unaccountability, continually made even the ablest ministers appear incompetent. As for removing people, she learned in time how resistant Louis was to dismissing anybody he had once appointed.
The Pompadour years marked a brilliant passage in Western culture. She was the epitome of exquisite taste in arguably the most visually opulent of ages, while her easy grace introduced a gaiety and intimacy to the court which it had never known. She exemplified the best of 18th-century high culture. In the sphere of government, however, her backstage influence, lavish spending, and promotion of the power and social standing of the rich, tax-collecting fermiers-généraux drew criticism down on the king. He was popular, if undeservedly, when she arrived in 1745, but—save for a brief surge in his favor after Damiens' crime—he became unpopular and then reviled. The Austrian alliance had some sound reasons in its favor, but the disasters of the Seven Years' War rendered it and its makers odious. Neither Louis nor Pompadour ever understood the need to win public favor or explain anything to the people in their increasingly literate society. Louis instead rigidly maintained the system bequeathed by Louis XIV. In the end, the Pompadour years set the monarchy's prestige on a fatal downward slope which led toward revolution.
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There is no central collection of Pompadour's papers. The essential personal source is her correspondence, which unfortunately is scattered across Europe. An archivist in the historical section of the Archives nationales in Paris, Danielle Gallet, offers in her Madame de Pompadour ou le pouvoir féminin (1985) a survey of sources of all kinds.
David S. S. , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky