Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry: Power Through Portraiture by Jacquelyn White
In the French court, it was not unusual for the King to openly seek the romantic affections of women aside from his wife. There was a special title given to the chief mistress — known as the maîtresse-en-titre — that came with its own private apartments. There were unofficial benefits to this position, such as political influence and financial means to commission works of art. The maîtresse-en-titre had profound influence over the aesthetic tastes of the time; this was based on the kinds of architecture, jewelry, ceramics, furniture, paintings, and sculptures they commissioned. King Louis XV’s most famous mistresses — Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry — had very different ways of expressing themselves through the arts. Though the two women were both mistresses to the same King, they wished to be portrayed in dramatically different lights. Madame de Pompadour’s portraits render her as a highly educated lover and friend to the King Louis XV, while Madame du Barry’s portraits shows an extravagant, overtly sexual Royal Mistress.
Before Madame de Pompadour was maîtresse-en-titre, she was Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson — the daughter of a bourgeois family. Her mother took special care to see that Jeanne received the best education, setting the foundations for her later reputation as a learned Renaissance woman. As she became more well-known in the higher social circles of Paris, she was placed in more situations where she could watch and potentially engage the King. The Ball of the Yew Trees was where a masked Jeanne-Antoinette and Louis XV first conversed — beginning a romance and friendship that would last far beyond its expected duration. Not long after this first meeting, she became the maîtresse-en-titre. She was the first official mistress of the King to not have aristocratic roots, but that was not to say that she was entirely exempt from the rules and traditions of the court. To make her bourgeois origins more acceptable, the King gave her the title of Marquise. Madame de Pompadour was an ambitious woman who understood the potential power of her position, as well as its fragility. She rigidly controlled her image through the portraits she commissioned — all of them showing her as a beautiful and learned woman — to secure her position at court.
Madame de Pompadour as Diana by Jean-Marc Nattier (Fig. 1) is one of the first examples of Pompadour attempting to establish herself as the King’s maîtresse-en-titre. Her beauty is heavily emphasized in this portrait. Her small mouth is upturned in a reserved smile and her fair cheeks are pinked with a youthful blush. It is a warm, welcoming face that confronts the audience with a straightforward gaze. The portrayal of Pompadour’s body focuses on the sexual implications of her youthfulness. The white fabric she wears is falling off her gently sloping shoulders, almost revealing a breast if it weren’t for a single strap tied across her shoulder. Yet the gauzy fabric still outlines the breast in a way that suggests its form. By depicting her as a goddess, this exposure of flesh becomes appropriate because it is allegorical. It serves as a means to display her physical loveliness in a sensual manner without tarnishing her reputation.
Symbols of Diana found throughout the composition — such as the animal skin she wears, the bow she holds delicately in her hand, and the quiver full of arrows resting below her elbow — sets Pompadour into a long tradition of Diana portraiture commissioned by royal mistresses. By posing as a huntress, a mistress would signify her pursuit of affection of the King and advertise a “successful hunt.” Using this visual tradition helped cement the Marquise’s position at court — a position that many initially resented due to her bourgeois roots.
However, the goddess Diana also had a more individualized significance to Pompadour than establishing herself into a portrait tradition. The Marquise kept the attentions of the King for such a long period of time by amusing him, as he was prone to dark moods. One of the ways in which she would occupy him was by accompanying him on his hunting expeditions. This allegory could also be an allusion to the Ball of the Yew Trees — a costume ball where Louis first met Pompadour masked as a Diana. Even before the two met one another, the King took notice of Madame de Pompadour watching his hunts from her coach and would send gifts to the beautiful woman he had seen from afar. All of these things intertwine Pompadour with the hunt, making Diana an appropriate allegorical figure for the Marquise to be depicted as at this time in her life. The work was painted in 1746 — a year after Pompadour was formally introduced to the court — and everyone was waiting for the King to tire of his new favorite. However, Nattier’s portrait makes it clear that the beautiful woman has indeed caught her prey.
