Dainty and beautiful, for ever associated with the union of tiny pink roses and blue ribbons, a porcelain beauty, the Marquise de Pompadour was also a stateswoman, a magnificent actress on the stage of life, and a woman who attracted drama as a magnet attracts a needle.
She was the daughter of a discredited financier, but a M. Le Normand took charge of the child's education. All were completely bourgeois, and the great world did not recognise their existence. Later on, people talked of butcher's shops and defaulting bankers and any other disgraceful origin they could find, but that was when " the Porcelain Pompadour " had conquered her destiny.
She was born in 1721, and was very well educated by Le Normand, and married to his nephew, Le Normand d'etioles, at the age of nineteen. She was then graceful, Piquante, beautiful, charming, resourceful, and slightly inclined to delicacy, which gave her an air of tenderness and feeling. She had a genius for dress, freely displayed, and a carefully concealed and much more valuable genius for studying people and managing them. Her lovely figure led her to invent the famous Pompadour dress, and, long after her facial beauty had waned, concealed the fact that she was really no longer beautiful.
Her husband was passionately devoted to her, and she liked him fairly well. He lavished on her every luxury that money could buy-jewels, frocks, servants, an exquisite house, and a free hand in entertaining. She took it all, and smiled on him, but never forgot that when she was a child a gipsy prophesied that she would be beloved of the King.
At Court there was a gay king, beloved of his people, and a quiet, proud queen, born of the haughty Polish race. When Louis XV. married Marie Leczinska, in 1725, he was passionately in love with her. She was seven years older than he, but she was still young and beautiful. Not for ten years did the inevitable tragedy separate them. Why do women grow old more quickly than men? Marie Leczinska lost her looks and her youth, and with them went her husband's love and confidence. She kept the hollow honour of his esteem; but he was still young, and he loved a young and pretty woman.
The Queen was too proud to complain; she took his neglect with silent hauteur, and even bore without flinching the insolence of courtiers. She knew that the people loved her, and that their love did not depend on a pink cheek or a rounded throat, and perhaps this consciousness helped her.
Jeanne d'etioles, nevertheless, had no easy task before her when she set herself to win the King's affections. He was surrounded by favourites of wit and beauty equal to her own, and they all had that trump card-good birth. She was frankly of the bourgeoisie. The most she could do was to drive about as a spectator at the King's hunting-parties, dressed in pink or blue, and passing before his Royal eyes in a very high phaeton. She did it for weeks, until at last he asked who she was. Mme. de Mailly, who saw through the whole plot, told him not only who she was, but what she was trying to do. Madame Jeanne was promptly forbidden even to watch the Royal parties.
Madame de Mailly died. Her place was supplied by first one, and then another lady of the Court. Jeanne d'etioles bided her lime. Her chance came. In 1744 Mme. de Chateauroux died. She must have been a wonderful woman, for so long as three months later her position was not filled. The King attended a ball then at the Hotel de Ville. Of course, all the ladies were masked. But one of them singled him out, and her graceful movements, the bright eyes dwelling on his behind the mask, the exquisite coquetry with which she quite publicly flirted with him, the wit of her infrequent remarks, all fascinated the disconsolate Louis. Finally, the graceful creature fled away, turning as she went to throw him her handkerchief. The King caught it, while the whole assembly applauded.
No wonder the Pompadour liked masked balls all the rest of her life ! The King sought a meeting a few days later; and there followed a period of what, between boy and girl, would have been very pretty courtship. The King drove to her mother's house to see her, and she played delicately with him, studying him all the time, learning his whims, knowing the exact moment to change the note of the conversation, delighting him with her wit and her coquetry, and persuading him that conquest was not certain even while she flattered him that it was.
In the following spring behold her, marvellously gowned, with a beating heart and a sparkling eye, dining with the King and the Dukes of Richelieu and Luxembourg. They both treated her coldly, and by that she was certain that she had effectively captured the King. The following day she entered with triumph into possession of Mme. de Mailly's apartments.
The Secret of Her Success All was not won yet. A Royal favourite must work hard to achieve her ascendancy, but she must work harder to keep it. Madame d'etioles, now raised to nobility as Marquise de Pompadour, studied the King as though he had been a scientific problem. Not the tiniest trait of his character escaped her. She knew the significance of every gesture, every change of expression, however faint. She alternated the pretty, commanding ways of a favourite with the humility of a dependant. She ordered or she sued with unerring instinct..
