Monday, August 29, 2011

Grace & Favour-The World of Madame de Pompadour

I had planned to be in France this September, but unfortunately my plans fell through.  I was to escort a group on a tour devoted to the French Decorative Arts, visiting a number of chateaux including Vaux le Vicomte and Versailles.  I had been eagerly anticipating the costume event at Versailles which is looking at the influence of the Rococo on fashion designers today.  I understand that throughout the Grand Trianon period pieces are mixed with interpretations by some of today's top designers.  Ah well, c'est la vie!
Pater, portrait of Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, circa 1745
So, instead, I dedicate this blog to the most influential woman of the Rococo period, a great patroness of  all the arts, Jeanne-Antoinette Lenormant d'Etiolles, nee Poissson, otherwise known to history as Madame de Pompadour.  If their was ever one individual who embodies a particular place and time, it is she.  Born in 1721, the daughter of a financier who had to flee France due to his black market activities, she was introduced to King Louis XV at a masked ball in 1745 at the palace of Versailles.  This ball was a celebration for the wedding of the Dauphin, Louis Ferdinand.  The only son of the King, who unfortunately would not live to take the throne himself.  But, he would father the ill fated Louis XVI.
In the image above, we see the 23 year old, captured as Diana, goddess of the hunt.  This is the costume that she was wearing when she met Louis XV.  He and the gentlemen of the bedchamber came as a forest of yew trees.  By latter accounts, she spent the evening weaving throughout the grouping of men trying to figure out which one was the king.  She truly was on the hunt. It may seem strange by todays standards, but in 18th century France, the concept of mistress was an occupation worth pursuing.  The stakes and the competition were particularly high when the object of your attention was the king.
Pompadour chose a rather clever subject for her costume.  Dressed as a classical goddess, it allowed her the freedom to show off her physical charms in a way that might not otherwise have been acceptable.  Portrayed above by Pater, presumably in her masque costume, she is dressed in chemise, leopard skin and a drapery, (actually the goddesses cape) implying a classical context.  The grey blue, a colour associated with the french crown, may have been an artistic license at this time, since the conquest was now complete.  Pater chooses to allow the subject to dominate the canvas.  The viewer is allowed to explore the figure of this woman as it is revealed through the classical draperies.  Her thighs are well delineated but the drapery provides a degree of modesty across her lap.  The chemise slips seductively from her shoulders and threatens to reveal her bosom except for the cord of her cape which grips it to her chest.  Notice how little the distinction between the tones of her flesh and the white crisp linen chemise.  This is intentional and plays on the fashionable desire for a porcelain like skin. Contemporaries would comment on her neck and arms and hands.  All beautifully offered up here for the first time.  This will be just one of the many portraits painted and exhibited of the Marquise over her life time.

Chateau de Bellevue

The king quickly became enamored of her and in the same year installed her in her own private apartments at Versailles.  They were located above his own, and reached through a secret staircase which allowed them as much privacy as was possible.  In 1745, Madame de Pompadour commenced her reign as "maitresse en titre", and she would eventually become a titled noblewoman in July of 1749, when presented with an estate of her own, the Chateau de Bellevue and the title of Marquise.  In September, she was officially presented to the court as his "favorite".  By 1752, her physical relationship with the king would cease and she would be made a lady in waiting to the queen.  Her influence at court continued and she is reported to have recruited young ladies for the king's pleasure.  In 1756 she encouraged the foundation for the patronage of the Sevres porcelain factory and she was duly honoured with the dedication of a new colour in her name, Pompadour Pink.

Rococo panelling for the salon at Bellevue.