The portrayal of Pompadour as a youthful, sexually appealing mistress to the King is in sharp contrast to Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s sculpture Friendship (Fig. 2) — which advertises a changed relationship between the Pompadour and the King. Around the time this sculpture was commissioned Pompadour fell ill and the Marquise — who had never been a particularly sexual woman — ceased all physical relations with Louis.6 For any other maîtresse-en-titre, the end of sexual relations with the King would spell doom for her position. However, Pompadour was an adaptable woman, and maintained a deep friendship with Louis that made her vital to his happiness.
The sculpture is one of a pair depicting the Marquise as an allegory of Friendship — the only surviving piece from the original two. Though Pigalle did not invent this iconography of friendship, he was one of the few to artistically render it. Pulling symbolism from Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, Pigalle shows Pompadour as a young woman dressed in a simple white frock, gripping her chest with one hand and reaching out into open space with the other. Behind her is possibly an elm branch covered in vines, another symbol associated with Friendship. Her breast is exposed, suggesting a vulnerability about her offer of companionship that compliments her reaching hand. Gripping her heart as a sign of sincerity, she offers her hand in friendship to a sculpture of Louis XV — a pendent piece that was created to compliment Friendship. Though the Marquise is still being depicted in a way that idealizes her beauty, youthfulness is not intended to be the focus on the work.
In a court where intrigue was abound, it was more politically advantageous for Pompadour to advertise this changed relationship than to hide it. The King’s eye was prone to wandering and there would be talk that Pompadour’s position in court was undermined. By establishing herself as the epitome of companionship, the Marquise made it known to the court that though her relationship with Louis was no longer physical, it was still strong enough to make her a force to be reckoned with.
In spite of this shift in her relationship with the King, Madame de Pompadour’s influence at court only continued to grow. François Boucher’s 1756 portrait Madame de Pompadour (Fig. 3) depicts the maîtresse-en-titre at the height of her power. One of the keys to Pomadour’s long-term success was her awareness and acceptance of Louis’ need for sexual companionship, something he would seek through other lovers. However, she was also aware that these women who shared his bed would covet her position of maîtresse-en-titre. This work is intended to show her in a grand light, warning any possible rivals of the force they were up against should they attempt to undermine her influence at court.
Displaying wealth and power is one of the primary purposes of this portrait. Madame de Pompadour is shown lounging in a study, staring off into the distance. There is little connection between the sitter and viewer, reflecting the untouchable quality the Marquise takes on in this portrait in her opulent gown. There is a great deal of attention paid to texture. Every expensive fabric, every decoration on Pompadour’s gown, every gold detail on the furniture is meant to be seen and acknowledged. The voluminousness of her dress enhances her physical presence as the fabric of her skirts seems to take over the entire composition. All of this is a declaration that Madame de Pompadour is a woman of prestige and wealth, a woman who is not to be trifled with.
However, power alone does not raise up Pompadour’s image in this work. This is among the many femme savante portraits that the Marquise commissions to show herself as a highly educated woman. Pompadour lounges on her couch with her fingers saving her place in a book — a sign not only of wealth, but of intelligence as well. Other books can be found hidden among the various furnishings crowding the canvas, such as the stacked volumes beneath the table and packed into the bookcase in the background. The supplies needed for writing — such as paper, quill, and seal — can be found laid out on the table beside her. Signs of worldliness and education are tucked away in the lower left-hand corner of the canvas, as we see part of a sheet of music buried beneath a scroll. The Marquise is quite literally surrounded by objects of both status and education, firmly establishing her as a femme savante.
