Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour (flickr, picture by Steven Zucker)
Madame de Pompadour (flickr, picture by Steven Zucker)

Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was born Dec 29, 1721 in Paris. Her parents were the merchant Francois Poisson and Louise-Madeleine de la Motte, although it is believed that her biological father is the rich tax collector Le Normant de Tournehem, Louise's lover. When Francois Poisson was involved in a scandalizing affair of debts and fraud and was obliged to leave the country to avoid imprisonment, Tournehem became her guardian. He cared much for her education, having her learn from the best teachers. Early in life, Jeanne came into contact with the intellectual society, visiting Parisian Salons where she was considered well-read and clever for her young age. Coincidentally, 'Reignette', 'Little Queen', became her nickname. At the age of nine, it is said, a fortune teller predicted that one day, she would be the mistress of a king.


When 19 years old, Jeanne-Antoinette was married to her guardian's nephew, Charles d'Étoilles. With him she had a son who died shortly after birth and a daugher, Alexandrine 'Fanfan', born in 1744. This much loved girl was also not fated to live long, at the age of 10 she would die painfully of peritonitis.


Jeanne caught the eye of king Louis XV, le Bien-Aimé, while he was hunting near her family's estate. Interested by her appearance he invited Jeanne in 1745 to a masque ball at Versailles. Afterwards, he began a relationship with her. She was mistress of a king. She was made 'Marquise de Pompadour'.


A courtier, Dufort de Cheverny, described her as "a woman any man would want as a mistress". He observed her closely, telling us that "she had an oval face, very regular features, a magnificent complexion, quite superb hands and arms, eyes which were pretty if on the smallish side, yet which possessed a fieriness, an intelligence and a brilliance that I have never seen in any other woman." As the favourite of the king, Madame de Pompadour was the inofficial queen and soon took the lead in matters of fashion. Whatever she wore was copied and she proved to have an extraordinary taste in dress, art and decoration.

Madame de Pompadour obviously was a very charming woman, attractive both of body and mind. Her beauty had secured her place at the king's side, her intelligence made it last. She managed to make herself pleasing to the queen, she had powerful protectors among politicians and noblemen and she knew how to handle the king. As her star rose at court, she became a fashion trendsetter. Her very Rococo, very detailed and flouncy dresses were captured on canvas by several artists. Madame de Pompadour seemed to like pastel shades and bows very much, both were very fashionable in this age.

Louis XV was of a temper easily bored and depressed. Jeanne knew, despite very delicate health, to entertain him with great vividness by means of amateur plays (she loved to act) in her rooms (les Petits Appartements), small dinner parties, she went hunting with him (although she disliked it) and encouraged him in his hobbies like scientifical interests, the development of a menagerie at Versailles and gardening. Madame de Pompadour supported him in politics and instructed him in topics not of his interest or knowledge. The founding of the Manufacture royale de porcelaine de Sèvres is her work (pendant to the leading German porcelaine manufacture Meißen) which provided jobs for many people, as well as the establishment of a military school for the sons of soldiers who had died or had been wounded in action. She empoyed and supported many artists and defended scientists with scandalising new ideas.


When after 1750 her intimate relationship with the king ended (she had had up to three miscarriages during the past years), Madame de Pompadour was far too important to the king to drop her for some other young woman. In the year 1752 she was made a duchess. Not longer the bedmate of Louis, she now was his close friend and confidante, diplomatic, played a great role in politics and arts and had due to her powers many enemies. Madame de Pomapdour, however, understood networking so well that she had made herself so irreplacable, had such a number of supporters and trusted people in every department and supressing criticism so hard that no one could bring her down. Severe tries to harm her were so called Poissonnardes, insulting tirades handed out in pamphlets, and the attempt to make her seem guilty for the Seven Years' War (which she was not). King Louis, though, never ceazed to love her.


Few understood representation like her: when her beauty faded in her more mature years she had many paintings painted, e.g. by Francois Boucher, showing her less decorated and sweet as in earlier portraits but with more focus on her inner values. In 1758, she was painted with several books, still looking rather young and pretty but additionally reminding Louis of her educated mind and acumen.


In 1764, the Marquise de Pompadour, Duchess of Menars, died of tuberculosis after two months of painful sickness and years of uneasiness before. Even her greatest enemies could not but praise her for her great courage and calmness in her last weeks and no one could dare to doubt her immense life work.



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