Skip to main content

Madame de Pompadour: Not Your Ordinary Maîtresse-en-Titre

Madame de Pompadour at her Dressing Table, François Boucher (1758)
I recently taught the Age of Enlightenment, and spent some time discussing the extraordinary Madame de Pompadour. As I was regaling a series of interesting tales about the marquise to my eager students, I thought, "This would make for an excellent blog!" Donc...voilà!

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson was born into a middle class family on 29 December 1721. The story goes that as a nine-year-old girl, the future Marquise de Pompadour and her mother visited a fortune teller who predicted that Jeanne would be the maîtresse-en-titre, or official mistress, of the king. From that point on, her mother groomed her to be a king's mistress, even dubbing her daughter Reinette (little queen). Reinette was well-educated, beautiful, a talented singer and performer, and refined - all of which made her the perfect candidate for mistress.
Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, François Boucher (1756)
In 1741, Reinette married Charles Guillaume Le Normant d'Étiole, the nephew of her guardian (note: her husband may also have been her cousin as her guardian, Msr. de Tournehem was suspected to be her actual father. This would also explain why he paid for Reinette's fine education and upbringing). Msr. d'Étiole was madly in love with his wife and together they had one daughter, Alexandrine, in 1744.
Portrait of Charles Guillaume Le Normant d'Étioles, Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (ca. 1760)
It was only four years into their marriage that Reinette met and captured the interest of King Louis XV. When her husband was away on business, she packed her bags for Versailles. When her husband came home and heard this news, he fainted. When he came to, he did what most other husbands would do and flew into a rage - so much so that his uncle removed all weapons from the home as he feared Charles would kill himself. (Herman, 89)
Portrait of Louis XV of France,  Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1748)
Reinette used her husband's jealousy to her advantage. She convinced Louis XV that the only way she would be safe from her insanely jealous husband was if Louis made her his maîtresse-en-titre. In order to be his official mistress, she had to be ennobled, Louis bestowed upon the twenty-four year old the title of marquise de Pompadour. Now, she had to be presented at court.

Part of this ceremony involved the marquise being formally presented to the queen while the court watched. Can you even imagine that scenario?! "Hello. I am the one shagging your husband. Nice to meet you." Talk about wonder the court wanted a front row seat to that event.
Portrait of Marie Leszczynska, Queen of France, Alexis Simon Belle (1730)
Despite this incredibly bizarre situation by 21st century standards, Reinette won over the queen. Queen Marie offered Reinette kind words to which she humbly replied, "I have a profound desire to please you, Madame." (Herman, 71). The two went on to chat a couple of minutes and parted amicably. Reinette would later become a lady in waiting to the queen and always encouraged Louis to be kind to his wife.

Portrait of Alexandrine Le Normant d'Étioles Playing with a Goldfinch, François Boucher (ca.1752)
In 1754, tragedy struck. Reinette's daughter Alexandrine, nicknamed "Fanfan," was being educated at a convent in Paris, courtesy of her pseudo-step-father, the king. Shortly before her tenth birthday, Fanfan became seriously ill. Word of her dire condition reached Versailles and Louis immediately dispatched his doctors, but when they arrived, it was too late. Fanfan had died of peritonitis. Reinette was devastated by the loss of her daughter, but fate dealt her another cruel blow. Her father, François Poisson, who had doted on his granddaughter died less than two weeks after Fanfan's death - presumably of a broken heart. It is said that Reinette herself was never the same again - how could she be?

Although his mistress, she did not remain such in the sexual sense for long. Multiple sources note that she was "frigid" and did not enjoy sex. Most historians attribute this to a medical issue that made intercourse painful. This posed a serious problem for Reinette as there were a bevy of young, pretty women who were waiting to take her place. Due to her ongoing health issues, political stressors, and the loss of her loved ones, Reinette's good looks were fading. But Reinette learned early on that sex and beauty would only take her so far. If she wanted to keep her position as maîtresse-en-titre, she would have to make herself invaluable to Louis.
Madame de Pompadour Standing at Her Dressing Table, François Boucher (ca. 1750)
It did not take long for Reinette to become indispensable to Louis. She devoted herself completely to him. She studied his moods and knew how to read him. She intervened on his behalf and he appreciated not having to deal with certain matters. He valued her opinions and that she took care of him. This strategy worked well because as the more the sexual nature of their relationship fizzled, the more her political power increased.

