Madame de Pompadour

Was Madame de Pompadour the original Madonna?

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, July 13, 1990)

One of the treasures of the Fogg Art Museum is François Boucher’s 1758 portrait of La Marquise de Pompadour. In the oval-shaped painting, she sits in front of a mirror, wearing an elaborate gray gown trimmed with lace and adorned with pink ribbons and flowers.

A diaphanous gray shawl floats over her shoulders, fastened at her neck with a pink bow, exposing a pale mother-of-pearl pink triangle of flesh at her décolletage. Her hair is powdered the same pale gray color as her gown, and her lips and cheeks are painted in the deep rosy pink that was known as Pompadour Rose. In one of her exquisite little hands she holds a tiny golden box filled with rouge; in the other, she holds a little brush. On her wrist she wears a pink and gray cameo portrait of her lover, King Louis XV of France.

When I visited this painting recently, I was struck by a number of resemblances between La Pompadour and Madonna.

Like Madonna, Madame de Pompadour rewrote her personal history, altered her name, used her talent and her beauty to achieve a position of enormous wealth and power, and earned her own place in one of the world’s most rigidly hierarchical and competitive societies.

Born in Paris in 1721, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was a lively, intelligent, and exceptionally well-educated bourgeoise. She could act, dance, play the harpsichord, and sing beautifully. She was 23 years old when she captured the king’s heart at a ball in the Hall of Mirrors (creating images is what Madonna and La Pompadour are all about). Louis brought her to Versailles and gave her a title: la Marquise de Pompadour. Ambitious and self-disciplined, she mastered the elaborate court etiquette of titles and curtsies and nuances of expression as if she were memorizing a Hollywood script.

Like Madonna in the columnar costumes she wore in Dick Tracy, La Pompadour always managed to look graceful, even in the most constricting clothes — corsets, bustles, and stays. Like Madonna, she created a “look” that was supremely artificial — the powdered hair, the heavily applied make-up, the elaborate gowns.

Like Madonna in her John-Paul Gaultier bustiers, La Pompadour in her negligée proudly displayed her sexuality as the source of her power. She was the woman all men desired, the woman all other women wanted to be. Dufort de Cheverny wrote,

“Not a man alive but would have had her for her mistress if he could. She absolutely extinguished all the other women at the Court, although some were very beautiful.”

Madame de Pompadour ruled the cultural life of France from 1745 until her death, in 1764, as the king’s mistress — an official position in 18th-century France. (Louis XV’s queen was a dull Polish princess who banished the king from her bed on holy days; by the time she had given birth to 10 children, the saints whose days she observed almost filled the calendar year.) She was the king’s fourth mistress, but the first to elevate the position to a new artform — a brilliant non-stop performance for an audience of one.

For the king, whose life was an endless round of public ceremonies, she created the illusion of a private life. In her rooms at Versailles and in the many country houses she bought and decorated, she set the stage for a gloriously sensual dreamland where Louis could escape from the pressures of being a king.

Like Madonna, La Pompadour understood the power of images, and her act combined the arts of theater and seduction. She supervised every detail of her life with the king. She designed her own clothes and surrounded herself with objects that reflected her personal taste. She filled her rooms with flowers. One of her gardens was planted especially for fragrance, with orange trees, jasmine, lilac, roses, and gardenias, imported for her from all over the world. If she were alive today, she’d have her own signature perfume.

Madame de Pompadour was a generous and inspired patron of the arts. She collected cameos and chinoiseries, books and bibelots, paintings and tapestries, sculpture, jewels, rare birds, and fabulous clothes. Soon her personal tastes became a style emulated and desired by everyone else. There were little gold boxes à la Pompadour, carriages à la Pompadour, ribbons à la Pompadour, and silks, satins, and brocades of Pompadour Rose.

François Boucher was Madame de Pompadour’s favorite artist. They clearly admired and inspired each other. His paintings glorify the scent and taste and feel of a blissfully sensual universe revolving around the body of a woman — the rustle of ribbons, the smoothness of silk, the softness of skin. She was just his type — she looked like one of the curly-hair, pale-skinned nymphs and amorous shepherdesses he loved to paint. She was supremely elegant; his touch with the brush was deliciously light. Her life was mirrored in his art; his art lived in her life.

In Boucher’s portrait, Madame de Pompadour is 37 years old — past the first precious bloom of youth, but at the height of her power. She is her own masterpiece and her own muse; she is also Boucher’s muse, and this painting is his masterpiece. Here they are united in perfect harmony: both are painting her face with a little brush dipped into a tiny golden box of Pompadour Rose. If they lived today, Boucher would be creating installations for performance artist Pompadour — or creating videos.

After a few years in the king’s bed, Madame de Pompadour found that her delicate constitution  prevented her from satisfying Louis’s prodigious sexual appetite, but she transformed what could have been a fatal blow into a brilliant strategy for consolidating her power.

An amorous playground was created for the king; called Le Parc aux Cerfs, and she kept it stocked with an ever-changing supply of beautiful young bodies. “It’s his heart I want,” said Madame de Pompadour.  One of the “girls” at the Parc aux Cerfs was Boucher’s other favorite model, Louise O’Murphy, who posed for him when he painted the Holy Family for the Queen’s private chapel — an irony Madonna would surely have enjoyed.

La Pompadour announced to the world — through art she commissioned — that love had given way to friendship; and she continued to be the king’s official mistress, best friend, and cultural adviser until her death in 1764. In 1752, she was accorded the lifetime rights of a duchess, including a stool to sit on during the endless ceremonies at the court of Versailles.

Madame de Pompadour’s transformations, like Madonna’s, were part of her act. She continually renewed and re-invented her own image. Her greatest gift was her self-love, and her greatest talent was her ability to change.

In Boucher’s portrait, Madame de Pompadour is painting her face — making herself up — transforming herself. She is holding up her little brush like an artist; her face is her canvas; she is her own work of art.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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