Madame de Pompadour

By Tricia Tait: 

Throughout history, the traditional roles that subordinated women passed from generation to generation. Although most women faced a life of limited opportunity, a few were capable of surpassing the traditional roles and gaining power and influence. One of these women was Jeanne-Antionette Poisson, who in the eighteenth century, rose beyond her class status and gained title of maitresse-en-titre to Louis XV, King of France. She was able to remain the King's mistress between 1745 and 1750, and remained powerful as the King's confidante until her death in 1764.

Madame de Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antionette Poisson on December 29, 1721 in the rue de Clery. Her father was Francois Poisson, a steward to the Paris brothers, and was forced to leave the country after a black market scandal in 1725. At this time, her mother, Louise Madeline de la Motte, was befriended by Charles le Normant de Tornehem, who then looked over the family. When Jeanne-Antionette was nine years old, her mother had taken her to a fortune teller and was told that one day she would become the mistress of a king. She was then given the nickname Reinette, meaning "little queen." Between the ages of eight and twelve, Reinette spent much time in and out of an Ursuline convent at Poissy where she received an education and first took interest in the arts. Once she returned home for good her mother insisted on giving her the best education because of her belief that she would marry a rich man. She was given voice lessons by Jeloitte, the star of the Paris opera, and taught elocution from a dramatist, Crebillon.

When Reinette reached the age of marriage, an arrangement was made by Normant de Tornehem for her to marry his nephew, Charles Guillaume le Normant d'Etoiles. In 1741 they were married and in 1744 she gave birth to a girl named Alexandrine. Shortly after she was married, she began to plan ways to gain access into the most elusive circles. Soon she was entertaining a great deal of men like Voltaire and Montesquieu in her chateau d'Etoiles. It did not take a long time for her name to be known all over Paris and even by the King himself.

After the death of the Duchess de Chateauroux in 1744, Reinette's chance came to become the King's mistress. Not long after her appearance at the masked Yew Ball she was put up in a room in King Louis XV's palace and given lessons on court etiquette. Finally, on September 15, 1745, she was legally separated from her husband and pronounced the Marquise de Pompadour, the King's official mistress.

Once established in court, she was very modest and tried to win approval, despite the already implanted hatred of her by many because of her bourgeoisie background. She was very successful in finding ways to amuse and entertain the King. Through the Theatre des Petits Cabinets, she entertained the King with a total of one hundred twenty-two performances. She also planned many intimate parties and suppers for the King to keep him amused.

The Marquise de Pompadour has widely been known as a patron of the arts and literature. She had a huge library of thousands of books and had given her patronage to the writer Voltaire. She was also very successful in her artistic creations. She loved new buildings and decorative arts, and thus the fashion that she used is identified with the term "Pompadour style." Such interests allowed her to acquire many houses and mansions such as the Hotel d'Evreux. She also planned the building of the palace of Compeigne and the Petit Trianon Palace at Versailles. The two most notable creations of the Marquise were the porcelain works of Sevres and the Ecole Militaire. Through her many works she became known as the patron of many artists like Boucher, sculptors, and architects like Lassurance.

Because she could no longer meet her lover's demands, after 1750, the relationship between the King and the Marquise was based strictly on friendship. At this time she looked to play a larger role in the politics and government of France. On October 12, 1752 the King made her a duchess, the greatest favor he could bestow on her. When France was on the verge of war with England, she played a major role in influencing the "Diplomatic Revolution," or the treaty that allied France with her former enemy Austria. The treaty was signed on May 1, 1756, and eventually led to the Seven Years' War. She also demonstrated her power and influence over the King in the way she was capable of removing her enemies from office and enabling her friends to come into government. All of these proved to be disastrous to France, and led to the unpopularity of the Marquise. She was blamed for all the misfortunes that fell upon France. The public hated her and began writing vicious letters, pamphlets, and verses against her, and also began threatening her with violent campaigns. Despite the public's view of her, the King continued to remain faithful to the Marquise de Pompadour.

The Marquise de Pompadour, who had put all of her energy towards the affairs of the state, was physically fatigued and became quite ill. She died on April 15, 1764. Through her influential twenty years at court, she truly became an example of rising above the traditions given to women.

By Susan Arnett:

Women have always had a profound effect on history throughout the ages. Madame de Pompadour is one female whose contributions and authority in France have distinguished her as a historical figure.  

