You know that notion that if you just linger outside the workplace of someone you have a crush on, or sit in their favorite coffee-shop enough, eventually they’ll notice you and fall in love with you? And how that never, ever works, and you just end up consuming your body-weight in caffeine and cake-pops?
That worked for Madame Pompadour. Admittedly, that was in 1744, and she may have been the last person it worked for, but wow, did it ever work out.
But then, everything worked out for Madame Pompadour. If she was a ball player she’d have hit a home run every time she did anything. She would have hit home runs idly walking on her way to the ballpark. She was probably the most memorable of all the French kings’ mistresses (and when you consider all the French Kings, that’s a lot of mistresses.) Pompadour was not only beautiful, graceful and charming, she was a renowned intellectual, and she helped craft the political the cultural climate of France during the mid-18th century. She patronized everyone from Voltaire to Boucher, and the Pompadour style (of art and architecture, not the hairstyle, though I guess, also the hairstyle) is, unsurprisingly, named after her.
Not bad for a commoner in 18th century France.
Which is one of the reasons I wanted to write about her this week. I’ve gotten a few emails about how most of our Shelved Dolls are women like Edie or Zelda or Evelyn all of whom have heartbreakingly sad stories, and seem like they do not always makes the best life choices. Some people have asked whether, although I present myself as being in favor of women being as smart as they can be, I really, secretly, prefer bimbos. I feel like Hugh Hefner probably has a better retort for that than I do, but I will say, I tend to focus on these unhappy women because, as a rule, tragedies have a better narrative arc than happy stories do, but no. No, I am not suggesting that women who are cool and competent and generally fantastic don’t have great stories, too. So, for the record: GLOSS READERS – BE LIKE POMP. SHE IS YOUR ROLE MODEL, NOW. READ THIS WHILE HALF RECLINING ON A DIVAN.
(And if you like bimbos – next week we have Madame du Barry!)
Obviously, the man Madame Pompadour was interested in was no regular guy in a coffee-shop. He was King Louis XV of France. Who was, delightfully, a really nice guy, and one who I think is wrongly remembered principally for having an enormous sexual appetite. I mean, it’s true that he really loved sex, but he also had a lot of other qualities going for him.
I know this isn’t precisely relevant to her story, but I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Louis the XV. So often when I write these pieces I feel I end up doing a little song and dance of “yes, this dude probably date raped her, but hey, at least he wasn’t imprisoning chambermaids and beating them! It was the Victorian age! He was okay!” So it’s nice that, whatever the era, Louis XV, at least in his personal life, comes off really well.
Of course, you could say he was no Louis XIV. Right. Everyone at the time said that as well. That’s because Louis XIV, Louis XV’s great grandfather, was, legit, a genius. He ended feudalism in France and ushered in an age of art and culture. That said, he also had an exceptionally intelligent council, and a very brilliant mother who served as regent until he was of an age to reign. And he had an IQ estimated to be around 180. Louis XIV was just absurdly smart.
Louis XV, on the other hand, knew he was going to be king at the age of 5 (though he was not officially appointed King until he was 13). His entire family died of diptheria within a week of one another. The rumor is that Louis XV was saved simply because his nurse wouldn’t allow doctors to treat him.If you happen to time travel back to the 18th century, I want to take this opportunity to remind you to tell doctors to wash their hands.
But then, there were rumors that it hadn’t been diptheria at all. In his works, the Marquis de Sade referred to one plant as le poison royal, speculating that many members of Louis XV’s family had died from ingesting it. That’s another reason to let your nurse just lock you in your room.
Though, to be fair, if you learned anything from Quills, other than “censorship is bad” it’s that you can’t really trust the Marquis de Sade. However, it is certainly true that Louis XV’s childhood was filled with people – particularly his uncle, Philippe d’Orleans, duc de Chartres – rumored to be plotting to poison him. Probably most of them weren’t, but, well, it’s actually likely that someone in the court was trying to poison him.
