Shelved Dolls: Madame de Pompadour – She Is Your Role Model, Now

This cartoon from the period portrays her as a social climber.

Her difficulties at court were almost never with the King – by all accounts, for a long time their desires matched up almost perfectly. They tended to be with aristocrats, who, unlike the king, were not charmed by her bourgeois background. They certainly weren’t charmed that she was an advocate of the ideals of enlightenment, which, admittedly, were later used by revolutionaries. But at the time, lots of aristocrats loved democratic philosophy, so Pompadour wasn’t alone in being interested in that. Still, people said mean things. A popular ditty about her ran:

Fille de sangsue et sangsue elle meme
Poisson d’une arrogance extreme
Etale en ce chateau sans crainte et sans effroi
La substance du people et la honte du Roi.

(Daughter of leech, and leech herself, Poisson (Fish), with an extreme arrogance, flaunts in this château, without fear or dread, the substance of the people and the shame of the King.)

Frankly, that was like a “crazy internet commenter” comment, though. It didn’t really mean anything other than a certain small group of anti-Pompadour people existed (who called themselves Poissonades) they seemed to understand that both fish and leeches were water dwelling creatures. And they could rhyme, a bit. Louis occasionally lashed out at them, but very rarely – though he did increasingly support censorship of books, especially those criticizing the government, as he grew older.

More worrisome to Pompadour were the aristocrats claimed that her expenses were excessive. I mean, they were. She did collect a huge amount of beautiful things – her apartments were filled with Dresden candlesticks, Vincennes china, wood carved by Verberckt – the list goes on for a long time. She patronized all the artists and all the writers. After her death, it took lawyers a full year to make an inventory of all the objects of value in her apartments.

That said, something nice about Pompadour is that, while she collected an enormous amount of art, and she loved beautiful things, she made sure she paid for everything. She paid every single artist. It’s astonishing to realize how many aristocrats traded on the credit of their good names and never actually paid for any of their works (if they didn’t, there really wasn’t much the painters could do). Pompadour made sure she paid for everything she commissioned, and claimed that the financial difficulties of her early childhood made her realize how much it meant to people.

This does not seem like an extraordinary act on her part, but it is one of those situations where just being a decent person elevates you above a lot of your peers.

She also worked to restore many buildings which characterize Paris today. It was Madame Pompadour that called for the restoration of the Louvre, and helped with the design of the Place de la Concorde and the Pantheon (built by an architect she patronized). And she formed the Ecole Militaire with the intent of training members of lesser nobility to be officers, and not “useless, broke people”. Social mobility and some democratic ideals FTW!

She also truly believed in the artists she believed in – later in his life, Voltaire wrote verses maligning her (it was after Louis XV had disapproved of some of his writings). She continued to patronize him, and arranged for his sinecure at Versailles. Because he was Voltaire, and Pompadour was just all kinds of classy.

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    • Megan

      Loved this! I’ve read a little about Louis XV in various and sundry history classes, but next to nothing about Madame de Pompadour. Now I’m heading to the library to see if I can find her biography :-)

    • B

      She was still essentially a prositute – don’t think you can call her a role model.

      • Jennifer Wright

        I think you are wrong. Good talk.

      • whiteroses

        Considering her social class, the options avaliable to women in the 18th century, and her geographic location- yes, you can call her a role model. Just because she was the king’s mistress doesn’t make her less so. Ever heard of Diane de Poitiers? Anne Boleyn? Heck, Camilla Parker Bowles?

        Being someone’s mistress probably shouldn’t be celebrated, but darned if Madame Pompadour didn’t make the best of her opportunities. We could all use a little bit of that in our lives.

    • Tya

      First time commenting on The Gloss, but have been reading for over a year and never tire of it! Shelved Dolls is my favourite section-I can never wait for the new one! So much cool stuff and so many cool women written in a way that’s easy to understand (and damn funny)-it’s fantastic! Keep up the good work and please, keep these coming! (though, if you run out of women you have extremely detailed accounts of at your fingertips, I understand)

    • JenniWren

      I’m sorry, did I miss a memo? I didn’t think the Shelved Dolls were supposed to be role models, I just assumed they were interesting stories about interesting women who lived interesting lives that the reader may not have been aware of. I’ve enjoyed every one of them as such.

      And frankly, reading about people who messed up IS more interesting than reading about those who did everything right! Think of all the famous men who achieved brilliant things but managed to be alcoholics, drug addicts or just general cocks in their private lives. Very few perfect people have walked the earth- it’s far easier to empathize with the imperfect.

