From Jeanne to Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour
Photo: François Boucher

“Your daughter will one day win the heart of a king,” said fortune-teller Madame Lebon.

“My little Jeanne?” replied Madame Poisson in a whisper, her eyes wide with wonderment.

“There can be no doubt,” Madame Lebon replied significantly, glancing at her cards on the table; they never lied.

“My Jeanne is destined for greatness!” the proud mother exclaimed, rising to her full height and making a hasty retreat.

Upon returning to her house, Madame Poisson began to plan the education her daughter should receive in order to realize Madame Lebon’s prophecy. This would include lessons in dancing, singing, painting, engraving, reading, etc. In other words, all the arts men find attractive when performed by a woman would be inculcated in her little Jeanne.

“She may never be a queen of France,” Madame Poisson allowed, “But I can help her to become the queen of Versailles!”

Thenceforth, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson learnt how to dance with grace, sing in tune, play delicate instruments, recite poetry and drama from memory, and master several other artifices recommended in the book of feminal seduction. Curiously, her expensive education was not paid for by Monsieur Poisson, whom had fled the country after a scandal of debts, but by her legal guardian, chief tax collector Le Normant de Tournehem; whom was rumored to be Madame Poisson’s lover and perhaps little Jeanne’s biological father.

At the darling age of 19 winters, Monsieur de Tournehem suggested Jeanne Antoinette enter a marriage of convenience with his nephew, Charles Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles, whom he made sole heir to his estates. Thus becoming Madame d’Étiolles, possessing both wit and wealth, she was admitted into the most fashionable circles in Paris; whereupon she rose to prominence. Her significance was solidified when she arrived at the salon belonging to Madame Geoffrin of the rue Saint-Honoré, the grandest of grand salonnières, whose drawing rooms attracted the most singular individuals in Europe.

Following Madame Geoffrin’s example, the younger lady founded her own salon in Étiolles. And though her house was not addressed in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, whence all the principal families in Paris were established, the personages frequenting Madame d’Étiolles’ salon were of no less consequence; for, it should be noted, among the distinguished guests she entertained was the celebrated satirist, Voltaire; whose list of frequent correspondents included the King of Prussia and the Empress of Russia.

With the support of her friends, all of whom endorsed the idea she be presented to King Louis XV, Madame d’Étiolles received an invitation to attend a masked ball at the Palace of Versailles, February 1745.

“Have you a disguise ready, Jeanne?” Madame Poisson asked her beautiful daughter.

“I have made the necessary preparations, Mama,” replied Jeanne Antoinette, looking up from her work; “I shall go as Diana the Huntress.”

“Dianna?” Madame Poisson repeated with a questioning look.

“In reference to when he first saw me in the forest of Sénart, Mama,” Jeanne Antoinette explained; “wherein he complimented my riding skills, and afterwards sent venison to the estate.”

Madame Poisson smiled approvingly.

Meanwhile, Louis XV also looked forward to the ball; for the charms and beauty of Madame d’Étiolles was presently the talk of Versailles.

“She will be attending tomorrow night’s ball?” the King asked in a casual manner, so as not to seem too eager, since he was still mourning the death of his third royal mistress, Madame de Châteauroux.

“Certainly, your majesty,” replied Dominique Guillaume Lebel; the King’s valet de chambre and procurer of his mistresses.

“That is well,” the King returned, affecting nonchalance; though his eyes twinkled with carnal enthusiasm.

At the night of the ball, among the crested carriages entering the cour d’honneur and dropping its masked passengers at the palace doors, was the glazed carriage of Madame d’Étiolles. The lady within was all calm and prepared. She was told of the King’s disguise beforehand, and thus had planned how the evening would unfold. When it was her turn to descend from the carriage, she did so with the grace of a Russian ballerina, but with the confidence of Artemisia.

Meanwhile, inside, the celebration was afoot. The grand ballroom, Hall of Mirrors, was all resplendence; the ceiling dripped with crystals like stalactites hanging from the roof of a cave, and its candles interacted with the glass to cast the entire gallery a luxurious glow.

Personages of the greatest importance were in attendance; many congregated in the main hall to make conversation, competing for the position of cynosure by sounding more important than the other loud speaker; meanwhile there were those that remained still in the vestibule, not yet done with making their grand entry. All worthies were dressed in the finest disguises; Parisian couture at its most outré. Nevertheless, though the costumes concealed most of the persons’ profiles, their occupation and rank could be easily guessed; for the noblemen could not lessen his patronizing attitudes, nor the ladies humble her condescending glances.

