Her real name Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) was the mistress of King Louis XV, who gave her the title of marquise . She participated in the political life of the kingdom, for example by promoting the rise of certain ministers like Choiseul and by contributing to the reversal of the alliances of 1756. The Marquise de Pompadour also played an important role in the field of arts and letters, supporting Voltaire and the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert. The envious, the vindictive have made him a bad portrait; for some:beautiful, refined, of a superior intelligence, skilful, with a different class compared to the great ladies, marking the style of an era; for others:greedy, perverse, thirsty for power, responsible for the military disasters of the Seven Years' War and the disgrace of the best ministers.
The youth of Jeanne Poisson, future Marquise de Pompadour
Jeanne Antoinette Poisson was born on December 29, 1721, tenderly loved by her family. This playful little girl, benevolent and friend of everyone, received an excellent education at the Ursuline convent of Poissy, which she left definitively at the age of 8, following a bad cold. From this place, she keeps a nickname "Reinette" meaning little queen. She grew up surrounded by her father, a confidant of the Pâris brothers, great financiers of the Crown, her promiscuous mother and her uncle Lenormant de Tournehem, future Director of the King's Buildings. Brought up like this, she will acquire the tenacity and ambition specific to the world of high finance. Having the gift of pleasing and artistic gifts, his uncle provided him with renowned masters of dancing, singing and drawing.
He married her in March 1741, to his nephew Charles Guillaume Lenormant d'Etiolles, son of the general treasurer of currencies , knight of honor at the presidial of Blois, pleasant and having good feelings. According to the marriage contract under the community of goods, she brings 120,000 pounds of jewelry, linens, house; he has 83,000 pounds in advance from the sub-farms; the uncle lodges them in Paris and in the countryside, covers the cost of food, clothing as well as their suite of five people and the crew. In case of separation of the spouses, he will take care of them. The household would later inherit this uncle's fortune. She becomes a good wife, a good mistress of the house, will have a child who died very early and a little Alexandrine.
With such a background and such an education, she is sought after in salons and social settings:at the Hôtel d'Angervilliers, at Madame de Tencin's; she meets Fontenelle, Montesquieu and Voltaire, which allows her to obtain a preparation for life, moral principles, ease in her manners and in conversation, knowledge of the world, freedom of judgment while attending people of the court. She is interested in everything:art, artists, philosophers, always finds a pretty witty retort and is a hit as an actress in a few theater performances.
In summer at the Château d'Etiolles, she receives people, devotes herself to the theater, sings and plays comedy in front of Crébillon, Louis de Cahusac (lyricist of Rameau) and becomes quickly the Queen of this world of the bourgeoisie, thanks to her gaiety, her talents and her good heart. Admitted to follow the hunting crews of the Court, she sometimes meets the king… we are in 1744.
At Court, many people talk about her, luckily she made friends like the Abbé de Bernis, the Marquis de Valfons, President Hénault; she also meets the Duc de Nivernois, the Duc de Duras, M. de Richelieu...of course Mme de Châteauroux, the favorite of the moment, is worried!
Thinking back to the predictions of a fortune teller promising her the love of the king, she gradually forged herself into this idea. The future Marquise de Pompadour began to love the king, sincerely and without interest:during the king's illness in 1744, she completely returned and "seized by a revolution from which she thought she would die".
His entourage (His mother's distant cousin Binet and the Dauphin's first valet de chambre; his relatives; Le Bel Premier valet de chambre du roi, because the king had noticed the young lady in 1743 during the hunts) pushes her to approach the king so that she occupies the place left free by the disappearance of Madame de Châteauroux.
Jeanne's first steps at Court
Their first “gallant conversation” took place on the occasion of the wedding of the Dauphin and the Infanta of Spain in February 1745. The king, disguised as a yew, danced with her… the name of Madame Lenormant d'Etiolles is rumored everywhere...the king installs her in Madame de Mailly's former apartment. Two months later, Louis XV introduced her to his close friends (the Duke of Boufflers, the Duke of Ayen, the Marquis of Meuse) during a dinner in the Cabinets and then went to war in Flanders. She has five months to complete her education at Court and understand all the habits and customs, helped by the Abbé de Bernis and the Duc de Gontaut, a close friend of the king. Bernis teaches him the manners of the court, the language, the ways to avoid missteps and helps him to better understand the ideas of the king.
