After us, the deluge. I care not what happens when I am dead and gone. – Madame de Pompadour
Jeanne Antoinette Poisson was born in Paris on December 29, 1721 to François and Madeleine Poisson. As a child she was educated at the Ursuline convent in Poissy, but when she entered adolescence her mother took over her education with an eye toward fulfilling a prophecy pronounced by Madame le Bon that Jeanne, then eight, would one day win the heart of a king. Accordingly, the beautiful, intelligent girl was educated as only courtesans tended to be in her day; she was taught to dance, sing, play the clavichord, paint, engrave and recite poetry and drama by heart. This extremely expensive education was funded by a family friend (and Jeanne’s guardian while her father was in exile due to a financial scandal), the chief tax collector Le Normant de Tournehem, thus igniting rumors that he was actually the girl’s natural father. Jeanne soon became an accomplished actress and singer, and at 19 entered into a marriage of convenience with her patron’s nephew, Charles-Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles, in order to gain access to the court where she could pursue her goal. She had two children by her husband, a boy who died in infancy and a girl who was born in 1744 and died of peritonitis in 1754.
Jeanne, now Madame d’Étiolles, was very popular in fashionable Parisian circles and soon founded her own salon, which was attended by a number of the philosophes including Voltaire. This accomplished exactly what it was intended to accomplish; King Louis XV heard of her and invited her to a royal fancy dress ball on February 25th, 1745. Though the King was in disguise, Jeanne had been tipped off to which costume was his and made sure she caught his eye; her costume as a shepherdess neither covered her exquisite features nor concealed her bewitching hazel eyes, and no man could have failed to notice her. They danced and then talked, and the King was smitten; he began to make overtures to her and she let him know that her favors were not to be had for free. But when he asked her price, the wily young woman stated that the only fee she would accept was the position of royal mistress, vacant since the death of the king’s previous mistress (the Duchesse de Châteauroux) a few months before. The bold gambit succeeded; the monarch was impressed with her confidence and charm and agreed to the arrangement. By March she had moved into Versailles and was given an apartment directly below that of the King, and on May 7th, she was officially separated from her husband.
Though Jeanne had captured the King’s heart as had been foretold, she could not yet be named official royal mistress because she was a commoner. The King therefore purchased the marquisate of Pompadour on June 24th and gave the estate and title to Jeanne, thus making her a Marquise and granting her the name by which she is known to history: Madame de Pompadour. She was formally introduced to the court on September 14th and quickly mastered court etiquette, but could not cement her position quickly enough for her mother, who died on Christmas Eve, to see Jeanne defeat her enemies at court to become the undisputed royal mistress. And she had plenty of enemies; some of them felt it was a disgrace for the King to have a common-born mistress (despite the title she had been granted), while others blamed her for the loss of France’s North American colonies following her defeat in the Seven Years War, which the King had entered as an ally of Austria on Madame Pompadour’s advice. And of course there were lesser mistresses who challenged her position, though they could not match the Marquise’s quick wits; one such challenger, Marie-Louise O’Murphy de Boisfaily, was defeated by being married off to a provincial nobleman and thus removed from Paris!
Her charm and winning ways gained her far more friends than enemies, however; among these was the Queen, who had been avoided by previous mistresses. The King deeply appreciated her respect for and deference to his wife, which eased his guilt and allowed him to have a strong relationship with his children without her interference. She also exerted considerably effort to amuse the King and ease his many cares; she would accompany him on hunts and when he went visiting or touring his properties, she threw dinner parties for him and had plays written specifically to appeal to his tastes, with her as the female lead. She even arranged orgies to stimulate his jaded sexual appetite, and frequently reminded him of her beauty by commissioning portraits of herself, mostly by Francois Boucher.
Madame de Pompadour is best remembered today as a patron of the arts, science and literature; she sponsored many painters, sculptors, architects, furniture craftsmen, interior designers and writers, including Voltaire as mentioned earlier. She supported the development of Diderot’s Encyclopedia (among the first such works), commissioned a topographical survey of France and even helped her brother Abel-François (who had by her influence become director-general of royal buildings) to design several public facilities. She facilitated the development of Sèvres, which soon became one of the largest manufacturers of porcelain in Europe and provided many high-paying jobs to its district. She exerted a strong influence over the development of the Rococo style, and advised the King on matters ranging from art to foreign policy. She even corresponded with Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria. The pompadour hairstyle is named for her, as is the marquise style of diamond cutting, and according to legend the bowl of a champagne glass was modeled on the shape of her breast (though it is not very likely that this is true).
Unfortunately, the Madame’s body was neither as strong nor as active as her mind; vigorous sex tired her, and she suffered two miscarriages in 1746 and 1749, at which times she arranged lesser mistresses for the King while she was unable to tend to his needs during her convalescence. Eventually the combination of her poor health and His Majesty’s roving eye caused him to replace her in his bed as of 1750, when she was only 29. He was still quite fond of her and she continued to advise him throughout her remaining years; in fact the period of her greatest influence over him was the decade after they had ceased to sleep together. Late in the winter of 1764 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and due to her fragile constitution succumbed to it in only two months; she died on April 15, 1764 at the age of forty-two. As her coffin left Versailles in a downpour, the King was heard to say “The marquise won’t have good weather for her journey.” Her old friend Voltaire wrote: “I am very sad at the death of Madame de Pompadour. I was indebted to her and I mourn her out of gratitude. It seems absurd that while an ancient pen-pusher, hardly able to walk, should still be alive, a beautiful woman, in the midst of a splendid career, should die at the age of forty.” Even her enemies admired the brave manner in which she faced death (though of course they were also relieved at her departure), and nobody then or now could deny the powerful influence a courtesan of humble origin had exerted on French arts and letters.