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Madame de Pompadour. François Boucher’s 1759 portait, photo by The Yorck Project

Madame de Pompadour

The Uncrowned Queen of France

The illegitimate daughter of a financier exiled for fraud, Madame de Pompadour was groomed from childhood to become a plaything for the King. She more than fulfilled her destiny, becoming his acknowledged mistress and one of the most powerful women in 18th-century France.

When it comes to the title of maîtresse-en-titre, there was no one more renown than Madame de Pompadour who was the chief mistress of Louis XV of France from 1745-1751. She was the perfect example of a woman who suffered steadily through the various unpleasantries of her role—pandering to her mercurial lover in every way and tailoring her very existence to ensure his pleasure. In private, she often claimed to be used “too well” by the king who had a voracious sexual appetite and wanted to roll in the satin sheets several times a day. While she loved the attention of the court and king, however, Madame de Pompadour was mostly frigid, often teetering between sickness and health. Her position was demanding physically, emotionally, and mentally, and she was often exhausted by Louis’ expectations.

Hoping to stimulate her own libido so as to keep up with the energetic king, Madame de Pompadour began to eat a steady diet of celery, truffles, and vanilla that only succeeded in making her sick. Her desire to “heat the blood” through less conventional means was common in those days, as many women would do almost anything to remain pleasing in the eyes of their powerful lovers. Unlike many other mistresses who were typically cast aside once the glittery surface of sex and romance began to fade, Madame de Pompadour was able to transition her relationship with Louis XV into one of friendship and deep confidences.

Throughout history, the traditional roles that subordinated women passed from generation to generation. Although most women faced a life of limited opportunity, a few were capable of surpassing the traditional roles and gaining power and influence. One of these women was Jeanne-Antionette Poisson, who in the eighteenth century, rose beyond her class status and gained title of maitresse-en-titre to Louis XV, King of France. She was able to remain the King’s mistress between 1745 and 1750, and remained powerful as the King’s confidante until her death in 1764.

When Louis XV, King of France, first met the woman who would become his chief mistress, she was dressed as a domino, and he was dressed as a plant. It was 1745, and Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, the pretty young woman who would become Marquise de Pompadour, had been invited to a masked ball at Versailles. If this sounds like a chance meeting, it wasn’t — her family had been strategizing to orchestrate this very moment for years.

They envisioned her having this role when she was just a bourgeois young girl living in Paris, and they made it happen.

“Every woman was born with the ambition to become the King’s favourite,” wrote Primi Visconti, an Italian fortune-teller who lived at Louis XIV’s french court. And in this world of glittering ambition and mercurial passions, it seemed he was right. While princesses were bred to be proper and abiding, the mistresses of kings were edified on an entirely different level. Pandering to powerful men who were accustomed to having their egos and nether regions stroked regularly, the chosen lover or maîtresse-en-titre of the king had her work cut out for her. If prostitution is, in fact, the oldest profession in history, maintaining the position as the chief mistress of a monarch must surely have been the second.

Because the King could merrily lift the skirts of basically any woman in court, the woman who captured his attention had to possess more than just beauty—she needed charm, wit, intelligence, grace, and the ability to foresee what her petulant lover might want next. While kings were often out amusing themselves with other women, mistresses were expected to wait quietly in their apartments, embroidering or planning a gala dinner to entertain their roving lover. Unlike the queen who’s position was cast in stone, the mistress’ world was made of flimsier stuff—there would be no peace, no rest, if she hoped to maintain her status, wealth, and influence. And given the magnificence of her position, there was very little she wouldn’t do to hold on to the glittery prize of the king’s attention.

On December 30, 1721 Jean-Antoinette Poisson, the future Marquise de Pompadour was born to Louise Madeleine de la Motte and Francois Poisson of the bourgeois class. Francois was a steward to the Paris brothers who were responsible for running the economy of France. Jean-Antoinette’s childhood was not always the easiest.

At that time Paris was really little more than an overgrown village, bearing very little resemblance to the city we know to-day. The narrow streets were noisy and dirty and if it rained you could not walk in the street without getting mud up to your knees.

Her father was a jolly fellow and bore the brunt of all the jokes about their name, which meant fish. A steward to the Paris brothers, who were in charge of the economy of France, he was made the scapegoat in a black market scandal and was forced to flee to Germany where he remained in exile for nine years.