Louis XV was a really quiet kid. Understandably. It is hard to make friends when everyone might be trying to poison you. He spent a lot of time lying in the hall of mirrors at Versailles looking at the ceiling. Visitors would occasionally trip over him as they went in, and people worried that Louis XV was not well adjusted. Have you seen that hall of mirrors, though? Its stunning. The panels tell the story of the early years of Louis XIV’s rule. Here:
At the age of 7, Louis asked to be allowed into Council meetings, and, though he never said a word, he carried with him his pet cat who he referred to as his “colleague” and he became an avid reader and a great student. He was particularly interested in sciences, and advocated for departments of physics and mechanics to be opened at the College of France so that the topics could be studied further.
The fact that, in spite of his work ethic and natural intellect, he could ever live up to his great grandfather really upset Louis XV (this is what happens when the story of your Grandfather’s entire life is surrounded by chandeliers). To that end he decided that he would just work harder than everyone else. He often subsisted on five hours of sleep a night, and rose at dawn to go to work, lighting his own fire so he didn’t have to wake any of his servants. Then, as the protocol of Versailles dictated, later in the day he would go back to bed, and pretend to be asleep so that the Princes of realm could greet him. The protocol for this rising ceremony is one of the only genuinely funny moments in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. In it, Marie Antoinette,who would marry Louis XV’s grandson, Louis XVI, remarks “this is ridiculous” as a princess hands her a nightgown, to which a princess replies “madame, this is Versailles.” I can’t find the clip, but if you go 23 minutes in, you can watch it here.
That said, if you’re going to watch Marie Antoinette, know that Louis XV is only going to get portrayed as someone who is all sex with Madame du Barry, all the time. Which… well, that came later.
Despite rumors that still persist about his enormous sexual appetite – and it was true that he would spend a lot of nights in whorehouses – Louis remained a very shy man, and one who believed greatly in chivalry. After he won the War of Austrian Succession, he returned all of the land and properties to his defeated enemies, saying “I’m the king of France, not a shopkeeper.”
His favorite recreational activity though, was hunting. And that is how Madame Pompadour caught him.
The ladies who wrote The Rules would hate this story. Madame Pompadour literally chased after Louis. She used to dress all in pink – her carriage painted a contrasting blue – and ride to the edge of the of the King’s woods. In addition to being a good huntress, Madame Pompadour was also an excellent rider.
Louis XV noticed her. He could hardly help it. Everyone in his retinue noticed the woman riding around after them through the woods in cotton-candy colors. However, he was too shy to approach her. Instead, he settled for sending gifts of game to her house. They only truly met later, at a masked ball intended to celebrate the Dauphin’s marriage. At the time, Louis XV was without a mistress, and many women there were seeking his affections. Perhaps taking that into account, he appeared with a group of friends, all of them dressed as identical yew trees so that they would blend together.
Later in the evening, however, everyone saw that the king had doffed his mask, and was talking with Madame Pompadour who was dressed, fittingly, as Diana, goddess of the hunt.
Later they went on to a private party at the Hotel de Ville, and spent the night together. Immediately afterwards, Louis moved her into a set of apartments at Versailles that connected to his. She was 23, and she would remain the King’s trusted companion for the rest of her life.
Meeting the Queen would prove more challenging.
Madame Pompadour had to be officially presented to the King at Court before the Queen before she could be anointed a Marquise and be officially acknowledged as the maitresse en titre (the chief mistress of the King of France – a position which came with its own apartments, which Pompadour was already settled in).
And being presented at Versailles was no small feat. It required a lot intricate steps, the trickiest of which was probably executing three low curtsies. Considering the elaborate nature of the court dresses, aristocrats from the court had difficulties executing even one, and Madame Pompadour had not grown up there. After curtsying, the King would be expected to nod at her, and she would withdraw, walking backwards, which would require discreetly kicking her skirt out of the way with each step so as not to expose her feet.
A lot of women fell down. To their massive social disgrace.
To that end, Louis dispatched the abbe Benois to tutor Madame Pompadour. And when the time came, Pompadour was almost flawless. She executed the set perfectly, with only one small lapse.