On December 30, 1721 Jean-Antoinette Poisson, the future Marquise de Pompadour was born to Louise Madeleine de la Motte and Francois Poisson of the bourgeois class. Francois was a steward to the Paris brothers who were responsible for running the economy of France. Jean-Antoinette's childhood was not always the easiest. Her father was exiled from France for charges of embezzlement when she was very young, leaving her mother to raise two children alone. She was also a very frail child who always had throat and nose problems. At age seven, Jean-Antoinette was sent to the Ursuline convent at Poissy where she was well educated and developed her love for the arts. Perhaps the most significant point in Jean-Antoinette Poisson's young life came from a prophecy by fortune teller Mme. Lebon. At age nine, this fortune teller told her that one day she would reign over a king's heart. Even when she married her husband Charles-Guillaume le Normant d'Etioles, whom she loved deeply, she told him in fun that she would never leave him, except, of course, for the king.

Jean-Antoinette eventually began visiting the court of King Louis XV at Versailles. After their first meeting the king instantly admired her beauty and skill. He enjoyed watching her perform in plays at her own theater built in her Etiolles estate. She was installed at court as Louis the fifteenth's official favorite under the title of Marquis de Pompadour in 1744.

Madame de Pompadour had a profound effect over the private life of the court. Before she arrived at the court, life had been quite boring for King Louis XV. She organized suppers and brought many performances to the theater. She brought back the sense of intimacy and extravagance that the French court had lost. She also directed the artists of her time. She commissioned such artists as the writer Voltaire and the painter Francois Boucher. Madame de Pompadour also encouraged the manufacture of porcelain and decorated the palace of Versailles in the Rococo manner.

Madame de Pompadour did not stay mistress to the king for long, in fact she stayed the king's lover for only five years. Nevertheless, she stayed a true and close friend to Louis XV until her death. To maintain her status, the marquise took a part in the politics of France. She made and unmade generals during the Seven Yearís War and helped to bring out the famous change of alliances. She wanted peace within France so it could be a strong world power. Although she was very ambitious, her life was still filled with frustrations, bitterness, and unhappiness. Throughout her life in the court, Madame de Pompadour was many times looked down upon by the French people. Coming out of the bourgeois class, this mistress and friend of the king was taking a role usually reserved for the aristocrats. Others saw her as a woman trying to seize power.

In 1764, the always fragile Marquis de Pompadour came down with a violent headache. She was diagnosed as having congestion of the lungs. Two months after her diagnosis, the beloved friend of the king died at the age of 46. Madame Pompadour is proof that women had a role in history. Although she is not always portrayed in a pleasant light, Madame de Pompadour is a part of history because of her great qualities, talents, and influence.

Annotated Bibliography

Bernier, Oliver. Louis the Beloved: The Life of Louis XV. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1984.
Bernier attempts to show Louis XV as an honorable King, and one of the greatest rulers of this regime. This book takes the reader through the years before he became King until his death. This book portrays Louis XV in a more positive way, not looking so much at his mistakes, but at his triumphs. It mentions Madame de Pompadour as she comes into the King's life, and discusses her strong influence over the King and her role with the arts. It is effective for obtaining a general unbiased idea about the King's mistress and the role she played during her twenty years in the Court.[T.T.]
Focusing more on the personality and achievements of King Louis XV, this book takes a look at the life and reign of the long-maligned king. It sheds historical truth, and shows a great deal of accurate objective research. A portion of the book is devoted to Mme de Pompadour's role in the king's life. It shows the amount of influence this lady had, even though much of her power was not overt like those individuals with actual titles. The book is useful in showing the type and amount of power women could actually attain in the eighteenth century. [S.A.]

Cheek, Pamela. "Prostitutes of 'political institution.'" Eighteenth Century Studies 28, no.2 (Winter 94/95): 193-120.)
This article discusses the association between writing and prostitution in eighteenth century France. Discussed is the rumor of the Marquise de Pompadour suggesting that the police collect records of this demoralizing behavior. This shows the authority that this woman had on the politics of the society. [S.A.]

Crivellin, Lorenzo. "Madame de Pompadour. 2004 <>. (21  April 2005).
The author, an amateur from Turin, Italy, has collected a lot of information about the life and times of Pompadour.  

Ducros, Louis. French Society in the Enlightenment Century. New York, N.Y.: Lenox Hill Pub., 1971.
This book views French Eighteenth Century Society as important. It gives a sense of what took place during this time period. There is a small section on Madame de Pompadour because of the way she dazzled the court with her various talents. Her performances at her theater in Etioles are highlighted. This shows that women in society were recognized not only for their beauty but also for their talent. [S.A.]

