She was one of the most remarkable women in history, dowered with such beauty and grace as blinded most men to her sins, and yet with such powers of mind that for a brilliant decade she governed France, protected Voltaire, saved Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and led the philosophes to claim her as one of their own. It is difficult to look at Boucher’s portrait of her (in the Wallace Collection) without losing the impartiality of the historian in the infatuation of the man. Was she one of nature’s masterpieces—or just one of Boucher’s?

She was already thirty-eight when he painted her, and her fragile health was failing. He did not debase her with the superficial sensuality of his rosy nudes. Instead he pictured the classic features of her face, the grace of her figure, the artistry of her dress, the smooth delicacy of her hands, the “pompadour” of her light-brown hair. Perhaps he enhanced these charms by his imagination and skill, but even he did not transmit her gay laughter and gentle spirit, much less her subtle and penetrating intelligence, her quiet force of character, the tenacity of her sometimes ruthless will.

She had been beautiful almost from her birth. But she had not chosen her parents well, and she had to struggle throughout her life against aristocratic scorn of her middle-class origin. Her father was a provision merchant, François Poisson, who could never live down his name—Mr. Fish. Accused of malversation, he was sentenced to be hanged; he fled to Hamburg, maneuvered a pardon, and returned to Paris (1741). The mother, a daughter of the entrepreneur des provisions des Invalides, engaged in gallantries while her husband languished in Hamburg; she enjoyed a long liaison with a rich farmer general, Charles François Lenormant de Tournehem, who paid for the education of the pretty girl born to Mme. Poisson in 1721.

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson had the best available tutors—Jélyotte, the great baritone, for singing, Crébillon père for elocution; in time she rivaled the stars of the stage in singing, dancing, and acting; “her voice in itself was a seduction.”110 She learned to draw and engrave, and played the harpsichord well enough to win the enthusiastic praise of Mme. de Mailly. When Jeanne was nine an old woman (whom she later rewarded for prescience) predicted that she would someday be “a mistress to the King.”111 At fifteen her beauty and accomplishments were such that her mother called her “un morceau de roi” a morsel for a king, and thought it would be a pity not to make her a queen.112 But the royal tidbit had already begun to cough blood.

When she was twenty M. de Tournehem persuaded her to marry his nephew, Charles Guillaume Lenormant d’Étioles, son of the treasurer of the mint. The husband fell in love with his wife, and displayed her proudly in the salons. At Mme. de Tencin’s she met Montesquieu, Fontenelle, Duclos, Marivaux, and added the art of conversation to her other charms. Soon she herself was entertaining, with Fontenelle, Montesquieu, and Voltaire on her line. She was happy, bore two children, and vowed that “no one in the world but the King himself would make her unfaithful to her husband.”113 What foresight!

Her mother thought that the exception could be arranged. She saw to it that Jeanne should go riding in a handsome phaeton in the Sénart woods, where Louis hunted. Repeatedly he saw her unforgettable face. The royal valets were bribed to praise her beauty to the King. On February 28, 1745, she attended a masked ball given in the Hôtel de Ville for the marriage of the Dauphin. She spoke to the King; he asked her to remove her mask for a moment; she did, and danced away. In April he saw her at a comedy played by an Italian troupe at Versailles. A few days later he sent her an invitation to supper. “Amuse him,” her mother advised. Jeanne amused Louis with surrender. He offered her an apartment at Versailles; she accepted. M. de Tournehem urged the husband to take the matter philosophically: “Do not incur ridicule by growing angry like a bourgeois, or by making a scene.”114 The King made M. d’Étioles a farmer general; he resigned himself to be a tax collector. The mother rejoiced in her daughter’s elevation, and died. In September Jeanne received a handsome property, became the Marquise de Pompadour, and was presented as such to the court and the Queen, whom she mollified with a modest confusion. The Queen forgave her as a necessary evil, and invited her to dinner. The Dauphin, however, called her “Madame Whore.” The court resented the intrusion of a bourgeoise into the King’s bed and purse, and did not fail to notice her occasional relapses into middle-class words and ways. Paris enjoyed epigrams and lampoons about “the King’s grisette.” She suffered her unpopularity in silence until she could consolidate her victory.