As the celebratory noises grew increasingly festive, many a bottles of nebuchadnezzar were opened, and Madeira was drank like water. Dionysus himself could not have asked for more improvements.

Upon spotting the King among a crowd of attentive sycophants, Madame d’Étiolles, in her suggestive Diana the Huntress costume, glided across the dance floor in the direction of his majesty, who was dressed for the occasion as a yew tree. He did not fail to notice the approaching goddess.

“May I have the honor of this dance?” asked Louis XV, gallantly; trying to appear a simple noble man so as not to compromise his royal identity.

Her hazel eyes locked with his browns.

“If it pleases Monsieur,” replied Madame d’Étiolles, casting upon him a seductive glance that would weaken even the most tested of celibates.

And so they danced. Her with the sensual finesse of Salome performing the infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils,” and he, the sovereign of France, weak at the knees. Towards the middle of the night, the King was convinced that this lady was none other than the beautiful and charming Madame d’Étiolles.

“It must be her,” thought he, confidently; “She is disguised as Diana, goddess of the woods. We met in the forest. And I remember those eyes!”

So thinking, he could no longer restrain his passions, and thus unmasked himself before her and those around. There were some audible gasps and murmurs from the crowds. Madame d’Étiolles however, seemed every bit unperturbed.

“Will you consent to becoming my mistress?” Louis XV asked bluntly, staring at her with fiery desire.

Madame d’Étiolles affected hesitation.

“You decline?!” the King observed, crestfallen.

“No, your majesty,” the young lady replied calmly, “I am honored by the favor you bestow upon me. Only that,”

“What is it?” he interrupted, his hopes risen; “What would it take for you to accept my proposal?”

“A formal position,” replied Madame d’Étiolles, decidedly.

“What position?” the King returned, “You may have it!”

“Maîtresse-en-titre.”

The King, smitten with her beauty and impressed by the audacity, agreed to her terms on the spot. A few weeks later, Madame d’Étiolles was installed in an opulent boudoir worthy of belonging to the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, located on the third floor of Versailles, above the King’s apartments, and which was connected to each other by a private staircase.

Though Madame d’Étiolles had conquered the King’s heart, the lack of a nobiliary particle in her name delayed her coronation as royal mistress; for it was customary for such a position to be held by a daughter from a great family. Thus, to remedy this inconvenience, Louis XV purchased the marquisate of Pompadour in her name, and thence Madame d’Étiolles became Madame de Pompadour.

In September of that same year, Madame la Marquise de Pompadour, escorted by the King’s cousin, Princess de Conti, was formally presented at court before a crowd of proud aristocrats, whom despised the fact that a person of common origin should be granted such intimate access to the King.

“I would wish you good luck,” the Princess whispered to her friend with a knowing smile; “But I think your enemies will need it more than you.”

Indeed, Madame de Pompadour quickly adapted to the ways of Versailles, and within a short time, formed a circle of powerful allies.

“I ask myself, what would a Montmorency do?” she wrote in a letter to her friend, Voltaire; sharing the secret to her fast success.

Another important action she took, this one very public, and soon after her introduction to court, was to request an audience with Marie Leszczyńska, the Queen of France.

“Your grace,” said Madame de Pompadour in a reverent tone, after the Queen asked for the purpose of this unexpected visit; “I am here to swear to you my loyalty and respect.”

“You what?” the Queen replied, nonplussed; for all her husband’s previous mistresses had treated her with the utmost disrespect.

“You really mean it?” Marie Leszczyńska asked, after a pause, though she was no less astonished than before.

“I do your grace,” said Madame de Pompadour, obediently.

This act of goodwill from the royal mistress moved the gentle and pious Queen considerably; and thus, to reward her new friend, she granted the Marquise the most prestigious title a woman could attain at court, that of lady-in-waiting to the queen. Therefore solidifying Madame de Pompadour’s importance at Versailles; as royal mistress to the King, and, confidante and favorite of the Queen.

Sadly, Madame Poisson passed away in late December of the same year, barely a few months after Jeanne was installed in Versailles; and hence was not able to witness her daughter’s later successes. However, Madame Poisson never doubted the told prophecy by Madame Lebon, and was immensely proud of how far her daughter had risen thus far. In other words, Madame Poisson died content.