The Marquise took an enormous interest in all of the arts and quickly set the fashions of the day.  The panelling above, (boiseries) made of oak would be painted by Christopher Huet in the fashion for Chinoisserie.  These small and intimate rooms, allowed for all types of fantasy in their decoration and exotic themes from the Orient and Turkey could be seen in textiles, carved details and porcelains.  Notice the console table is considered by the architect to be part of the panelling.  This was very typical and the tables height was defined by the height of the dado rail.  The excesses of Rococo decoration are already lessening and a straighter more classical line can be seen in the door and wall panels.  The cartouche shapes, as seen below, from earlier interiors such as the Hotel de Soubise, are being replaced.  Madame de Pompadour was a great patron of the excavations at Pompeii and along with her brother, the Marquis de Marigny, did much to pave the way for the Neo-Classical period of Louis XVI.

Between 1750-57, the Marquise would oversee and collect the magnificent furnishings for Bellevue.  In 1750, the dealer Duvaux would charge the Marquise for the night table below.  Veneered in tulipwood, the delicate table contains marquetry of naturalistic flowers sprayed across it's surface.  The bronze gilt mounts both protect the delicate veneers and outline the form itself.  Note the fluid line where the leg joins into the apron.  This is a typical feature of Rococo furniture.  Sabot feet of bronze, again for protection, lend a feminine air to the piece.

Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, N.Y.
F. Boucher
An artist who was a particular favorite of Jeanne's was Francois Boucher.  It is reported that he painted her likeness 32 times!  Showing at the Royal Academy, the Marquise would have been more recognizable to the Parisians than the queen herself.  Images of women dressing, being undress or at their dressing tables abound at this time.
Here, wearing a combing robe or sack to protect her gown from hairs and powder, Boucher gives us this intimate portrait of the woman and courtesan.  Once again, her complexion competes with the whiteness of the linen and lace garment itself.  The pink ties and ribbons at her breast, bring out the warmth of the flesh which otherwise would read as cold as stone.  Holding the brush to apply blush to her cheeks, her toilette becomes an art form of its own.  Apart from the back rail of the chair, nothing else of the room is revealed, focusing the viewer's attention on the subject at hand.

In her publication, "Dress in 18th Century Europe", Aileen Ribeiro states that the ideal face was of regularity and proportion in an oval form with a small straight nose, slightly rosy cheeks and lips and white complexion.  The face is the chief seat of beauty.  White paint or lead were used as a foundation to correct the imperfections of the complexion.  The effect was to create the look of an enameled surface.  Grey hair powder and rouge were necessary to highlight the desired skin tone.  Red lead, mixed with vermilion was painted onto the cheeks, the desire for naturalness was not the aim.  Rouge was used to emphasize the eyes and indicate an amorous fury.  It seems that this style of makeup was typical of french fashion and was copied throughout Europe.  In Russia they even went so far as to dye their teeth black to make them look "japanned".  A term for lacquer.

Mechanical table, 1760, Metropolitan Museum
Above, Madame de Pompadours dressing table.  Possibly made for Bellevue, it may appear in an image by J. Chauvet of her with her daughter, Alexandrine.  The coat of arms of the Marquise appears in the marquetry of the top along with her other interests; painting, music, architecture and gardening.  The table top slides back to reveal compartments for cosmetics and powders.  A mirror pops up to be utilized for the "art" of the toilette.  This process, along with dressing, could take several hours to complete.

Fragonard's image of Venus at her Toilette, illustrates beautifully the theatre of dressing in the 18th century.  His indebtedness to Ruebens is apparent in the dreamy and wispy brush strokes and colour palette. Venus reclines, in draperies not unlike a chemise, as her hair is being dressed by one of her attendants.  Notice that her likeness and profile are more to the 18th century ideal of beauty than the classical. Ladies amuse her with music or gossip to relieve the tediousness of dressing.  Starting at her feet, a lady would have lotions massaged into her skin.  Here, her hair is being dressed earlier than would  normally be the case.  The familiarity of the actions would be instantly recognized by the 18th century viewer.