Seeing in Louis a god of boredom, to whom, having everything, everything had lost its savor, she made herself the genius of entertainment. She diverted him with dances, comedies, concerts, operas, supper parties, excursions, hunts; and in the intervals she delighted him with her vivacity, her intelligent conversation, and her wit. She set up the “Théâtre des Petits Appartements” at Versailles, and persuaded the court, as in the days of Louis XIV, to take parts on the stage; she herself acted in Molière’s comedies, and so well that the King pronounced her “the most charming woman in France.”115 Soon the nobles competed for roles; the dour Dauphin himself accepted a part opposite “Madame Whore,” and condescended to be courteous to her in the world of make-believe. When the King fell into religious moods she soothed him with religious music, which she sang so entrancingly that he forgot his fear of hell. He became dependent upon her for his interest in life; he ate with her, played, danced, drove, hunted with her, spent nearly every night with her. Within a few years she was physically exhausted.

The court complained that she distracted the King from his duties as a ruler, and that she was a heavy burden on the revenues. She adorned her figure with the most costly costumes and gems. Her boudoir sparkled with toiletware of crystal, silver, and gold. Her rooms were embellished with lacquered or satinwood or buhlwork furniture, and the choicest potteries of Dresden, Sèvres, China, and Japan; they were lighted with stately chandeliers of silver and glass, which were reflected in great mirrors on the walls; the ceilings were painted by Boucher and Vanloo with voluptuous goddesses of love. Feeling imprisoned even amid this luxury, she drew immense sums from the King or the treasury to build or furnish palaces, whose lavish equipment and extensive gardens she excused as required for entertaining majesty. She had an estate and the Maison Crécy at Dreux; she raised the sumptuous Château de Bellevue on the banks of the Seine between Sèvres and Meudon; she put up pretty “hermitages” in the woods of Versailles, Fontainebleau, and Compiègne. She took over the Hôtel de Pontchartrain as her Paris residence, and then moved to the palace of the Comte d’Évreux in the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré. Altogether the charming lady seems to have spent 36,327,268 livres,116 part of which took the form of art that remained in the possession of France. Her household expenses ran to 33,000 livres per year.117 France condemned her as costing more than a war.

She gathered power as well as wealth. She became the main channel through which appointments, pensions, pardons, and other blessings flowed from the King. She secured gifts, titles, sinecures for her relatives. For her little daughter, Alexandrine, whom she called “Fanfan,” she judged nothing too good; she dreamed of marrying her to a son of Louis XV by Mme. de Vintimille; but Fanfan died at nine, breaking Pompadour’s heart. Her brother Abel, handsome and well-mannered, earned his own favor with the King, who called him petit-frère, brother-in-law, and often invited him to supper. Pompadour made him Marquis de Marigny, and appointed him directeur général des bâtiments—commissioner of buildings. He performed his functions with such industry and competence that nearly everyone was pleased. Pompadour offered to make him a duke; he refused.

Partly through him, but much more in her own person, she had a pervasive influence upon French—even European—art. She failed in her efforts to be an artist herself, but she loved art with a sincere devotion, and everything that she touched took on beauty. The minor arts smiled bewitchingly under her encouragement. She convinced Louis XV that France could make her own porcelain, instead of importing it from China and Dresden at a cost of 500,000 livres per year. She persevered until the government undertook to finance the porcelain works at Sèvres. Furniture, dinner services, clocks, fans, couches, vases, bottles, boxes, cameos, mirrors, assumed a fragile loveliness to meet her refined and exacting taste; she became the Queen of Rococo.118 Much of her extravagant expenditure went to support painters, sculptors, engravers, cabinetmakers, and architects. She gave commissions to Boucher, Oudry, La Tour, and a hundred other artists. She inspired Vanloo and Chardin to paint scenes of common life, ending the hackneyed repetition of subjects from ancient or medieval legend or history. She bore with smiling tolerance the grumblings and insolence of La Tour when he came to paint her portrait. Her name was given to fans, hairdos, dresses, dishes, sofas, beds, chairs, ribbons, and the “Pompadour rose” of her favored porcelain. Now, rather than under Louis XIV, the influence of France upon European civilization reached its highest point.

