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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