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Madame de Pompadour

born December 29, 1724
died April 15, 1764

At one time, the most influential woman in France. She rose from the bourgeoisie to the aristocracy, using surprisingly little luck and a lot of strategical skill. She is remembered most for being Louis XV's mistress; she was genuinely in love with him and lived with him until her death.

Before Reading
There are two aspects of French society that play into this story. First, it was not enough to be rich. The poorest aristocrat held more political power than the richest commoner, no matter how important the commoner's job. However, as more peasant-born citizens became richer and more powerful, forming the bourgeois class, they began to be indispensable to the throne and the aristocracy. The upper class deeply resented this.

Second, sex was treated unusually. Adultery was an expected occurence in the decadent French court. A woman, especially, would engage in affairs in order to gain power or a social advantage. This was also a royal practice--the Official Mistress was a tradition of the French Kings. Consorting with the god-like King imbued a mistress with prestige, but the same time, there was a stigma attached to the position; after all, it was immoral.

Family and Childhood
Madame Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson to a typical middle-class family in France. The family had powerful connections with the wealthy Pâris brothers: Pâris de Montmartel was court banker and a friend and lover to Jeanne's mother; Pâris-Duvereny was supplier to the French army, and the employer of Jeanne's father.

  • Her mother was Louise-Madeleine de La Motte, a brunette with pale clear skin, noted for her beauty. A femme galante, her extramarital activities call into question Jeanne's true parentage. Died before she could reap the rewards of being mother to the King's mistress.
  • Louise-Madeleine's husband was François Poisson, steward to the Pâris brothers. He may or may not have been Jeanne's true father. When Jeanne was four, he was accused of speculating in wheat and fled to Germany. When he came back to France almost a decade later, Jeanne greeted him warmly. Once she was a member of the French court, he embarrassed her often with his tactless requests for money and favors, which she and the King did their best to fulfill.
When Jeanne was nine years old, she and her mother visited a famous fortune-teller, Madame Lebon, who told them that Jeanne would one day become mistress to Louis XV. This is the sort of thing fortune-tellers were supposed to tell little girls, but Louise-Madeleine took it seriously and was inspired to polish Jeanne for an entrance into upper-class society.

One of Louise's lovers and Jeanne's potential father, Charles Lenormand de Tournehem, bought Jeanne an education in the social graces. This included dancing, singing, theatre, playing the harpsichord, memorizing prose and poetry, and the art of conversation in general.

Entrance into Society
By Jeanne's eighteenth year she was as beautiful as her mother, with the same brunette hair and stark-white skin. In March of 1741, she married Tournehem's nephew, Charles-Guilleume Lenormand. As a wedding present, Tournehem gave them the estate Etioles, and Lenormand incorporated it into his last name, the couple becoming the Monsieur and Madame d'Etioles.

The estate of Etioles was southeast of Paris on the river Seine, close to the forest Senart. The forest was the King's favorite hunting grounds; Jeanne made it a practice to follow the hunt, driving her own carriage, dressed in bright colors to attract the King's attention.

She also spent much of her time networking, frequenting various salons held in Paris and getting herself known. She soon began holding her own salons and attended court balls. In fact, in 1744-45 the King had danced with a mysterious masked lady at several balls--it was rumoured that this was Jeanne.

In February 1745, the Ball of the Clipped Yew Trees marked the official beginning of an affair between Louis XV and Jeanne. It was a masked ball held at the King's palace Versailles; in order to keep from being mobbed by rabid fans, the King and seven other men disguised themselves as yew trees and mingled with the crowd. Suddenly, Louis unmasked himself and was seen talking and laughing with Jeanne. This was in essence a public acknowledgement of their affair. Jeanne stayed that night at the palace...

Her husband was mortified. After Jeanne moved into the palace, the two never spoke to each other again. But he wasn't the only one upset. It was inconcievable that a bourgeoise could be mistress to the King--many members of the court snubbed or denigrated Jeanne, calling her a common prostitute. Louis XV was not deterred. Jeanne was presented at the court, and was given the marquisate of Pompadour, thereby becoming Madame la marquise de Pompadour.

In the French Court
As a member of the middle-class, the new mistress had to be especially careful to avoid social blunders. She made a good effort to get along with the king's family, always deferring to the King's wife, Marie Leczinska. The two were not quite friends, but were certainly not enemies. However, the Royal Children were another matter; the Dauphin habitually called his father's mistress mama putain--"mama whore".

Jeanne was highly intelligent and was often reading. At the time of her death, she owned 3,525 books, which covered a wide range of subjects--poetry, military history, and philosophy being just a few examples. She was friends with Voltaire, and was indirectly responsible for his admittance to the Académie Française.

To remain in the King's favor, she entertained him by throwing fetes and hosting theatrical events. As another distraction, she created the Théâtre des Petits Cabinets, in which the actors were members of the King's court. Those who could join were limited to those who had actual acting experience; the quality of the Theatre's productions were quite high. Jeanne, who excelled at acting, always held the female leading role.

One of her hobbies was interior decoration. The king bought her several houses, and she spent a great deal of time conferring with the architects and planning the placement of furniture and ornaments. She commissioned art for the houses from artists such as Boucher, Oudry, Pigalle and Falconet. These houses of hers were usually rented out or sold after she was done with them.

'Old Age'
In her fifth year in court, Jeanne sensed that Louis XV was becoming disillusioned with her, mainly because of her incurable frigidity (a trait Queen Marie also shared); so, in the beginning of 1751, she announced that she was hereby no longer the mistress, but the King's Friend. She commissioned a statue by Pigalle to commemorate the change, titled Love and Friendship. Her only replacement as mistress was a long line of lower-class young girls who were paid dowries and dismissed once they became pregnant. Jeanne never displayed any jealousy of this.

It was during this time that her only child, a daughter fathered by Lenormand in 1744 and named Alexandrine-Jeanne, died, at age ten. The cause was acute appendicitis.

Jeanne's later projects include:

  • Creation of the Ecole Militaire, a military boarding school for boys of poor, aristocratic families.
  • Improvement of the quality of French porcelain, known as Sevres porcelain after the village that housed the main factory. A porcelain pigment was named in her honor: Rose Pompadour.
  • Worked with the jeweller Jacques Guay to create a collection of engraved precious stones, eighty in number, and now housed at the Bibliothèque National. They were carved into a variety of images, like portraits of the King and his family, military themes, and Jeanne's little dog Mimi.
  • She also involved herself in the diplomacy and politics of the Seven Years War to such an extent that she was referred to as the unofficial Prime Minister of France in the court.

Jeanne remained in the palace until 1764, when, at 43, she died of congestion of the lungs.

Sources:
Algrant, Christine Pewitt. Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France. New York: Grove Press, 2002.
Crosland, Margaret. Madame de Pompadour: Sex, Culture and Power. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2000.
Mitford, Nance. Madame de Pompadour. New York: Random House, 1954.
Smyth, David Mynders. Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France. New York: Wilfred Funk, 1953.

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