She was probably the most cultured woman of her time. She had a library of 3,500 volumes, 738 of them on history, 215 on philosophy, many on art, some on politics or law, several romances of love. Apparently, besides amusing the King, fending off her enemies, and helping to govern France, she found time to read good books, for she herself wrote excellent French, in letters rich in substance as well as charm. She begged her lover to rival his great-grandfather in the patronage of literature, but his piety and parsimony held him back. When she tried to shame him by noting that Frederick the Great had given d’Alembert a pension of twelve hundred livres, he answered, “There are so many more beaux-esprits… here than in Prussia, I should be forced to have a very large dinner table to assemble them all”; and he began to count them on his fingers—“Maupertuis, Fontenelle, Lamotte, Voltaire, Fréron, Piron, Destouches, Montesquieu, Cardinal de Polignac.” People around him added, “D’Alembert, Clairaut, Crébillon fils,Prévost …” “Well,” sighed the King, “for twenty-five years all that might have been dining or supping with me!”119

So Pompadour took his place as patron. She brought Voltaire to court, gave him commissions, tried to protect him from his faux-pas. She helped Montesquieu, Marmontel, Duclos, Buffon, Rousseau; she eased Voltaire and Duclos into the French Academy. When she heard that Crébillon père was living in poverty she secured a pension for him, gave him an apartment in the Louvre, supported a revival of his Catilina, and had the royal printing office issue an elegant edition of the old man’s plays. She chose as her personal physician François Quesnay, protagonist of the physiocrats, and assigned him a suite of rooms directly under her own at Versailles. There she entertained Diderot, d’Alembert, Duclos, Hélvetius, Turgot, and others whose ideas would have startled the King; and (Marmontel reports) “not being able to invite that group of philosophers to her salon, she would come down herself to see them at table and talk with them.”120

Naturally the clergy, and the party of the dévots at court, led by the Dauphin, looked with shocked consternation at this coddling of infidels. Moreover, Pompadour was known to favor the taxation of ecclesiastical property, even its secularization, if this should prove the only escape from the bankruptcy of the state.121 The Jesuits advised the King’s confessor to refuse him the sacraments so long as he kept this dangerous mistress.122 The King’s children defended the clergy, and the eldest daughter, Henriette, whom he loved best, used her influence to divorce him from Pompadour. Every Easter was a crisis for the lovers. In 1751 Louis expressed a longing for the Eucharist. In an effort to calm him and appease his confessor, Father Pérusseau, the Marquise took to religious observances, went daily to Mass, prayed with high visibility, and assured the confessor that her relations with the King were now platonically pure. Unconvinced, the priest demanded her departure from the court as a condition precedent to the King’s admission to the Sacrament. Pérusseau died, but his successor, Père Desmarets, was equally firm. She stood her ground, but continued her outward piety. She never forgave the Jesuits for not taking her “conversion” seriously; perhaps her resentment played a minor part in their expulsion from France in 1762.

She was probably telling the truth in claiming that she no longer had sexual relations with Louis; d’Argenson, one of her enemies, confirmed this.123 She had already confided to her intimates her increasing difficulty in rising to the royal heats;124 and she confessed that on one occasion her lack of enthusiasm had cooled the King into an angry impotence.125 She drugged herself with love philters,126 with little result but damage to her health. Her foes at court became aware of the situation, and renewed their plots to supplant her. In 1753 d’Argenson arranged to have the voluptuous Mme. de Choiseul-Romanet slip into the King’s arms, but she demanded rewards that were thought incommensurate with her sacrifice, and Pompadour was soon able to have her dismissed. It was now that the harassed maîtresse-en-titre resigned herself to the abomination of the Parc aux Cerfs.