Her mother, a reputed beauty, was rescued from her misfortunes by M. Le Normant de Tournehem one time ambassador to Sweden, a Director of the Compagnie des Indes, the collector of indirect taxes and friend of the Paris brothers.

Her father was exiled from France for charges of embezzlement when she was very young, leaving her mother to raise two children alone. She was also a very frail child who always had throat and nose problems. At age seven, Jean-Antoinette was sent to the Ursuline convent at Poissy where she was well educated and developed her love for the arts.

Perhaps the most significant point in Jean-Antoinette Poisson’s young life came from a prophecy by fortune teller Mme. Lebon. At age nine, this fortune teller told her that one day she would reign over a king’s heart.

Following that her family playfully called her Reinette and set about ensuring that she received a worldly education under the watchful eye of de Tournehem.

By the time she was in her late teens she was able to act, dance, sing, recite whole plays by heart and play the clavichord to perfection.

She was an enthusiastic gardener and botanist and knew all about the wonderful shrubs pouring into France from all over the globe. Her handwriting was beautiful and legible and she painted, drew and engraved on precious stones. She was last but not least, a superlative housekeeper.

Accomplished and beautiful, honesty and truth were said to be mainstays of her character and she was known never to have told a lie. Jeanne Antoinette charmed everyone, her family adored her and the only stumbling block throughout her life was her health, which was very delicate.

Her brother Abel said that not one of her portraits rendered by Boucher was really like her. So she remains to history an enigma in that respect.

What is assumed is based on the documented evidence of people who surrounded her. They said she was lovely with eyes that sparkled with life. When her father did finally return from exile the two families of Poisson and Tournehem lived happily together.

Louis XV, the well beloved. Louis XV’s popularity among his people didn’t last long; the War of Austrian Succession proved a detriment to France, the Treaty of Alixla-Chapelle, which ended the war in 1748, did little to advance France or settle conflicts with Britain over certain colonies. Louis’s long time mistress Madame de Pompadour, had become an advisor and confidante to him; she aided him in making most of these decisions.

As a child Jeanne-Antoinette was precocious and uncommonly pretty. Her mother sent her to the Ursuline convent in Poissy where she received a good education. But when she entered adolescence Jeanne-Antoinette retuned home so that her mother could oversee her training, mindful of a fortune-teller’s prophecy that she would one day win the heart of the King. Fortune tellers were very common in 18th century Paris. In fact, over 50 could be found at any time on the rue St. Honoré near the Tuileries Gardens. It was not surprising then that Madame Poisson patronized them; what was surprising was that the prediction came true.

Jeanne-Antoinette was educated as only royal mistresses-to-be were in her day, taking personal charge, her mother hired tutors who taught the young girl to memorize entire plays by heart, dance, sing, paint, engrave and play the clavichord. The greatest expense of her education was the employment of renowned singers and actors, much of it paid for by de Tournehem, further fueling the rumors of his paternity.

In 1741 aged 19 both families agreed to marry Reinette off to Tournehem’s nephew Charles-Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles because protocol demanded a mistress of the King was married. Although reticent at first after Charles had met her he fell promptly and madly in love.

She promised that she would never leave him, except of course for the King, because she completely believed in her destiny.

They were gifted an estate at Étiolles (28km south of Paris) as a wedding gift from her guardian. It was sited on the edge of the forest of Sénart where the king hunted.

Her young husband was infatuated with her and she was celebrated in the fashionable world of Paris. Invitations into the best society were available and she founded her own salon at Étiolles where she met many of the great philosophes

Subsequently, they had two children, a boy who died in infancy and a girl who succumbed to peritonitis at the age of 10. Favouring his nephew over all of his other relatives, de Tournehem made him his sole heir. As a wedding gift, de Tournehem gave his estate at Étiolles, which was situated on the edge of the Royal Hunting Ground in the forest of Sénart, to his nephew.

At Versailles, where gossip thrived, the King, Louis XV soon knew her name and she set out to make sure he would also know her by sight. Louis XV’s hunting lodge was called Choisy, where he went for privacy and fun.

Although the bourgeouis were not allowed to ride in his hunt, the rule was relaxed for near neighbours so they could follow the hunt in their carriages.

Reinette not content with riding behind the hunt instead reputedly drove across the path of the king a vision of loveliness and outrageously for a lady,  standing up dressed in pink while driving a blue phaeton or, the next day dressed in blue while driving a pink one.