In July, she officially separates from her husband; the king is so happy that he offers her a domain, she becomes Marquise de Pompadour; the favorite is officially declared and Madame de Châteauroux's apartment is refreshed.
Her presentation to the Court took place in September "the Poisson girl, estranged wife of the farmer general Lenormant d'Etiolles made her official entry into the sanctuary of the monarchy, where only right of citizenship aristocrats capable of proving, supporting documents, a nobility dating back to the year 1400”; the old Princess of Conti, granddaughter of the Sun King, crippled in debt, agrees to be his godmother; the speech between the Queen and the Marquise is "very long, 12 sentences long"; the courtiers make fun, the king is embarrassed, gossip goes on well… but Louis XV never leaves his favorite, he invites her to the hunt, to the theater and to the comedy; she presides over the Petits Soupers, appears in the circle of the Queen; the Duke of Ayen defends him, the Prince of Soubise becomes a friend. Jeanne Antoinette takes her place without great effort, in a natural way and behaves wisely. There is only the dolphin who "beats cold" him not supporting the excesses of his father, not understanding the acceptance of his mother!
The king was really won over by Jeanne Antoinette, as described by the lieutenant of the hunts of Versailles "a height above the ordinary, slender, well-to-do, supple, elegant, her face matched her height, a perfect oval, beautiful hair, light brown, rather large eyes, adorned with beautiful eyebrows of the same color, a perfectly fine nose formed, the charming mouth, the very beautiful teeth and the most delicious smile, the most beautiful skin in the world gave to all its features the greatest brilliance. His eyes had a particular charm, which they owed to the uncertainty of their color, and this uncertain color seemed to make them suitable for all kinds of seduction and to express successively all the impressions of a very mobile soul. P>
For the king, it's a fresh and new air that comes to the Court, unlike the noble ladies, stuffed with pride, obsessed with their rank; Jeanne Antoinette has spontaneity; despite everything she is disciplined, tenacious, prudent, measured, respectful of the hierarchy and constant in her friendships; above all, she wanted to restore the king's confidence, who was still in doubt:Dufort de Cheverny wrote "she had the great art of distracting the man of the kingdom who was the most difficult to amuse, who liked the particular out of taste, so that as soon as he could escape the representation, he descended to her by a staircase and deposited there the character of king”. Thanks to the marquise, the king is relaxed, appeased, relieved of obligations for a moment. He can rely on her for the many tasks of daily life and wishes for a real sincere passion.
The best years of Madame de Pompadour
From 1746, the marquise asserted itself. She yearns for respectability and wants to fit in. She thinks of introducing her acquaintances and friends, but only those who are worth it like the Pâris brothers and her brother in the position of Director of the King's Buildings; she listens and intervenes with the king, pushes him to decisions. As the role of a favorite is to satisfy the carnal demands of the king and to entertain him, knowing that she has a weak temperament and a precarious health, she uses all her intelligence to entertain him by becoming the director and the organizer of pleasures:all the carnival shows, performances, ballets go through her; she organizes suppers for the return of the hunt in her private apartments; she takes care with tact and success of the second marriage of the Dauphin to the daughter of the King of Saxony, from the first negotiations until the ceremony and the related parties at the beginning of 1747.
Despite some gossip, Madame de Pompadour is on good terms with the Queen:the favorite is gentle, humble, considerate, full of all possible respect, sincerely concerned about her health, apologizing for not being able to attend a charity work if she is unwell. She has a good heart and wants to please the Queen, because the Queen isn't mean to her and doesn't treat her badly. She pushes the king to take care of and anticipate his wife's desires, such as redoing her apartment or paying her debts. The king is happy and more human, he even jokes and the atmosphere relaxes between the spouses; but by wanting to do too well, the Marquise makes blunders such as offering roses to the queen, something inconceivable:"a subject does not offer a gift to his king".
The court of Versailles is hostile to her for her rank as a bourgeois, they hate her for what she is and not what she does. M. de Richelieu, first gentleman of the chamber, tried to drive out “the commoner and tyrannical mistress of the court”. He is thanked. The royal family and the party of devotees gang up on her, the dolphin has nicknamed her "mommy whore", and the "fish" appear. Maurepas, head of the Royal House, is the first to expose his private health problems for everyone to see.