Gaxotte, Pierre. Louis XV and His Times. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1934.
This book concentrates on Louis XV and how he became the King. It devotes attention to the merits of this era rather than its downfalls in an attempt to give another point of view about Louis XV. Gaxotte does this to provide contrast to those writings about him written by his enemies. It discusses the role of Madame de Pompadour plays briefly, but gives enough information about her to understand her importance. [T.T.]
The author of this book makes it clear that he is interested in dispelling the negative accounts of King Louis XV. Pierre Gaxotte points out that the king has often been wholly judged on the testimony of his enemies. Madame de Pompadour is mentioned throughout latter part of the text. She is described as the secretary of state for pleasure because of her control of court affairs. The text is useful in describing how this woman actually influenced the culture in France. [S.A.]

Gerten, Carol L. "Francois Boucher: Marquise de Pompadour." March 03, 1998. <> ( 21 April 2005).
This website posts a picture of the Marquise de Pompadour by her favorite artist, Francois Boucher. It is useful in giving a clear idea of what this historical figure looked and to what the culture of the time looked like. [S.A.]

Gimelson, Deborah. "French Rococo Decorative Arts." Antiques, March 1990, 698-705.
The article reviews the exhibition "Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour: A Love Affair with Style," an art exhibit focused on rococo style that the king and his mistress helped to create. Madame de Pompadour is also mentioned as influencing the porcelain during the time period. A painting of her is included in the article. This article is useful in displaying Pompadour's taste of style and influence over the kings tastes. [S.A.]

"The Golden Age of Big Hair." Civilization, Sep/Oct 1995, 29.
This is a fun article on the history of tall hairstyles for ladies. The tall hairstyle trend was set by Madame de Pompadour in 18th century France. The pompadour hairstyle is when a 3 foot wire frame tops the head, with a tower of such things as vegetables, miniature glass animals, and toy ships. This article is only important in giving one a sense of culture and lifestyle for ladies at the time. [S.A.]

Gooch, G.P. Louis XV: The Monarchy in Decline. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1956.
This book is effective in portraying the character of Louis XV, as well as the outcomes of the monarchy. While discussing Louis XV in great detail, it also devotes two entire chapters to Madame de Pompadour. The first chapter gives detailed information about her childhood, her becoming the King's mistress, and her status within the Court. It also describes her role in entertaining the King, and the many buildings that she acquired and decorated during her time. The second chapter about her is about her relationship to the King as only a friend, showing the influence she had over him. It discusses her unsuccessful role in the Seven Years' War, as well as her role in other affairs of France. This book is very useful in understanding the influential role that Madame de Pompadour played during 1745-1764.
The larger portion of this book is devoted to King Louis XV as an insufficient ruler. It is not another narrative of his reign, but looks at how the enlightened autocrat shaped the lives of his countrymen. Madame de Pompadour, the mistress and friend of the king, is briefly identified but sheds little detail on her role in history. [S.A.]

Kaiser, Thomas E. "Madame de Pompadour and the theaters of power," French Historical Studies 19, no. 4 (Fall 1996): 1025-1045.
This article highlights the importance of reputation by tracing the political career of Mme Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson. It provides personal background on Pompadour and her influence on the theaters, public, and royalty. It also provides the public's conception of her supposed seizure of power. This article is useful in looking at the publicís sometimes negative view of this historical lady. [S.A.]

Kenneth, Lee. The French Armies in the Seven Years' War. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1967.
The broader scope of this book is on the role of the French in the Seven Years War. However, the author takes a brief but critical look at Madame de Pompadour and her role in politics. He demonstrates how the people saw her as a minister more powerful than the king. The article has an impact on women and society and is useful because it shows a female in a powerful role. [S.A.]

Levron, Jacques. Pompadour. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1963.
This book is an excellent source for detailed information about Madame de Pompadour. It is useful for anyone who wants an account of her life. It takes the reader from her birth to her death with detailed descriptions of her childhood, her marriage, her journey in becoming mistress, and her role as the King's mistress. This book is effective because it is divided into two main parts. The first part tells the story of her childhood and her influential role as King Louis XV's mistress. It includes her relationship with others at Court, her buildings and interests, and ends with her friendship to the King. The second part focuses on politics and discusses her role in the affairs of France including the Jansenist struggle and the Seven Years' War. It concludes with the last years of her life. While it discusses her positive role in decision-making, it also points out the negative effects of some of the choices she made. [T.T.]
This book presents a clear narrative on the life of Madame de Pompadour. It is divided into two parts, her life as the king's mistress and her involvement in politics. The information presented centers around how important this woman was to the society of King Louis XV. It is useful in the way it conveys actual events by presenting letters relevant to her life story. [S.A.]