The strategy worked because the King did not fail to notice her. His present mistress also noticed and she was warned away. However fate was on her side and took a hand when the current mistress died suddenly. The gossip about who would replace her was rife at court and the King, it was rumoured, was bored with temperamental aristocratic ladies.

On February 1745 the Dauphin of France married the Infanta Marie Therese Raphaele of Spain. At a splendid ball in their honour everyone waited for the King to appear when out of his apartment trundled eight people dressed as eight yew trees clipped like those in the garden in the shape of pillars with vases on them.

Louis XV was disguised as one of the yew trees, having fun and travelling incognito.

However during the course of the evening he was reputedly seen unmasked laughing happily with Reinette who was dressed as Diana the Huntress. Bets were quickly laid as to when, if, or when he would bring her to Versailles as his mistress.

The official King’s mistress had enormous power at court.

No one would believe a member of the bourgeouise, as Reinette was, would learn all of its political intricacies, which relied on not only words and deeds but also stifling rituals.

But carry it off she did in great style and it was reported that when her husband was told he fainted dead away, but she was never to return to him and he became very bitter towards her.

Versailles in the eighteenth century was a pleasure palace and the stiff formality of Louis XIV’s court had given way to an atmosphere of informality.

The great monument to Louis XIV still radiated cheerfulness but life was for pleasure and most particularly for being in, and making love, for gambling, hunting and other official entertainments.

Love just like everything else was subjected to man made rules, and the game always had to be played according to the rules.

Reading of the tragedy of Voltaire, l’Orphelin de la Chine, in the salon of Mme Geoffrin in 1755/ Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier, 1812, Château de Malmaison. The salon was invented by the Italians in the 16th century and it was quickly adopted by the French where the salons flourished through the 17th and 18th centuries. Throughout the 17th century, the salon was often held in the bedroom of the hostess where she would be reclining on her bed while those in attendance sat in chairs or on stools. In general, the concept for a salon is that it is a gathering of people for the exchange of ideas, art and literature. These gatherings continued up until the 1940s, most notably with those hosted by Gertrude Stein.

Jean-Antoinette eventually began visiting the court of King Louis XV at Versailles. After their first meeting the king instantly admired her beauty and skill. He enjoyed watching her perform in plays at her own theater built in her Etiolles estate. She was installed at court as Louis the fifteenth’s official favourite under the title of Marquis de Pompadour in 1744. Soon she was entertaining a great deal of men like Voltaire and Montesquieu in her chateau d’Etoiles. It did not take a long time for her name to be known all over Paris and even by the King himself.

Now Madame d’Étiolles, Jeanne-Antoinette, became extremely popular in fashionable Parisian circles and soon founded her own salon which was attended by important philosophers, including the primary satirist of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire, with whom she became close friends. As she achieved celebrity, King Louis XV heard rumours of her intelligence, talents and beauty. In 1745 a group of courtiers, including de Tournehem, promoted her to the King, who was still mourning the death of his third “official” mistress, the Duchesse de Châteauroux, formerly known as Marie Anne de Mailly-Nesle, youngest of the five famous de Nesle sisters, four of whom became mistresses of the King.

Louis XV ruled France from 1715 until his death in 1775 from smallpox aggravated by syphilis. Having succeeded his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, at the age of five, he was known for his sexual voracity, enjoying the charms of over 100 mistresses, and his unflattering melancholy. He was officially married to Queen Marie Leszczyńska, daughter of King Stanislaw of Poland. But Louis preferred his mistresses to his wife. On the night of February 25, 1745, he met Jeanne-Antoinette d’Étioles, an invitee at one of his masked balls at Versailles. It didn’t take long for Louis to move her into a fancy Versailles apartment, where she became Chief Mistress, and was installed at the palace in an apartment directly above his, connected by a secret staircase. His wife, Queen Marie, is said to have remarked, “If there must be a mistress, better her than any other.” At court, Pompadour was careful to stay on the queen’s good side, and show her respect.

Madame de Pompadour.

Even though Jeanne-Antoinette had captured the King’s heart as had been foretold, Madeleine Poisson did not live to see her daughter become Louis’s undisputed mistress; she died in the spring before Louis could elevate Jeanne-Antoinette from commoner to titled Marquise, which he did by purchasing the Marquisate of Pompadour in June, granting her the name by which she is known historically. Madame de Pompadour: she was formally introduced to his court on September 14, 1745.