Every day pamphlets, libels that the Court and the street sing against the marquise; then there are drawings against the king "chained by the marquise and whipped by foreigners", so much so that Madame de Pompadour no longer eats much, that she is afraid of poison, that a doctor sleeps by her side with counterpoise. Even if the king got tired and did not believe it, after reflection he leaned towards Maurepas, the marquise's sworn enemy until asking him to resign in April 1749.
The Pompadour, benefactor for the arts
Loving beautiful things, his ambition is to establish the "French style" throughout Europe. It supports young artists and promotes luxury craftsmanship. She transfers the porcelain factory from Vincennes to Sèvres; she convinces the king to become the main shareholder in order to compete with Saxony porcelain; she organizes sales at the castle to promote it. Sèvres and its "Pompadour rose" became the most famous porcelain in Europe from 1760.
A lover of theatre, she founded the "Théâtre des Cabinets", a small company of amateur actors, staging some forty shows. She surrounded herself with favorites and friends, such as the Dukes of Nivernois and Duras, the Duke of La Vallière. Loving letters, she favors writers like Malesherbes, Crébillon father, Marmontel, Voltaire who obtains the chair at the Academy; her tastes and her friendships lead her towards a new spirit, which the party of devotees cannot bear. Finally, it promotes the publication of the first two volumes of Diderot's encyclopedia.
Sharing with the king the passion for buildings, houses, furniture and fabrics, she acquired properties:the Château de Crécy, La Celle Saint Cloud, Bellevue, the Hôtel des Reservoirs in Versailles, the Hôtel d'Evreux (which will become the Elysée). She loves rearranging her homes, especially taking care of the furnishings and woodwork taking into account the location. Accused of spending too much (in 20 years, she will have used between 6.5 and 7.4 million pounds), she replies “this alleged madness which gives bread to so many unfortunate people; my pleasure is not to contemplate gold in my coffers, but to spread it. It gives work to all artists and craftsmen, in all fields. In 1762, she convinced the king to start building the Petit Trianon, which would be completed in 1768 and would delight Marie-Antoinette.
Yes, she spent, but partly for king and honor; she has never asked for anything for herself, and despite the sumptuousness of the castles, she has nothing of her own, no fortune. The king, moreover, was very stingy, gifts of money for the marquise were rare, she only received gifts at the start of their affair, her monthly pension of 4,000 pounds rising to 3,000 during the war years; she must gamble or sell her jewels or houses in order to balance her income and maintain her rank!
When she resells some of her properties, the money is used to buy another one or goes to the Crown. In the field of buildings, she also resembles Madame de Maintenon and her institute of Saint Cyr:Madame de Pompadour founded the Royal Military School, which will educate 500 young heirs to the nobility for the profession of arms free of charge.
The sincere friend becomes "Prime Minister"
The end of their intimate relationship took place in 1750, only five years after their first affair. She no longer has the health of the beginning, she realizes the king's reluctance, and despite the stimulants, by mutual agreement, they stop their carnal affair.
Officially at the beginning of the year 1752, passion turns into friendship. The Marquise stays by his side, he can talk to her about anything and everything, like a loyal, affectionate, tender friend, an accomplice at almost all times to whom he will never lack respect. All requests from some, pardons, appointments, favors from others go through her, the king recognizes in her an "unofficial status of adviser and Prime Minister" as mentioned by the Duke of Croÿ "his credit continues to increase , big business but even the details pass through his hands; she knew that she had to make herself necessary to the King of France by her most important interests to supply the need that he no longer had so strongly of her person”.
The Marquise is also doing her best to "fix" the royal family; even the dolphin begins to be agreeable with her; the queen is very pleased with the Marquise. Their relations with all become calm, serene and cordial. We see it during the birth of the king's grandson, the marquise having fainted, the royal family asks for news of his health!
But 1751 is the year of the jubilee and the religious question comes up regularly. And even if the king hears the sermons, even if he no longer sleeps in the Palace of Versailles and allows himself a few rare suppers at Bellevue, Madame de Pompadour is not safe:if the people of the church manage to convince the king to return to the Christian life, they would also be able to convince him to purely and simply dismiss the Marquise...and in a public way!