There was a lapse! But it was a lapse that ultimately worked out well for her.
As she bent to kiss the hem of the Queen’s skirt, a bracelet slipped off her arm. The Queen could have dismissed her curtly, but instead, she turned out to be very kind to Pompadour. She asked after the health of one of the only aristocratic families that Pomadour knew. Madame Pompadour was so grateful that she effusively kissed both the Queen’s hands, and promised her eternal devotion. While her outburst was not considered quite proper, the Queen seemed to appreciate it, and the two were on very good terms throughout Pompadour’s time as mistress – which was important, as Pompadour’s tenure was to last 20 years. Pompadour’s bursts of enthusiasm and good cheer really won the Queen over, and later she said, ” If there must be a mistress, better her than any other. ”
What makes that so much more remarkable is really the fact that Madame Pompadour was common born.
Though, really, on some level she was preparing for this since she was a kid.
When she was around 9 – in that day, she was still Jeanne Antoinette Poisson – her mother took her to a fortune teller. The fortune teller told her that she was going to be the King’s mistress. Or that she would “capture the heart of a king.” Accounts vary. Suffice to say, they had super specific fortune tellers in the 1730s. Her family would never stop teasing her about this, and for the rest of her childhood they nicknamed her “Reinette” which meant “little queen.”
Unlike many of the Shelved Dolls we talk about, and certainly unlike Louis, Pomadour had a happy childhood. I mean, sure, her father, who used to be steward to the two men who handled the nations finances, embezzled a whole bunch of money and had to be exiled for a while. But whose father didn’t?
Despite their reduced circumstances, her family, and especially her doting mother, made sure she was tutored and trained in all of the arts of the period. She knew how to sing, recite plays from memory, play the clavichord, paint, engrave and do anything else that was considered a ladylike art. Madame Pompadour excelled at these, and for a time, hoped she might become an actress.
At 19, she was married to Charles-Guillaume le Normant d’Etioles. While it was an arranged marriage, Charles quickly grew to adore her – though they were separated immediately after she met Louis. She founded her own salon, at Étiolles, and was joined by many philosophes, among them Voltaire, who she became close friends with early in life.
This might not seem as exciting as the poison-filled upbringing at court. Unsurprisingly, though, considering all the poison, Louis XV loved that she was bourgeois. All of Louis XV’s favorite mistresses (like Madame Maintenon and the later Madame du Barry) were common born, and, certainly, the fact that Madame Pompadour wasn’t an aristocrat allowed Louis a freedom in his interactions with her that the pomp and ceremony of the court of Versailles would never permit.
While we’re often apt to think of romances in the past as being very high on drama and feuding families and all sorts of operatic excitement, well, people living in the past are not aware they are living in the past. They think they are living in the present. For their whole lives, they think that. And so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Louis XV’s and Madame Pompadour’s relationship was successful for the same reason I think most relationships are successful – they essentially liked doing the same stuff.
Like adopting monkeys. While Louis did love to hunt, both he and Madame Pompadour were animal lovers, who soon formed a menagerie comprised of cats, dogs, and monkeys.
Pompadour also introduced Louis to a number of new authors – like her friend, Voltaire – though at one point Louis complained that she could not keep doing this, because, at the rate she was going, he was going to meet every author in the world. It’s possible he was right. At her death, Madame Pompadour’s library was found to contain 3,525 books and she was known to recite passages from memory in conversation. Louis told his friends that she often acted out comic scenes for him, and that she was very funny. She was known, among the rest of the court, to have a good sense of humor, though she did not act out scenes for them.
She did, however, perform in theatrical productions, often playing male roles (they had better lines). After one performance in Le Prince de Noisy , where Pompadour played the Prince, Loui XV ran onstage and hugged her, exclaiming “she is the most delicious woman in France.”