Like his great-grandfather Louis XIV, Louis XV had an insatiable sexual appetite. In order to ensure that no scheming tart would steal Louis' affections, Reinette had to find a way to keep him satisfied. She set up the infamous parc aux cerfs ("stag park") in a remote corner of Versailles. She would have young street urchins brought in and cleaned up. They would be paid to have sex with Louis, then they would be sent on their way. So, to avoid sleeping with the king yet maintain her power and privilege, his mistress established a brothel with a rotating stock of teenage prostitutes to keep him happy so that he would not take on another steady mistress. Yes, you read that correctly.

Not everyone appreciated Reinette's meddling in state affairs. Frederick the Great of Prussia loathed the fact that Louis XV allowed Reinette to be involved in any political matters. What made him such an angry man? Well, that she was low-born for starters. But mostly because she was female and Frederick felt strongly about keeping women out of politics.
Portrait of Frederick the Great of Prussia, Anton Graff (1781)
To emphasize his disdain for Reinette, and women in politics in general, he named three of his female hunting dogs (aka "bitches") after his female contemporaries: Madame de Pompadour, Empress Maria-Theresa (Austria) and Empress Elisabeth (Russia). Nicknamed Petticoats I, II, and III, it pleased him to snap his fingers and have these bitches come running and to beat them when they were naughty (Herman, 165).

Of course word of this made its way back to the French, Austrian, and Russian courts. Perhaps Frederick was a misogynist, or maybe because he had no real experience with women (most historians have concluded he was gay) that he "went there." Either way, Frederick clearly was unfamiliar with the saying, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Naturally, these women now had a common enemy and they were willing to toss out centuries old rivalries to ban together in what was known as The Diplomatic Revolution of 1756.
Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, Maurice-Quentin Delatour
The Diplomatic Revolution saw a shift in European alliances, namely that of France dumping Prussia for Austria. One interesting tidbit about this change is that as a symbol of good faith and friendship (to solidify the agreement) the dauphin of France was betrothed to a princess of Austria...the doomed future Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. This alliance came in quite handy as The Seven Years War began in 1756.

The Seven Years War (known as the French and Indian War to most Americans) would last (you guessed it) seven years (and in case you're not up to counting on your fingers, that means it ended in 1763) and devastated France. Reinette appointed generals based on friendship rather than merit, which proved rather disastrous. It was so bad that she actually received death threats - some of which appeared on her mantel. In the end, France's coffers were depleted and so taxes raised, had lost nearly 200,000 men, and they had lost the majority of their colonial holdings in the Americas. Ouch.
After the Seven Years War debacle, Reinette fell out of favor with the people of France as they blamed her, not Louis, for the loss. This troubled her deeply. Worn from the stress and grief, Reinette died 15 April 1764. Parisians did not mourn the loss of Madame de Pompadour. Instead, they gave her this epitaph: "Here lies one who was twenty years a virgin, seven years a whore, and eight years a pimp." (Herman, 174).