“Mama always believed in me,” Madame de Pompadour reflected, her eyes red from crying; “And she would want me to continue rising.”

As royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour saw to all the King’s amusements. She made it her business to provide the King with the necessary distractions and nightly entertainments that would lessen his cumulative stresses from ruling the country. All that could please his voracious appetites Madame de Pompadour provided, including: dinner parties, plays, music, and occasionally, other women.

Besides Madame de Pompadour, the King also had many other mistresses; but they were of lesser status and not formally presented at court. Given this arrangement, it is therefore not surprising that once in a while a particularly ambitious young mademoiselle would entertain (and act upon) the idea of usurping the first mistress. However, such schemes never played out successfully, for the allies of Madame de Pompadour were many and alert, and that unwitting girl would be speedily removed from Paris. As was the fate of Marie-Louise O’Murphy, who had been presented to the King by the trusted valet, Dominique Guillaume Lebel, and whose company the King enjoyed, but who fell victim to ambition; tried (and failed) to unseat the Marquise, and thus was married off to a provincial nobleman as a result.

“The marriage contract has been signed,” said Marquis de Lugeac with a confidential smile and a reassuring nod.

“The country air will be good for her health,” Madame de Pompadour replied simply; then turning to her lady’s maid, “Invite Monsieur Boucher to tea, I wish to see the progress of our latest collaboration.”

François Boucher was a master portraitist from Paris, whom Madame de Pompadour frequently commissioned to paint her likeness in both languorous and mythological poses; the portraits of which would be presented to the King, as a reminder to him of her unparalleled beauty.

Though still youthful and gorgeous at 29, her health was becoming increasingly fragile; she suffered miscarriages and was frequently indisposed. This reality put an end to her physical relationship with the King. But while Louis XV found new ladies to lay with him in bed, he pillow talked to none of them; instead, he would return to Madame de Pompadour and confide to her alone, for he trusted her more than anyone else, even more than his own royal advisers.

“She is more powerful now than when she warmed his bed,” a critic of the Marquise haughtily observed, to a fellow courtier who was of the same opinion.

“It is unprecedented!” the other exclaimed.

Indeed, the influence of Madame de Pompadour grew considerably greater as the King increasingly turned to her for advice on matters of domestic affairs and foreign policies; a fact which upset many bigwigs in the inner circle. As an informal but heard adviser, she was blamed when times got tough, and complimented during periods of prosperity.

Aside from taking part in political decision-making, Madame de Pompadour was also involved in the enlightenment movement. As patroness of the arts and sciences, she made important contributions with lasting impacts to French culture. Most noticeably, she played a principal role in the development, implementation, and popularization of the Rococo style; which was subsequently adopted by all of Europe, and in Russia particularly.

Moreover, she championed many men of letters, such as the aforementioned Voltaire; an essayist and advocate of Isaac Newton’s theories. In fact, Madame de Pompadour’s active support for the publication of the Encyclopédie by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, which at the time was strongly opposed by the powerful archbishop of Paris, Christophe de Beaumont, who demanded its contents be suppressed, was crucial to it getting printed and distributed to the general public.

“The brilliant theories and ideas of your late friend, Madame la Marquise du Châtelet, lives on in the Encyclopédie,” Madame de Pompadour wrote to Voltaire; “She is an example of female achievement, an inspiration to all us women in the developed world, who believe in challenging the low expectations men set for our sex.”

In the year 1764 Madame de Pompadour fell ill to tuberculosis. Unfortunately, due to her weak health, even the best physicians in Paris could do nothing for her. She suffered quietly; and eventually, one night, passed away.

“I will see Mama very soon,” was Madame de Pompadour’s last thought.

She was only 42 at the time.

Versailles was all silence. The King was greatly affected; remaining in his apartments for several weeks after her death. Voltaire expressed his grief in a letter, reflecting on the injustices of life and death; how an “ancient” man such as himself could still be living and writing when a beautiful woman in the prime of her career should die. Even her enemies, though not exactly upset by the news, felt the loss of a very worthy opponent.

“Our charming and singular friend,” Voltaire penned in a letter to a Dowager Duchess, “was a remarkable woman, belonging to a class of great women that includes Cleopatra, Catherine de Medici, and Elizabeth I… History will forever remember her in its books, and Paris in its styles… I am very sad at the death of my patroness and muse, Madame la Marquise de Pompadour. She will be dearly missed.”