      Anyway, lovely article as usual. Is it okay to make suggestions for the future? Because I’d love to see your take on Cora Pearl.

    • Alle C


      Nancy Mitford–also known as my favourite Mitford–wrote a really excellent book about her, which I love to this day. And this article was wonderful!

    • MadameDakar

      Also worth checking out, if you are geek-minded, is the Doctor Who episode where David Tennant finds a portal between a spaceship and Madame de Pompadour’s fireplace, and pops in and out at various stages of her life. All kinds of awesome.

      • JenniWren

        Loved that episode! I thought Sophia Myles was wonderful and I especially loved that she was actually dating David Tennant at the time!

      • Jennifer Wright

        So, I am dedicating the rest of the day to watching this episode (I have also never seen Dr. Who before, but I feel like this could really destroy my entire life). For everyone else who wants to watch, here’s a link to the episode:

      • Jennifer Wright

        But wait – the revolution happened after Louis XV and Pompadour were dead. IS THIS SHOW HISTORICALLY INACCURATE?

      • Jennifer Wright


      • scarlett

        Thank you MadameDakar!!!! That’s actually my favorite episode!!! Im a geek and a romantic. Also thanks JenniWren I didn’t know that they were dating at the time!! Amazing!

      • Renee

        YESSSS! Doctor Who!

      • jen

        hahah Jennifer Wright’s reaction to the Doctor Who episode actually made me laugh out loud.

    • Beth

      Other interesting reading: Sex with Kings by Eleanor Herman and Antonia Fraser’s bio of Marie Antoinette.

    • Cheri

      She was obviously very intelligent and all that good stuff, but I just can’t get behind the whole mistress thing. I know I’m lame and old fashioned but I don’t think using sex to become successful is actually empowering.

      Also, I didn’t like that episode of Doctor Who. I know, I’m ridiculous.

    • Amy

      How interesting that mistresses were just an expected part of life and that no one saw anything off about it or about the necessity of the queen’s approval!

      Jennifer Wright, reading your writing tastes like strawberry ice cream.

      • Eagle Eye

        Its interesting to think about them in some ways as being the Kings “real” wife in terms of a relationship in which two people come together who like one another and decide that they’re going to make a go of it, so to speak.


    • Tania

      Aaah, nothing like applying modern day puritanical values to the decadence of French nobility.

    • Renee

      I love this series. So looking forward to du Barry next week!

    • Eileen

      Does anyone else look at Mercedes Bass and think, “You are the reincarnation of Mme. de Pompadour”?

      Just me?

      • Jennifer Wright

        But the Bass’s incredibly amicable divorce was because he was tired of the social circuit/tired of going to the opera! SHE IS LOUIS XV. If the opera is like a sexy young woman? I feel like I’m reaching on this.

    • Jenn

      This is the best Shelved Dolls yet, I love them, please never stop writing them!!!!

    • June

      I used to be a fan of hers, but I just can’t admire her anymore. The more I learn, the more I don’t like her. Pompadour had some qualities, but her tenure as “Prime Minister”of France was disastrous. I guess she had good intentions, but she was easily manipulated by unscrupulous opportunists and supported France changing alliances from Prussia to Austria, which resulted in the Seven Years War (which France lost). By the time of her death, France’s finances were in serious, serious trouble. Louis best years as king were when she wasn’t around. The first years mostly because of Fleury and his lasts because he finnaly managen to implant important reforms and dissolved the incredibly corrupt Parlement of Paris. Reforms which were promply reversed when Louis XVI became king (some people wonder that if Louis XV managed by be king for more years there wouldn’t be a revolution, since he was walking through the right path when he died).

      Plus, she was the person behind the creation of Parc-aux-Cerfs, Louis XV private brothel (you probably know about that). Pompadour was a cold woman sexually, and Louis XV obviously didn’t find that fun, so to keep her reins over him and keep out any pontential threating woman (she almost lost her position twice througout her year’s as king’s mistress) , she begin procuring for him ver young girls of the age 14, 12, and some sources say even 9. Marion Sigaut says she basically corrupted the king turning him into a pedophile and I agree with her. She wasn’t te only one, many people were working for the kings corruption years before that. I can’t admire her anymore, what she did for power, the France treasury’s money she spend keeping her ridiculous extravagant lifestyle, I just can’t.

      However, I like this piece. It’s well written and keeps our interest.

    • tee

      This series is fascinating! I have been completely unproductive (at least physically, I am learning, right?) today.

    • Melannie

      I like Madame Du Barry more than Madame De Pompadour.