Today Madame de Pompadour lives on not only in Boucher's timeless portraits, but in the ongoing production of porcelain at the Sèvres factory,  not to mention the rococo décor that adorns Versailles.
Sèvres Porcelain Elephant Vases commissioned by Mme. de Pompadour and painted by Charles Nicolas Dodin (ca. 1760)
She has also captured the imagination of a generation of Whovians (Doctor Who fans) in the beloved episode The Girl in the Fireplace where Doctor #10 gushes, "I just snogged Madame de Pompadour!"
Mme de Pompadour and the Doctor in Doctor Who's The Girl in the Fireplace (BBC)
Despite her poor choices for France, I cannot help but admire her. She was the first maîtresse-en-titre to come from the middle class, and she pretty much ran France in a time when women were considered inferior and incapable of doing "man's work." (And if we're being honest, in this case, she was equally as incompetent as any king or prime minister despite his maleness). There is also no doubt in my mind that she genuinely loved Louis, and he loved her. He mourned death and would not take on another maîtresse-en-titre (the infamous Madame du Barry) for four years.

She used her beauty and sexuality to capture the king's interest, but it was her intelligence, talent, and drive that took her from bourgeoisie "nobody" to a duchess that was, for all intents and purposes, the unofficial prime minister of France.
Herman, Eleanor. Sex With Kings: Five Hundred Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge. New York: Harper, 2004.
All Boucher portraits of Mme. de Pompadour are from Olga's Gallery at
Portraits of Charles and Alexandrine Le Normant d'Étioles, Louis XV, Marie Leszczynska, Frederick the Great, and the Sèvres porcelain vases are from Wikimedia Commons
The Delatour portrait was taken from the Louvre's website
The Girl in the Fireplace (Doctor Who) photo belongs to the BBC


Popular posts from this blog

Les Femmes Tondues

It is no great secret that some French collaborated during the Nazi Occupation of France. Some did it for less than admirable reasons, such as political gain, anti-Semitism, or true fascist ideology. Other people were frightened and saw no end to the Occupation, while some were motivated simply by the desire to survive. Many women who collaborated fall into the latter category. Food, clothes, and fuel (among other items) were scarce during the Occupation. Nearly everything needed to sustain life was rationed, and much of France's food and other necessary commodities were shipped to Germany. One way to ensure warmth and a full belly was by making nice with a German soldier. 
In a desperate attempt to survive, some French women took on German soldiers as lovers. It return, the soldier ensured the woman's basic needs were met. Not all women had affairs for material gain - some simply slept with German soldiers because they were lonely. Either way, these sexual liaisons produced man…

La Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (The Vel d’Hiv Round Up)

Photo Source: 1st Art Gallery
Every Holocaust survivor – every ghost of those who did not survive - has a story to tell. Each story is unique, yet equally tragic. Some we have heard more than once, while others lay silent, buried in the dusty pages of a nation’s shame…
Occupation and Anti-Semitism 14 June 1942 marked the two-year anniversary of the Nazi occupation of Paris. By this point, many French had joined the Résistance, while others felt it in their best interest to collaborate with the Nazi regime. Many Jews had fled France, and those who remained behind lived in chronic fear. The Jewish Decrees (France's version of the Nuremberg Laws) saw the Jews of Paris stripped of their livelihoods, property, and rights. As in other occupied areas of Europe, the French Jews were required to wear the yellow stars of David. Inscribed with a single word in the center, Juif (Jew), the badges had to be sewn neatly on the left side of the chest. Failure to do so could land a person in jail – o…

A Little Zazou ~ Pour Vous

Sorry Disney fans, but I am not talking about Simba's little feathered hornbill friend in the Lion King (that's spelled Zazu anyway). No, I am talking about the Zazou Jazz Era that began in Interwar Paris and les zazous who, in their own way, defied Vichy and the Nazis when they occupied France during the Second World War. 
Thanks to my ADD that always manages to kick in when I am supposed to be doing serious research, I stumbled upon the concept of zazou when I was - you guessed it - researching for my Master's thesis on the French Resistance last year. 
While I was disappointed that I could not use this newfound knowledge in my thesis, all was not lost. This detour introduced me not only to the fascinating history of les zazous, but some really remarkable Manouche Jazz (a.k.a. Gypsy Swing Jazz) that I knew would some day make a great blog. Lucky you, mes chers, that day is today!
What the Heck IS Zazou? Zazou describes a style of jazz as well as a group of people. Les zazous