Lough, John. An Introduction to Eighteenth Century France. New York, N.Y.: David McKay Co., 1990.
Louis XV and Louis XVI are the main subjects of this book. Madame de Pompadour is described as having an important role in foreign affairs, like the negotiations that led up to the reversal of alliances in 1756. She made and unmade ministers, and in times of war, even generals. She is blamed by many of the French people for the extravagance of the court and disasters of the Seven Years' War. [S.A.]

Maza, Sarah. Private Lives and Public Affairs. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1993.
This book's larger study is the public impact of the tales of private lives. Stories of parties to highly publicized events gripped the attention of the reading public in France. Madame de Pompadour's early life and influence are two topics included in the book. The author's discussion is important to the women of society because of the growing public role of women. Pompadour began her career as a public woman through her life as a mistress. [S.A.]

Mitford, Nancy. Madame de Pompadour. New York: Random House, 1953.
Mitford, a writer, tells an excellent story of the life of Madame de Pompadour. Its twenty chapters provide descriptive details about the main events in her life. From her birth until her death, it tells how she came to power as the King's mistress as well as her influence on the arts and in the politics of France. It is very valuable for an in-depth analysis of the life of Madame de Pompadour.
The author shows a comprehensive depiction of Madame de Pompadour's life from birth to death. The theme of the book looks at the important contributions that the author sees as significant to history. It is useful and simply written so that anyone could understand. [S.A.]

Posner, Donald. " Mme. Pompadour as a Patron of the Visual Arts." Art Bulletin. March 1990, 74.
This article examines Madame de Pompadour's role in the visual arts in the second half of the eighteenth century. Posner discusses the views about her patronage to the arts, explaining how she is known for having a profound influence over the arts. The main theme of this article is to understand Madame de Pompadour's influences and motives and to show how her role in the arts has been exaggerated. By providing a description of her role, Posner is trying to show her having a limited role in the arts and how she used such visual arts in order to show her influence and status. [T.T.]
This extensive article examines the role played by Madame de Pompadour in the promotion of the arts in France during the years around 1750, when she was mistress and friend of Louis XV. Apparently, works of art were designed to allude to Pompadour's talents, virtues, and status. Also discusses her limitations in he involvement in arts administration and promotion. [S.A.]

"Madame de Pompadour." Chateau de Versailles. n.d. <>  (21 April 2005).
This site, by the Chateau Versailles, provided a moderate amount of information about her. It gave a brief description of her background, as well as her role as the King's entertainer. The main focus of this site is on the role of Madame de Pompadour as a patron of the arts and relates the term "Pompadour style" to her. It briefly tells of her creation of the Petit Trianon and the decorative styles used. It is quite informative for giving basic information on Madame de Pompadour and includes numerous pictures and links to other related topics, but is not very useful for in-depth research. [T.T.]
This site provides a brief look at the woman behind Louis the fifteenth's reign. Her early life and life at court are presented with a section on Pompadour as an art patron. The information provided here is good for a concise look at the woman. [S.A.]

"Pompadour, Jean-Antionette Poisson Le Normant d'Etoiles, Marquise de." Infoplease. 2000. <> (21 April 2005).
This very short paragraph did not provide much information at all about Madame de Pompadour. It briefly mentions few of her accomplishments and provides a link to information on Sevres, but does not go into depth about her. The article fails to recognize her importance as the King's mistress and seems to underestimate the influence that she had. [T.T.]

"The Art of Love: Madame de Pompadour and the Wallace Collection" <> 2002.  (21 April 2005).
Brief description of her life and the relevant exhibit, with dead link to National Gallery, and a picture.

Toth, Karl. Woman & Rococo in France. London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1931.
A large portion of the book is devoted to the many women who helped to build and spread rococo culture in France. There are illustrations of famous rococo art pieces. One chapter of this book is devoted to Madame de Pompadour, whose perseverance helped her to rise. This is a good book for women's studies because it shows women as instrumental in rococo culture. It does this by providing artwork and literature of women during the time period. [S.A.]

In German:  Bennet, Giles, et al. "Madame de Pompadour und Ihre Zeit." 2002? <> (21 April 2005).  

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Written by Susan Arnett, 1998; and Tricia Tait, 2000
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