Madame Pompadour also began hosting little dinner parties for Louis and his friends. They were so informal that Louis supposedly helped her with the preparations, and served all the guests coffee himself. This all sounds like the kind of normal, good natured thing that husbands in a 1950s sitcom would do, but you have to remember that this was a court where aristocrats grew out their fingernails to obscene lengths in order to indicate that they were of such exalted social status that they would never need to pick things up with their hands.
When Louis realized that everyone in Pompadour’s family had nicknames for one another – Pompadour was Reinette, her brother was referred to as Frerot (“little bro” or “kiddo”) – he soon adopted nicknames for his own daughters (“Locque” for Adelaide and “coche” for Victoire, which mean “rag” and “coach” respectively. I’m not sure Louis quite understood how nicknames worked, but I’m sure he put a lot of thought into those.)
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.
As the years passed, she was to become one of Louis’s most trusted advisor. Duc de Croy once wrote “it was very agreeable to deal with such a pretty prime minister, whose laugh is enchanting and who listens so well.” Others were less enchanted – the Count D’Argenson wrote “she believes herself to be queen, having dreamt one night that it was so.”
One member of the court remarked, as Louis, later in life, grew more retiring, and less apt to deal with his ministers that “one could hope for no opportunity to be near the king than through her, and he no longer talked at all to any others.”
That’s certainly not true, though Madame Pompadour and Louis did spend a great deal of their time consulting on cares of state, and she probably did have as much influence as many of his ministers.
However, Madame Pompadour, despite being a trusted adviser, was no longer the great beauty she had been in her youth. Louis began – it’s funny to say having affairs since Madame de Pompadour was his mistress – but seeing younger women. Pompadour brushed it off initially saying “It is only his heart I want! All these little girls with no education will not take that from me.”
Still, their relationship seemed increasingly strained. More and more people became aware of Louis’s infidelities, and Croy remarked “I found her distressed at her toilette. She is more influential than ever, and still very pretty indeed. When one spoke of the King’s infidelities, everyone took the Marquise’s part.”
But they began to bicker. During one dinner, the king exclaimed, regarding Madame Pompadour “what boring old wive’s tale is she telling now?” People were shocked. Again, this could be dismissed as evidence of their very familiar relationship, but this was a major dinner, at Versailles, where everyone communicated through a series of coded gestures, and things like that were never said, and certainly not in public.
Madame Pompadour generally didn’t reveal her feelings to anyone, although she did remark to one close confidante “it takes more energy than one might expect to feign being madly in love without making yourself ill.”
This part troubles me, because I think I admire both Pompadour and Louis XV so much that I want them to die in one another’s arm like those people in The Notebook, but that 1) never happens and 2) really never happens when people are mid-18th century Kings of France. Do keep in mind that by the time they began bickering at the dinner table they had been together for many, many years.
I suppose towards the end, her efforts did make her ill. Madame Pompadour ultimately left Versailles after two miscarriages, claiming her poor health. While they were no longer lovers – Madame Pompadour developed tuberculosis and became increasingly frail – Louis XV remained devoted to her, constantly enlisting her council on various matters of state. Which he desperately needed. Failed wars had meant that France was in a difficult financial position – which perhaps was part of Madame Pompadour’s decision to return her estate to the country. Towards the end of her life, she famously remarked to Louis “au reste, après nous, le Déluge” (after us, there will come the deluge.”)
When she died, Voltaire wrote, “I am very sad at the death of Madame de Pompadour. I was indebted to her and I mourn her out of gratitude. It seems absurd that while an ancient pen-pusher, hardly able to walk, should still be alive, a beautiful woman, in the midst of a splendid career, should die at the age of forty.”
She was actually 42, but she probably would have appreciated the deduction.
Louis XV was heartbroken. Upon seeing that it had begun to rain as her coffin was pulled away, he wept ““La marquise n’aura pas beau temps pour son voyage.” (The Marquise will not have good weather for her journey). Perhaps he knew that, without the counsel of Madame Pompadour, and with the country soon to be in the hands of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the deluge was not far off.
But before that, there was du Barry, who we’ll cover next week. Stay tuned! All kinds of sex stuff is coming!