ReadingWoman.org / Essays / 2004 / No.6: Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour

Friederun Hardt-FriederichsEssay No.6October, 31 2004

Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour

Even today people are enchanted with the historical figure of the Marquise de Pompadour. Why this fascination with this famous woman, lover and adviser of the French king Ludwig XV?

The Painting

We are in the presence of a famous portrait of a famous woman: the life size oil painting by François Boucher, dated 1756, depicting the Marquise de Pompadour (Fig.1)
This painting does not keep any riddles, i.e. who is the figure shown, or who is the artist. There is an abundance of information available from the long list of sources of publications about the person in the painting.

Let’s disregard the story about this historical and famous woman, the “Reine du Rococo”, Madame de Pompadour, and let us look at the painting itself.

We see a young beautiful woman relaxing on a sofa who’s eye passes the viewer. The Lady wears a rich, green silk dress, decorated with silken pink roses at the flounce. Also pink bows can be found on the sleeves and the bodice of the dress. Her décolleté neckline is bear, however, around her neck she wears a ribbon with a pink bow. Her slim forearms are enhanced with bands of pearls. Her hair, also decorated with silk roses, is held back up in a simple fashion. At her crossed over feet, wearing dainty pink shoes, and barley visible from underneath her dress, lay also two pink colored roses. A small black dog, symbol of faithfulness, sits next to her feet.

The whole appearance is elegant and pretty at the same time and represents the fashion of the epoch of Rococo. Moreover this life size painting of the Marquise de Pompadour reminds us of state portrait, since leaders of that time were painted full size.

Portrait of the Marquise of Pompadour
Figure 1:
Portrait of the Marquise of Pompadour, 1756
Francois Boucher (1703-1770)

With friendly permission of Bayrische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, München and HypoVereinsbank

The Reader and Writer

While this young woman supports herself with her left arm on the armrest of the sofa, she is holding with her right hand, resting in her lap, an open book. It seems as if she has taken a break leafing through or reading the book. Although quite an amount has been written about this painting of the Marquise de Pompadour, and the inventory of her library is known, it is up to now not established which book she is reading. This is regrettable, since it can be assumed that it must have been a book of her choosing for the long session of portrait painting. She is known as one of the best read woman of her time, also indicated by the background of book shelves, very cleverly painted by Boucher as mirror image. Books and stacks of paper can be found strewn around the floor and on top and under the table.

Boucher not only shows the Marquise as reader but he indicates as if she might go back at any moment to writing a letter since the writing tools as quill, ink pot, seal and sealing wax, as well as envelope are seen on the small desk and in the open desk drawer.


Letters

We are meeting here a painting that uses as subject matter writing and reading of a woman.

Personal letters were in the 18. century, as they are today, a means to stay in touch with friends and relatives.

Different to today’s custom there was no privacy of the mail at that time. Consequently, that restricted the writing to well meaning information, or pompous presentation of one self unless a reliable messenger could be utilized. Knowing this, we can assume a self censoring and a self staging by the author. Of course, these letters followed a certain style and rules with regard to contents, so that an interpretation by today’s reader has to be carried out with caution.

We know of about 150 letters of Madame de Pompadour, of which only a limited amount has bbeen published. According to custom they were not signed but only closed with personal seal, regarded in the painting by showing seal and sealing wax. Her seal shows a coat of arms with three towers.

We find, besides letters to family members such as brother and father, a rather large correspondence with luminary contemporaries. Caring is the content of her messages to her father and brother. She considers the advise of her brother as very important; he may formulate his letters to her with the thought in mind not to write something that may compromise her position. Furthermore she reminds him that his letters are being opened and read.

She herself judges her situation as clear and realistic. She judges the behavior of servants and flatterer with a clear eye and gives a hoot about gossip. She writes to her brother in March of 1750 that since her arrival at the royal court she has observed and thought o lot and gained a good judgment of people.

