More Than A Mistress: Madame De Pompadour Was A Minister Of The Arts
When Louis XV, King of France, first met the woman who would become his chief mistress, she was dressed as a domino, and he was dressed as a plant. It was 1745, and Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, the pretty young woman who would become Marquise de Pompadour, had been invited to a masked ball at Versailles. If this sounds like a chance meeting, it wasn't — her family had been strategizing to orchestrate this very moment for years.
"They envisioned her having this role when she was just a bourgeois young girl living in Paris, and they made it happen," explains Columbia University art historian Susan Wager.
Not long ago, Wager discovered a leather portfolio containing etchings made by Pompadour. For over a century, the portfolio and its etchings had gone unrecognized. Wager discovered it at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Md., among a batch of items founder Henry Walters bought in 1895.
"I was so thrilled," she recalls. "When I pulled that out of the box in the manuscripts room, my heart started to pound. I could barely talk."
Wager curated an exhibit of those etchings and other works by Pompadour, which is now on view at The Walters.
"She was one of the smartest women ever associated with the French crown," says University of Pennsylvania professor Joan deJean, author of The Age of Comfort.
A well-educated tastemaker, Pompadour hung out with Enlightenment intellectuals like Voltaire and Diderot and she lobbied for the publication of France's first encyclopedia.
"She's a real brand name in the world of style," says deJean (just think of the name of Elvis Presley's haircut!) "She was like a minister of the arts."
Pompadour was a patron of artists — their chief customer — says Wager: "She would give them money to make paintings and have them put in her houses so people could see them there."
And Pompadour herself made art. "She brings the most talented gem carver to live with her at Versailles," Wager explains. "She buys a drilling machine — which is the tool that you need — puts that in her apartments, and has him come and live there and make gems for her."
And not only did he make gems forher — but he taught her how to make them herself. She carved little scenes and cameos into semi-precious stones — carnelians, topaz — for rings and bracelets. To make a permanent record of the gems, Pompadour had artists draw them, and then she learned to make etchings from the drawings.
Some of the stones, rings and delicate, charming etchings are on display at The Walters: One sketch depicts love and friendship. Another shows a beautiful woman reaching her hand out to a cherub, the two intertwined with a garland of flowers. In a third, Pompadour's little pet spaniel looks up expectantly, tail wagging, paw lifted.
There were 52 etchings in all. Pompadour made fewer than 20 copies of them and gave them as gifts. She put her own set in a lemon-yellow leather portfolio — the one that Wager found.
"It has this gorgeous, gold embossed coat of arms at the center and all this gold lacework," Wager says.
Wager did some Nancy Drew sleuthing with this portfolio: She knows it was Pompadour's personal set because it's printed on different paper than the other surviving sets (indicating it was a first-run printer's proof). There's also a hand-written table of contents inside — no other surviving set has that list.
Wager's breath was taken away when she found that portfolio, and Louis XV likely felt the same way when he first met the beautiful, young Jeanne Antoinette at that Versailles ball in 1745.
It didn't take long for Louis to move her into a fancy Versailles apartment, where she became Chief Mistress. His wife, Queen Marie, is said to have remarked, "If there must be a mistress, better her than any other." At court, Pompadour was careful to stay on the queen's good side, and show her respect.
Five or so years after they met, the relationship between Pompadour and the king changed. Diaries and letters report that in 1750 Pompadour switched floors at Versailles.
"But what's really remarkable is that she still remained at court in the position of official mistress for the rest of her life even though there was no longer a sexual relationship," says Wager.
Louis relied on her as a trusted friend and advisor — she was also an arts patron, administrator, organizer and facilitator.
"There's this famous line — 'The King only loves you for your staircase,'" Wager says — referring to the circular staircase Louis constructed at Versailles to connect his room to his mistress' room. "But I think it means so much more than that — this idea of the staircase as this mediating passage ... She was mediating between members of the court and the king. They would say 'I want to say this to the king.' And she'd say, 'No, wait, let me tell him. Let me translate it into my own words and I'll come back to you.' She was, in all sorts of ways, manipulating this idea of the staircase — of the passage — in an artistic, in an intellectual and in a political way."
Pompadour may have been brought on as a mistress, but she ended up being much more than that. Her artwork is on display at The Walters through the end of May.
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