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madame de pompadour, marquise de pompadour

Happy Birthday, Madame de Pompadour, Arts Patron and Mistress of Louis XV

December 29, 2009
by Liz Colville
The Marquise de Pompadour, one of the most powerful women of 18th-century France, was the mistress of King Louis XV of France and an influential patron of the arts.

Madame de Pompadour's Early Days

The Marquise de Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson on December 29, 1721. According to Nancy Mitford’s biography of Pompadour, her father was François Poisson, who worked for the Pâris brothers, financiers who “ran the economy of France.” However, an exhibit at London’s National Gallery suggests that her real father may have been “one of her mother’s many lovers. It would certainly explain why a tax collector called Charles Le Normant de Tournehem paid for her education.”

She was “groomed for success” with a convent education and voice and elocution lessons “from stars of the Parisian opera and theater.” Madame de Pompadour’s benefactor, Tournehem, then arranged for her marriage to his well-off nephew, Charles-Guillaume Le Normant d’Étioles, and she moved with him to a chateau on the outskirts of Paris. She gave birth to a daughter, Alexandrine, and began holding a salon for local intellectuals.
She met King Louis XV at a ball in 1745; within weeks was living in an apartment at the palace of Versailles, having separated from her husband and sent her daughter away to be educated. The king then granted her the title of Marquise de Pompadour and purchased her a coat of arms.

De Pompadour's Notable Accomplishments

A talented singer, actress and clavichord player, the Marquise was able to entertain the “easily bored” king, building a theater at Versailles where she staged plays “just for him,” according to Visit Voltaire, a site about the home of Voltaire. She directed and starred in the plays and had well-known artists paint the scenery and design the costumes.

Voltaire attended Madame de Pompadour’s salons and called her “well brought up, amiable, good, charming and talented.” She later convinced the king, who was dismissive of writers and other intellectuals, to hire Voltaire as the royal historiographer.

The marquise and the king shared many interests, including art, architecture and pets. Along with the king, the marquise commissioned many buildings at Versailles and patronized artisans to such a degree that several of them became household names, such as Sèvres porcelain. Consequently, “the period of Madame de Pompadour's influence is considered the very height of refined taste in France.”

The Marquise served as the “arbiter of fashion” at Versailles, whose influence prevailed over the whole of France, which was prosperous and peaceful during Louis XV’s reign. This influence then spread to the rest of Europe, according to the Web site of the Château de Versailles.

The Rest of the Story

As she aged, Madame de Pompadour’s health became poor, and eventually her romance with the king gave way to friendship. While she continued to promote the arts, commissioning works with herself as the subject, her penchant for the flamboyant rococo style gave way to an appreciation of classical architecture, leading to redecoration at Versailles and elsewhere. She had also several portraits of herself painted.

As a patron of the arts, the Marquise made a lasting impression, being the complete opposite of King Louis XV’s wife, Queen Marie Leszczyńska, who after giving birth to 10 children, cared little about satisfying her husband or promoting his interests. By contrast, Madame de Pompadour, who always demonstrated respect for the queen, was full of vivacity and passion. She had, as biographer Nancy Mitford put it, “all the gifts of a great amateur, perfect taste, tireless energy in searching for perfection, and an intuitive understanding of the creative temperament, which enabled her to make an artist do better than his best.”

Later in her life, she had increasing influence over the king’s political decisions, installing her “protégé,” the duc de Choiseul, as a minister in charge of an alliance between France and Austria against the German principalities; according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, this “unpopular” agreement led to the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). She descended into “melancholy” during the war, and died April 15, 1764, allegedly of lung cancer, at the age of 43.

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