In this “Stag Park,” at the farther end of Versailles, a small lodging was equipped to house one or two young women, with their attendants, until such time as Louis received them in his private apartments or came to their cottage, usually in the guise of a Polish count. Gossip said that the girls were many; legend added that some were only nine or ten years old. Apparently there were never more than two at a time,127 but a succession of them was brought and trained to give the King the droit du seigneur. When one of them became pregnant she received from 10,000 to 100,000 livres to help her find a husband in the provinces, and the children so born were given a pension of some 11,000 livres per year. Mme. de Pompadour knew of this incredible seraglio, and held her peace. Unwilling to be displaced by some noble mistress who would doubtless exile her from the court, perhaps from Paris, she preferred that the King’s depraved tastes should be sated by young women of lower estate and moderate ambitions; and in this she herself sank to her lowest estate. “It is his heart that I grudge,” she told Mme. du Hausset, “and all these young women, who have no education, will not rob me of that.”128

The court was not audibly shocked by the new arrangements; several courtiers themselves maintained cottages for their mistresses in that same Parc aux Cerfs.129 But Pompadour’s enemies presumed that her reign had now come to an end. They were mistaken; the King remained her devoted friend long after she had ceased to be his concubine. In 1752 he had officially accorded her the status of duchess. In 1756, over the Queen’s protests, he gave her the high post of dame du palais de la reine. She attended the Queen, assisted her at dinner, accompanied her to Mass. As her new position required her residence at court, the Jesuits withdrew their demand for her expulsion; the excommunication under which she had long lived was annulled, and she was admitted to the sacraments. The King’s daughters, so long hostile to her, came to visit her at Choisy.

Louis spent hours with her almost every day, still taking pleasure in the intelligence of her conversation, and the charm of her unfailing grace. He continued to respect, and often to follow, her advice on appointments, domestic measures, even foreign policy. She gave orders to ministers, received ambassadors, chose generals. Sometimes she spoke of the King and herself as sharing the government: “nous” (we); “nous verrons” (we shall see). Place seekers crowded her anteroom; she received them courteously, and could say no graciously. Her foes admitted the surprising extent of her political knowledge, the skill of her diplomatic address, the frequent justice of her views.130 She had long since pointed to the incompetence of French generals as a source of France’s military decline; in 1750 she proposed to Louis the establishment of an École Militaire, where the sons of officers slain or impoverished in the service of the state should receive instruction in the art and science of war. The King agreed, but was slow in providing funds; Pompadour transferred to the enterprise her own income for one year, and raised additional money through a lottery and a tax on playing cards; at last (1758) the school was opened, as an adjunct to the Hôtel des Invalides.

Now this bewitching minister without portfolio advised a daring revision of foreign policy for France. Probably the initiative in this fateful “reversal of alliances” was taken by Count von Kaunitz, the Austrian ambassador at Paris; it was furthered by the reluctant condescension of the pious Empress Maria Theresa, who addressed Pompadour as “ma bonne amie” and “ma cousine” and by Frederick the Great’s insulting reference to the Marquise as “Cotillon Quatre” Petticoat Four, at the French court. Mme. de Châteauroux and the Marquis d’Argenson had directed foreign policy toward friendship with Prussia. Kaunitz and Pompadour pointed out that the new Prussia—strengthened by victory in the War of the Austrian Succession, armed with 150,000 trained soldiers, and led by an able, ambitious, and unscrupulous general and king who had twice betrayed France by signing a separate peace—would soon be a greater danger than Austria, which had now lost Silesia, and could no longer expect support from a Spain under Bourbon rule; the old Hapsburg encirclement of France was gone. The argument took on sharper point when (January 16, 1756) Prussia signed an alliance with England—France’s historic enemy. The French Council of State replied by signing an alliance with Austria (May 1). The Marquise de Pompadour, now again spitting blood, still but thirty-five years old, and with but eight years of life left in her, had played her part in setting the stage for the Seven Years’ War.

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