She soon discovered that the great thing was to keep the King amused. .Consequently she set to work to devise entertainments for him. Fetes and balls followed each other, new sensations were sought, the arts were ransacked. Once, in the depth of winter, when he went to visit her at Bellevue, she led him into a room full of blooming summer flowers, and fragrant with their scent. The flowers were all of Sevres porcelain, impregnated each with its perfume.
Meanwhile, she worked herself into the position of a power in the State. She had complete command, not only of the King's ear, but of his privy purse. He was naturally parsimonious, and had never treated any previous favourite with generosity; but while the Queen was scarcely allowed sufficient money for her expenses, the Pompadour was rolling in unlimited wealth, and dispensed purses and offices with great impartiality.
Her brother was made a marquis. He was hopelessly bourgeois, and not all his sister's training could give him any polish. Politically, she was bad for France, but good for Paris. During the Seven Years' War she-conceived the vast plan of rebuilding a portion of Paris, intending to have sold the whole of the old portion to financiers to be transformed. Covered galleries were to be built over bridges across the Seine, with frescoes and gardens of shrubs. She was anxious to improve the sanitary conditions of Paris, to encourage art, and to provide employment for labourers. She was keen on art, and instituted many prizes for artists. It was she who founded the exhibitions of paintings at the Louvre. She patronised the products of Sevres energetically, and was primarily responsible for bringing porcelain into fashion in the place of silver and gold vessels. On pastels and engravings she was an authority, and she possessed a library of over three thousand books.
She had imagination. Her fetes were never alike. When the Dauphin recovered from a serious illness, she celebrated his recovery (although they were on terms of concealed dislike) by giving a splendid entertainment, when there was a representation of a dolphin (in allusion to the Prince's title) in the midst of a great piece of water, attacked by monsters, and vomiting flames, finally rescued by Apollo.
More sensibly she marked the birth of the Dauphin's son, by giving marriage portions to all the marriageable girls on her estates. She founded the fashion of celebrating public events in this way. The city of Paris alone gave portions to 600 girls, and many corporations and companies followed suit.
But she made mistakes. She was clever, but not quite clever enough. She made the very common but quite fatal mistake of trying to obscure her humble origin by an assumption of great pride and insolence. It proved her low birth, but she thought it showed her great position. Thus she made many enemies at Court, while her extravagance made her most unpopular with the people. They wrecked one of her many palaces, and followed her carriage, hooting and jeering in crowds. At last she only went out with an escort of a couple of hundred horsemen, or else in disguise. Disguise was familiar to her. Once, in time of war, she joined the King in Flanders disguised as a musketeer.
Many noblemen of dignity and honour refused to pay court to a woman, and such a woman, in order to obtain posts at Court, so that, finally, these were all in the hands of self-seekers. This angered the nobility and the populace alike. She seized on land for her flower-gardens, and gave no compensation. She counted on her ascendancy over the King, and thought the good opinion of no one else mattered.
Yet she had many friends, and many women among them. She wrote very charming letters. Here are a few extracts:
To Voltaire (a great friend and admirer):
"I thank you much for the book you sent me; everything in it is beautiful, everything true; and you are always the first man in the world for writing and for thinking Is it true that you have been dangerously ill, and received the Sacrament with an exemplary devotion?"
To the Comtesse du Barail:
"Farewell, my dear friend. I shall never change to you, for I have too much pleasure
Dainty and beautiful, the Marquise de Pompadour was also a stateswoman, a magnificent actress on the stage of life, and $ woman who attracted drama as a magnet attracts a needle From a painting by Boucher in the Wallace Collection D28 It in loving you, and in telling you so. Give a thousand kisses for me to your little girl, and make a thousand compliments to the great man. . . ."
To the wife of Marshal de Coutades,
"The misfortunes that pour, one after another, upon our poor country strike the whole nation down, but me, by my situation, they affect doubly. Methinks I feel them twice, because I have often a hand in the choice of the men, and am always disappointed."
"Do, pray, madame, bring me your little daughter. I will kiss her and marry her for you, if you please. I dearly love her, because I dearly love whatever belongs to you and resembles you. But I hear a noise-some impertinents come to carry me to a pretty supper, and oblige me to break off my letter and my pleasure."
She was brave. When she felt death approaching she met it as she would have met a new admirer. Clothed in silk, her hair dressed, jewels on her breast, and rouge on her cheeks, she passed away at Versailles, in 1764, at the age of forty-two. She died just in time. Not much longer could she have held the affections of Louis. He grieved for a whole day for her whom he had loved for nineteen years. It was he who spoke her epitaph-the most cynical on record.
"I fear," said Louis cheerfully, "that Madame la Marquise will get wet.