December 30, 1721 – Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (AKA: Madame de Pompadour, and Jeanne-Antoinette Le Normant d’Etiolles)
“Après nous, le déluge.“
Madame de Pompadour became the mistress of French King Louis XV in the mid-1700s. She had a huge influence on European culture during this era, especially in the decorative arts, architecture and theatre.
Her mother was the famed beauty Madeleine de La Motte; her father, François Poisson, was a banker who fled France a few years after her birth to avoid being executed for financial fraud. He later returned to Paris, but during his absence, tax collector Charles Le Normant de Tournehem, paid for young Jeanne-Antoinette’s education, and he was assumed to be her real father.
She was well-educated, first in a convent run by the Ursuline sisters, then with best private tutors in singing and speaking. She later studied at the Club de l’Entresol, an exclusively male political think-tank.
When Jeanne-Antoinette turned 19 years old, Tournehem married her off to his nephew, giving them an opulent estate as the wedding gift. She bore him two children, a son who died in infancy, and a daughter nicknamed “Fanfan”.
Jeanne-Antoinette’s beauty, intelligence and passion for the arts led her to start a series of salons that attracted a fascinating circle of artists, philosophers and writers, including François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), known by his nom de plume Voltaire, a great writer of the French Enlightenment, and a historian and philosopher famous for his wit, his criticism of Christianity (especially the Roman Catholic Church), and his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.
Louis XV languished in the shadow of his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, the “Sun King”. Louis XV was rather fond of his Polish queen, Marie Leszczyńska; they had 10 children together. His reign of almost 59 years (from 1715 to 1774) was the second longest in the history of France, exceeded only by Louis XIV, who had ruled for 72 years (from 1643 to 1715). He was succeeded in 1774 by his grandson Louis XVI, who was executed by guillotine during the French Revolution.
Louis XV had been through several mistresses by the time they met at the ball, but “Madame de Pompadour”, a title that Jeanne-Antoinette was given, along with an estate, became his number one squeeze. Her title came with apartments beneath the king’s own, as well as an annual allowance.
Louis XV owned one of the first modern elevators. He came into possession of “The Flying Chair”, a device where he would sit on a throne and be pulled by several men into the next story of Versailles, a discreet means to visit Madame de Pompadour without having to take the stairs.
Madame de Pompadour proved to be a particularly talented seducer, actor and singer. She dazzled Louis XV with theatre productions that she wrote, produced and starred in. She also adored Louis XV. Even after their sexual heat had ebbed, she continued to be his best friend; a bestie with unprecedented political influence. He had his “Parc-aux-Cerfs” or “Stag Park” for his other playthings. Her only involvement was accepting Louis’s park, stating:
“It is his heart I want! All these little girls with no education will not take it from me. I would not be so calm if I saw some pretty woman of the court or the capital trying to conquer it.”
The king was happy with this arrangement, and in that end, that’s what mattered.
So devoted was Louis XV to Madame de Pompadour, he became a stepfather to Fanfan, rushing doctors to her side when she fell ill. She died before turning 10. Madame de Pompadour never recovered from the loss. Her maid reported that she lived on a diet of “vanilla, truffles and celery”.
Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour both had passions for architecture and of animals. Their menagerie included monkeys, birds, her little dog and his white Angora cat. Even after the king lost his hard-on for her, Madame de Pompadour was still engaging Louis XV’s passions in other subjects. She had her brother appointed Royal Director of Buildings and, together, the trio planned and built chateaux, pavilions and palaces, including the Petit Trianon in Versailles.
Each new construction included extravagant details by France’s best builders and designers. Madame de Pompadour did a go-fund-me for the Sèvres porcelain factory and used their Rococo style in home décor. A deep pink popular in this style was known as “Pompadour Pink”. She was involved in everything from designing the Place de la Concorde in Paris, to court affairs and foreign policy. Careers rose and fell with her favor and she maintained her lofty position, despite the considerable amount of enemies she gained at court.
Madame de Pompadour also became a patron to men of science and letters, encouraging the king to hire Voltaire as the court historiographer, and championing the first French encyclopedia. Her personal library had more than 3,500 volumes.
After several miscarriages and a painful struggle with tuberculosis, Madame de Pompadour was taken, gone on Easter Day in 1764, at the Palace of Versailles. She was buried beside her daughter in Place Vendome. Although the king deeply grieved, court protocol forbade him from attending her funeral; she was born to the middle-class and therefore too low-ranking to deserve a royal funeral attendance.
Barely two months after her death, Louis’ passion for the ladies brought him the last of his mistresses, Jean Bécu, aka Madame du Barry. She was then the mistress to a nobleman. Immediately “taking” her for himself, he appointed this illegitimate daughter of a seamstress as his new lover, which scandalized the court. Louis was 57 at the time; Madame du Barry was 24.
Madame de Pompadour was one of the three most powerful women of the 18th century, along with Catherine the Great of Russia (Catherine II) and Maria Theresa of Austria. She spent a lot of France’s money on her unique, beautiful surroundings. Her enemies blamed her for France’s failure in the Seven Years’ War (a global war fought between 1756 and 1763) and the empire’s economic collapse. With her advice, Louis managed to lose most of France’s colonies in the New World to England. This huge loss of prestige and imperial income laid the groundwork for the French Revolution.
But today we like her again. She was no Melanija Knavs; Madame de Pompadour possessed sharp wit and keen intelligence. A British regiment is known as “The Pompadours” for wearing a shade of purple that is said to have been her favorite.
Madame de Pompadour has been depicted many times in film and television, beginning with Paulette Duval opposite Rudolph Valentino in Monsieur Beaucaire (1924). There is biopic, Madame Pompadour (1927), where she is played by Dorothy Gish and by Doris Kenyon in Voltaire (1933), and at least a dozen more, including Bojana Novakovic in Casanova (2015). Named for her are flowers, kitten heels, a hairstyle, and the starship SS Madame de Pompadour, a vessel on Dr. Who.
Madame de Pompadour was skilled in an art which the majority of human beings thoroughly despise because it is unprofitable and ephemeral: The Art of Living.