Once established in court, she was very modest and tried to win approval, despite the already implanted hatred of her by many because of her bourgeoisie background. She was very successful in finding ways to amuse and entertain the King. Through the Theatre des Petits Cabinets, she entertained the King with a total of one hundred twenty-two performances. She also planned many intimate parties and suppers for the King to keep him amused.

Louis XV’s 18th-century French court was unlike any other in history, teeming with exquisite luxuries and scandalous affairs. Everyone’s attention was on the king, and every woman at court had a mind to capture his attention any way they could. Madame de Pompadour kept Louis happy during their time together by providing him with an escape from the prying eyes of the court and a place to enjoy those things he loved best. She decorated her lavish apartments with delightful fabrics, intoxicating flowers, and the best wine money could buy. She became a student of his moods and could read his every facial expression, including the cadence of his words. She knew when he was hiding anger or frustration behind his mask of royal calmness.

Her knowledge extended beyond mere bedroom talk—she appreciated architecture, understood botany and the gardens of Versailles, and she even dappled in the art of gem cutting. Madame de Pompadour knew the value in keeping the king engaged at all time, as boredom was the devil’s playground. Her full-time job was to be fabulous at all costs, and she did it well. She never left her apartments for fear that he would appear and need food, conversation, or sex. She could not show fatigue, illness, anger, or boredom. When her young 10-year-old daughter and father both died within the same week, she could not allow herself to show pain or mourning in case it upset the king. Those who observed her said she “was in all likelihood just as unhappy inside as she seemed happy on the outside.”

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, may be best known as King Louis XV’s Chief Mistress. But she was also a highly educated tastemaker, a patron of the arts, and an artist in her own right. Heritage Images/Getty Images

Madame de Pompadour’s charm and wit gained her far more friends than enemies. Even the Queen, who had been avoided by previous mistresses, deeply appreciated the respect and deference shown to her by Jeanne-Antoinette, and openly acknowledged the considerable efforts she exerted to amuse the King. Jeanne-Antoinette threw grand dinner parties and had plays written and performed with her as female lead, to appeal to Louis’s tastes, and had portraits of herself painted to remind him of her beauty. According to one legend the “marquise cut” diamond was originally commissioned by Louis to resemble the shape of her mouth. She often accompanied the King on hunts and visits to his many properties.

She suffered two miscarriages in 1746 and 1749, at which times she arranged lesser mistresses for Louis while she was unable to attend to his needs. The combination of her fragile health and his roving eye caused him to replace her in his bed when she was only 29. Although they ended their physical relationship, Louis remained devoted to her and continued to rely on her keen advice, ranging from art to foreign policy. In fact, the period of her greatest influence over him was the decade after they had ceased to be lovers. When she became his mistress, no one expected her to retain his affections for long, but she was undisputedly, the most powerful woman in France for nearly 20 years.

Madame de Pompadour; the little queen reigned supreme at Versailles. A Maîtresse-en-titre did not usually last anywhere near as long as Pompadour did and it is believed that the way she treated the Queen Marie Leszczyńska with honour and respect was a key to her success. Pompadour was seen at first as a bringer of harmony for the Royal family. She urged the king to show more affection towards his wife and also gained the approval of his daughters.

Despite being well received at court for a number of years, Madame de Pompadour began to face opposition from around 1747. The Parti dévot amongst others were unhappy about being ranked below a woman of such low birth. Awful abuse began to circulate around the court and Paris in general about Madame de Pompadour, with writers commenting on her rank as well as mocking such intimate details as gynaecological problems. Despite such opposition, Pompadour carried on in her duties to the king.

Although formally, the Maîtresse-en-titre held no political power, behind the scenes it was often a different story. Every day, Pompadour would receive courtiers, travel with the king and serve as a hostess for court events. Madame de Pompadour began to use her experiences with her salon to become a patron of the arts and as well as rolling out an extensive building programme. Sèvres porcelain thrived under Madame’s patronage, as did other ventures with her backing such as the publication of an early Encyclopaedia. Madame De Pompadour was seen to have stepped in to the men’s sphere of politics and was accused of overstepping the mark and even wanting to take the crown for herself. One courtier said that she “is the prime minister and is becoming more and more despotic such as no other favourite has ever been in France”, whilst other people such as the Austrian ambassador believed that it was to her “that we owe everything, and it is on her that we should count for everything in the future”. This was after the signing of a peace treaty between the countries. Whichever opinion we look at, it is clear that Madame de Pompadour was a very influential member of Louis XV’s court.