To reassure the marquise in the face of the young and beautiful ladies of the court, the king offers his dear and indispensable friend the stool of duchess during the ceremony of October 17, 1752 at 6:15 a.m. “Very high and very powerful Lady, Duchess Marquise de Pompadour will be able to be seated under the King's table, with the Queen and the children of France; placed on the same footing as the wives of dukes and peers, she will precede those of the great officers of the crown”. She also attends the toilet, the audiences and the circles, enters in a carriage in the courtyard of the Louvre as well as in the royal houses. The stool "the rarest consecration with which the King of France can honor the services of a subject and the merits of a great lady" is a real distinction.
The new duchess will live another twelve years and keep the first place by force of will. She cannot improvise Minister at the political level, but she will learn and in four years, she skips the stages; the foreign ambassadors realize it, all want to “buy it”, none will succeed; she is not venal, she wants the good of the king, supporting him morally, serving as his intermediary and spokesperson as during the Treaty of Versailles in 1756, as Pierre de Nolhac says "it's more pleasant to having a beautiful woman during conversations; her intervention prevented the discovery of the king, Austria was unaware that he had decided to listen to her proposals, the intervention of the Marquise gave her time to reflect”.
The reproaches do not cease, the devotees consider her an enemy, although she is not. The king's children unite against her, she only wants their recognition, she wants to be accepted, so that the king can also live better with his children who "often beat him cold". On the advice of Madame de Pompadour, he involves them in his life, his hobbies, takes them hunting, invites them to the show, to small suppers. Wasted effort ! In order "not to make waves", she takes up religion, goes to services regularly, does thin on the prescribed days, dresses soberly, multiplies the works of charity, especially since she has just lost her daughter. Alexandrine, kidnapped in a few days in 1754.
The Marquise de Pompadour wrongly accused of political errors?
The assassination attempt on Damiens in 1757 triggered manifest hatred in the Church towards the new Duchess. Believing himself lost, the king confesses, asks forgiveness from all his family who are not able to help him, nor to say the words he needs to reassure him, the king's wound being above all moral, "his health was nothing compared to the salvation of his soul”; the men of the church take precedence over the doctors and urge him to drive out the marquise, to renounce pleasures… she in her apartment below lives in permanent anguish, until the complete recovery of the king, who resumes the stairway to visit him. A few hours later he comes back with a healed spirit, with a pleasant look, a smile on his face. The next day, they resume their habits and are even more attached to each other.
D'Argenson, always opposed to the favorite, relaunched the pamphlets against her, going so far as to have them read to the king, who asked him to resign. Still the work of the marquise? No, the king no longer supports d'Argenson, the eye of the devout party, confidant of the queen, friend of the archbishop, adversary of the Austrian alliance, which instead of stopping the libels favored them.
Accused of getting into politics, she only wants to help the king. Bernis, Minister of Foreign Affairs is not up to the task and the defeat of Rossbach in 1757 is attributed to the Duchess Marquise. However, she had a happy hand with the appointment of the Count of Stainville, future Duke of Choiseul who was to ensure her safety and be in perfect agreement with the king and therefore the policy pursued. Accused of gross errors during the Seven Years' War, she served as a happy intermediary between Maria Theresa of Austria and the King of France, from which a pact of alliance emerged.
Criticized when she provides for the carnal needs of the king, by finding him little young girls, some of whom are installed in the Parc aux Cerfs, Pierre de Nolhac defends her "the solution of the Parc- aux-Cerfs was discreet, ignoble and decent, if the king had continued to honor the ladies of the court, this place would never have existed”.
Nearly exhausted, attacked on all fronts, Madame de Pompadour's health deteriorated greatly, her strength dwindling, undermined by tuberculosis. She died in Versailles of a pulmonary congestion on April 15, 1764 in her 43rd year. His body is covered with a white sheet. The king paid him a final tribute while watching the funeral procession made up of 42 servants and 72 poor people carrying torches go by from the top of his terrace. She is at the height of her glory.
- Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, after Pierre de Nolhac.
- Madame de Pompadour, by Evelyne Lever. Tempus, 2003.
- Queens and Favourites:The Power of Women, by Benedetta Craver. Folio, 2009.