Our interest is not necessarily the contents of all these letters, normally quite important for judging a person and its living circumstances. We are content that François Boucher in his painting showed how life is. Obviously he painted her in the privacy of her study, surrounded with her books and letters, where she can pursue her desire to read and do her correspondence. The contents of her letters elucidate her family relations but also her position at the royal court of France and her influence in the politics of her country.

When looking at this painting we are dazzled with elegance, beauty and composure but also with nowledge.

Exhibition at the salon

This work of art, that captures our interest, was treated very special. It appears that Madame de Pompadour regarded it with greater value for her own stage setting.

Already shortly after its completion in 1757 it was presented to the public in the Salon de Arte in Paris. A drawing by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin documents this event, showing the importance of Boucher’s painting. It is shown in the foreground sitting on an easel while the remaining paintings are hanging on the walls in typical Petersburg fashion closely next to and on top of each other.

The art exhibitions in the Salon de Arte gained on increased importance by the presentation in the Royal Louvre. By showing this painting in a format that was reserved for rulers, the “Matresse en titre” enabled to document her extraordinary position at the court and to secure her popularity with the common people. This was an opportunity to show to a wide variety of people her importance. Her influence on Ludwig XV was not only based on a lovely face and elegance but also on extraordinary intelligence, education, her fast knowledge and learning which she dedicated loyally to the king. This is what this painting was about.

It was not the first time that Madame de Pompadour used this means to present her self.
Already 1755 she had arranged the exposure of her portrait (pastel) by the artist Maurice Quentin in the Salon. The role she played at the side of Ludwig XV had to be newly defined, since at that time she was no longer his lover. The public knew her already as Madame de Pompadour, femme savant (learned woman). Boucher’s painting was just a step up.
The painter in his studio
Figure 2:
The painter in his studio, ca. 1720, François Boucher (1703-1770), Oil on canvas
Musée du Louvre, Paris
On the pastel painting by Maurice Quentin Madame de Pompadour was shown as guardian of the arts. Everything in the painting indicated of her patronage: artists, scientists and writers are in view but also her own artistic talent is demonstrated. Even the titles of the books of her library are recognizable in the painting. Books by Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot and d’Alembert, among others. This was not without intention since these writers were quite controversial at their time. By showing their works she hoped for more recognition for them selves.

The globe in the painting shall indicate her geopolitical interest that she used to further the interests of France. Her political influence found its culmination when the Marquise de Pompadour was influential in the treaty between France and Austria in 1756 at the beginning of the 7-year war, 1756 until 1763.

Life story

To satisfy our curiosity let’s cast an eye at her life story that fascinated her contemporaries as well as those after her and even us of today. The interest in this person triggered uncountable investigations and biographies, yes, even falsified letters and memoirs were printed. It’s like today when the interest of a prominent personality causes a run to the Yellow Press to satisfy the tremendous curiosity about the personal life of a star.

She was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson in 1721 into the bourgeoisie of Paris. In the beginning the little girl was raised by Ursula nuns in the monastery of Poissy. Later she had private tutors. At the young age of 18, she, the daughter of a military supplier, was married to the under general lease holder Charles Le Normand d’Etioles.

The educated young woman could be seen in the circles of the emancipated high society and had initial encounters with Voltaire. In the beginning of 1745 her marriage failed and the divorcee became the lover of Ludwig XV of France. She was the first commoner to move to Versailles as “Maitresse en titre.” The king named her already in 1745 Madame de Pompadour. Although her relationship with Ludwig XV ended in 1750 she maintained her position as his most influential advisor until her early death at the age of 42. Obviously she charmed the king not only with her beauty but also with her knowledge and brains. Her loyal advise assumedly was not replaceable.

Her preferred and influential position at the court was not untouchable. She had to fight the intrigues behind her back all her life. Therefore, it does not look unseemly when she used every opportunity to put herself in the limelight. From Boucher alone she had ordered 9 portraits. The one we are discussing here is the most famous one and with the exhibition 1757 in the Salon it become known to the wide public in Paris. This quite unusual portrait and its exhibition are probably the reason for her nomination as Extraordinary Lady to the Queen, “dame du palais de la reine” in February of 1756. She was the first royal mistress to obtain such position at the court.