After around 1750, the sexual element of the relationship between Pompadour and the king began had begun to wane. The mistress suffered problems after a number of miscarriages and could not continue in this sexual role. Whereas a less intelligent and less determined woman would have been supplanted at this stage, Madame de Pompadour maintained her influence on her king and the court. Pompadour fulfilled the king’s sexual needs in another way; by providing lesser mistresses for him from the parc-aux-cerfs where she kept them housed.

Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s little queen and the pillar of the Enlightenment died in 1764. After suffering from tuberculosis, she died at just forty-two. Many courtiers still resented the hold that Pompadour had held over the king and did not see the merits in her artistic endeavours. In the salon circles however, her life achievements were revered. The philosopher Montesquieu believed that “In the eyes of posterity, the representatives of the eighteenth century will be Voltaire and Mme de Pompadour”. An impressive eulogy for an incredible royal mistress.

King Louis XV of France. Louis had a very privileged childhood, however, it was also quite lonely; he was attended by adults but had very little interaction with other children. He was tutored by André Hercule de Fleury and of all his studies, Louis developed a life long fascination with science. When Louis’s uncle the Duke of Orleans died, he turned to Fleury and he became his first Minster.

Louis le Bien-Aimé, Louis the Well-Beloved, was King of France from 1715 to 1774, and his inadequate reign started the decline of royal authority that eventually ended with the start of the French Revolution. Both Louis XV parents and his brother died in 1712, and consequently, he became king at the age of five upon the death of his great grandfather Louis XIV. At the age of five, Louis was too young to rule, so as a result, the Duke of Orleans became his regent.

Louis was first betrothed to the daughter of King Philip V, his uncle, however, he ended up marrying the beautiful Marie Leszczyzaska, the daughter of the deposed King of Poland. They were married in 1725, when Louis was only 15. The marriage produced 10 children, however rather melancholically, only seven survived into adulthood.

Louis was never completely interested in politics, however he did earn the admiration of the people of France, especially during the War of Austrian Sucession; during this war he was on the battlefield. When his first minister Fleury died in 1743, he chose to rule without a first minister, similar to his great grandfather Louis XIV. Louis received the sobriquet “Le Bien-Aime,” “The Well-Loved,” from his relieved constituents after he recoverd from a horrible illness.

Louis XV’s popularity among his people didn’t last long; the War of Austrian Succession proved a detriment to France, the Treaty of Alixla-Chapelle, which ended the war in 1748, did little to advance France or settle conflicts with Britain over certain colonies. Louis’s long time mistress Madame de Pompadour, had become an advisor and confidante to him; she aided him in making most of these decisions.

Louis’s popularity decreased drastically when he sided with Austria, France’s former enemy, in the Seven Years War in 1756; France was defeated during this war. After this war, France was on the decline and so was Louis XV. On 5 January, 1757, Louis was stabbed in his side by a supporter of the French Parliament, however his wound was not fatal. In the twilight of Louis XV’s reign, him and his government attempted to reform France, however these efforts failed. Part of the reason of their failure was Louis’s lack of leadership skills and drive required to push and advance France.

On 10 May 1774, Louis XV died in his bedroom at Versailles. He was comforted by his last mistress, Jeanne Bécu, countess du Barry. Louis XV was succeeded by his grandson Louis XVI and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette. The wrath of The French Revolution would be felt by these young new monarchs, but nevertheless, many would agree that the seeds of this rebellion were planted during the reign of Louis XV.

“There’s this famous line — ‘The King only loves you for your staircase,'”  — referring to the circular staircase Louis constructed at Versailles to connect his room to his mistress’ room. “But It think it means so much more than that — this idea of the staircase as this mediating passage … She was mediating between members of the court and the king. They would say ‘I want to say this to the king.’ And she’d say, ‘No, wait, let me tell him. Let me translate it into my own words and I’ll come back to you.’ She was, in all sorts of ways, manipulating this idea of the staircase — of the passage — in an artistic, in an intellectual and in a political way.”

Madame de Pompadour departed the party far too early but not before leaving an indelible mark on France and the rest of the world. In addition to her many cultural and political contributions, her style inspired the Pompadour coiffure, the Pompadour heeled shoe, the Pink Pompadour shade of Sèvres porcelain, the porcelain Pompadour flower and the marquise diamond, which is said to have been created to resemble the shape of her mouth.

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