F. Boucher, 1759
At the height of her influence, and just a few years before her death, Boucher once again gives us an image of Grace and Favour.  A particular favorite of mine, and discussed constantly with my students, it now hangs in the Wallace collection in London.  A small composition, a cabinet piece really.  The viewer is offered a rare sight of Madame de Pompadour standing.  The setting is in a lush garden, the likes of which, we only see in Rococo painting.  The green foliage is the perfect foil for the peachy pink silk taffeta of the gown.  No light source is apparent within the image itself.  It is as if she is divine and illuminates the world around her.  The terrace may very well be the one located off her private apartments at Versailles, by this time she has sold the king back her Chateau de Bellevue.  The Versailles planter on the right suggests this location.  The Marquise stands as a great pyramid of silk and lace flounces revealing just the slightest glimpse of her foot (the erogenous zone of the period).  She leans back, offering herself to the viewer in a moment of royal ease and in doing so draws our attention to the sculpture of Venus and Cupid, along with the roses, an allusion to herself as the goddess of love.  The lap dog has been used symbolically for centuries to represent "fidelity".  (Appropriate, considering her relationship with the king.  She is known to have been able to keep a secret.  A personal trait he must have prized.)  On her wrists, two multi strand pearl bracelets, given to her by the king.  They appear often in her portraits and must have been some of her favorite jewels.

Above: The sack back gown was the somewhat standard form of the day.  In this example, the textile is beginning to develop the more linear qualities associated with the transition from the organic plant forms of the Rococo with the stripes of the Neo-Classical period.

Below:  It is said that the new warp printed silks which created a blurred line in the design, were favoured by Pompadour herself.

Circa 1760, Metropolitan Museum
Kyoto Collection
Silk Brocade, Chinoisserie motif
F.H. Drouais, 1763-4
Madame de Pompadour's last sitting was for a portrait by Drouais.  Begun in 1763, her illnesses would not allow the artist to finish it from life.  Relying on his preparatory drawings, it was finished posthumously in 1764.  Pompadour died at Versailles of pulmonary congestion.  The portrait is at once familiar and final.  Seated in her boudoir at Versailles, Drouais has surrounded her with props to summarize her life. A large silk drapery, the final curtain if you like, is of Pompadour rose.  It's heavy Baroque folds provide a final flourish.  A cabinet in the background refers to her as a woman of letters.  (She actually interceded on the behalf of Diderot with Louis XV, who found his publication of the encyclopedia dangerous).  The volumes contained in the japanned case can attest to her education, certainly in the classics.  She sits at a tambour frame, she was a gifted embroiderer.  A work table, with porcelain mounts and in the latest Neo-classic taste, is at the ready and reminds us of her interest in the Sevres venture.  Leaning against the work table is a folio, the type associated with architectural drawings.  She was instrumental in the design of the Petit Trianon and what is today, the Place de la Concorde.  Her love of music, she was a gifted player of several instruments, is to be recorded in the viola on the floor.  She is dressed in the fashionable painted silks of the time.  Drouais has captured the last vestiges of the Rococo in the scrolling details of the fabulous lace flounce at the hem of her garment.  In her face, we see an older, middle aged woman.  Now 43, her face is a little fuller, her chin doubled.  She has become a matron.  A light, like a halo, shines around her face and any distractions from the decor have been eliminated.  

To say that Pompadour was influential in her day is an understatement.  Much of what we recognize as the best of Rococo art and design would not have been possible without her considerable patronage and support.  Not only did she impact the age in which she lived, but she laid the ground work for the succeeding styles of Louis XVI and the Empire.  French Rococo, while derided by many an art historian, has enjoyed numerous revivals in the past 200 years and will doubtless continue to be associated with all that is "Grace and Favour".


  1. Love the article, saw her last portrait in the National Gallery in London, her story is fascinating!

  2. Great text! Do you remember where the picture of the broiderie is from ( I can't find it anywhere else on the net (outside of pinterest pins linking to your page).

    I'd much appreciate it!