Patronage

The Marquise de Pompadour was without a doubt for her time a well read and educated woman who demonstrated besides politics an interest in the arts. She probably knew how to use them in her favor with respect to position and recognition. She used her influence and the means provided by the king to promote art, crafts, literature and architecture. She was the founder of a theater and the Ecole Militair, Paris. The extension of porcelain manufacturing in Sevres is also her doing. She donated her money and time to church parishes and abbeys and made it possible for poor young women to be admitted to monasteries. She herself created and printed bibliophilic works.

François Boucher, the artist

It is obvious that Madame de Pompadour preferred this artist (Fig.2) for her paintings and promoted him vigorously. Boucher is known as the most important representative of the French Rococo. Born in 1703 in modest surroundings he was able due to talent, ambition, dedication and a sound education as painter, drafter, etcher, and to make artistic decorations, to make him self a name in the art world. As a member of the academy in Paris and later as its director he gained highest awards, among others he was named “Premier Peintre du Roi” (First Royal Painter).
Boucher created the style of the 18th century, the Rococo due to his enormous productivity and variety in all areas of visual and practical art. He rewarded with numerous commissions from the royal court, decorated rooms for Madame de Pompadour and taught her also drawing and etching.

Portrait of the Marquise of Pompadour
Figure 3:
Section of: Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, 1758, François Boucher (1703-1770), Oil on canvas; 212 x 164 cm
Bayrische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, München

Figure 4:
Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, 1759, François Boucher (1703-1770), Oil on canvas; 91 x 69 cm
Wallace Collection, London

Media policy

To secure her position at the court of Ludwig XV of France, Madame de Pompadour as “matresse en titre” or also “matresse declarée” used her power and the old reliable and proven method to have person represented in a number of paintings. Old Egyptian rulers as well as today’s popular people to legitimize their fame and confirmation of power have used this method quite impressively. Paintings, sculptures and monumental architecture are witnesses of this behavior; even mausoleums are included to remind the survivors about their existence.
Madame de Pompadour also followed this strategy by building and re-building a number of castles according to her gusto. The discussed portrait was ordered in a format reserved for rulers. This painting did not have private character. Presented in public it served its purpose to demonstrate closeness to the king, influence, power and wealth.

In addition the painting was filled with books and writing utensils to characterize her personality with knowledge and learning that she used to her advantage for influential networking. It was well known that she presented a powerful interface between king and court as well as to other countries like Austria. Her lovely beauty and her fashionable presence, setting an example during Rococo epoch, contributed surely to the admiration of the paintings of her. In spite of her power she, who was concerned about the security of her position at court, Madame de Pompadour never forgot to show her loyalty and respect to the king by having a little dog – a symbol of loyalty – included in the Painting.

This painting exclaims explicitly how the presentation of a reading and writing woman by no means accidentally but with great precondition and planning was chosen. This, as well as all the other portraits of Madame de Pompadour – she had ordered a whole series of such paintings (Compare Fig. 3 and 4) – served her for the same purpose. Quite interesting that this smart woman had discovered already the principle of media repetition to her service.

[translated by Sigi Oberlaender]


Links & further information:

[1] Large literature sources as well as texts about the life and time of Madame de Pompadour



Reader comments:

Great history reading
Arlene Sehlstrom from Ponoka, Alberta, Canada wrote on July, 07 2005: Thank-you for providing me with the background information to this painting. I have this picture, and finally I know something about this lady. The painting struck my eye as soon as I saw it. The paper backing provided me with the artist name. This paticular painting of Madame Pompddour was a publication of Edward Gross Co. Inc. of 118 East 16th St. New York. Thank-you again for the history lesson, I will enjoy this painting even more now !


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