Despite the heavy emphasis on these new symbols of power and intelligence that dominate Boucher’s portrait, remnants of Pompadour’s previous relationship with the King can be found in the work. A small dog — both a symbol of wealth and fidelity — can be found sitting almost worshipfully at her feet. On the bookcase in the background a cupid sculpture can be found leaning against a clock. These small details reference the close relationship between Madame de Pompadour and the King. Though the Marquise’s beauty waned considerably since Nattier’s portrait was completed, Boucher still depicts her with youthful features — including the flawless skin, blushing cheeks, and small mouth bent again into a content smile. Idealizing the sitter was common in Rococo portraiture, but in this particular work the action was not done for simple reasons of flattery or aesthetic. It serves as a reminder of the prestige Pompadour once had for her beauty, but now carries in other arenas. It is this ability to synthesize her beauty, intelligence, and amiability both in practice and in portraiture that secured Madame de Pompadour the position of maîtresse-en-titre until her death in 1764.
Madame du Barry was born Jeanne Bécu to a low-class family in Paris. When she attracted the attention of Jean-Baptiste du Barry — a notorious rake — she immediately became his lover. Jean-Baptiste allowed her to take lovers for a price and she quickly became a well-known courtesan, serving an exclusive aristocratic clientele. Throughout this time Jean-Baptiste groomed his mistress to meet the King, knowing that her charm and beauty could win him. Jean-Baptiste was correct. There are varying accounts of the first meeting between Jeanne Bécu and Louis XV, but all describe it as a “love at first sight” moment and from that point until the hour of his death the King was enamored of the charming, attractive woman. However, like Madame de Pompadour, Jeanne needed an official title to become his maîtresse-en-titre. She was married to Jean-Baptiste du Barry’s brother and given the title of Countess. Du Barry may have won the love of the King, but she struggled to gain the approval of the court. She was a controversial figure at Versailles due to her sordid past. She was openly criticized for her extravagance and excessive spending, something that would later lead to her death at the hands of the Reign of Terror. Yet Du Barry did not attempt to hide her indiscretions while she was in a place of power. Instead flaunted them in her portraiture as a matter of pride.
François-Hubert Drouais’ 1771 painting Comtesse du Barry (Fig. 4) portrays the Countess as a Muse. This subject matter may have been selected based on what was currently in fashion. The ruins of Pompeii had been discovered only 20 years earlier and incited an explosion of interest in everything classical. However, she takes this fascination with classicism and molds it to her own purposes. Du Barry — dressed in classical costuming — sits on a couch covered by a sea of billowing drapery. In her left hand she holds a lyre, crowned with a wreath of roses. The wreath motif is continued as she grasps another garland in her right hand. These emblems indicate that she is being portrayed as the Muse Erato, Muse of lyrical poetry — particularly those of an erotic nature. Roses are related to sexuality and fertility, as well as love — while the lyre symbolizes poetry and sexuality. This combination of imagery was appropriate for Du Barry, whose courtesan past is being clearly alluded to in this erotically charged rendering.
There is also emphasis on Du Barry’s physical traits such as her slender neck, blonde hair, and warm smile. Her figure is attenuated but rather than applying this as a stylistic choice, Drouais is emphasizing her great height — one of the qualities that was said to make her very beautiful. Though she engages the viewer through smiling eyes, the perspective still seems to skew her upwards — reminding us of her raised status. Further extensions of the Muse allegory and allusions to a classical past can be found in the marble bust and paint palette laying on the ground in the lower right hand corner, but these objects are by no means the focus of the work. It is the objects that indicate Du Barry’s allegorical identity as Erato that are important. It is an advertisement of her sexual prowess and the role she fulfills for the King.
François-Hubert Drouais’ Madame du Barry as the Goddess Flora (Fig. 5) takes on much of the same themes as the previous work. Alluding to a classical past, the Countess has herself depicted as Flora — a Roman goddess who was raised to divine status after living a mortal life as a courtesan. This is only appropriate for the Countess who — after living the life of a commoner used for sex — became the mistress of a monarch, a position that was about as close to a God as a mortal could get. The strings of roses Du Barry fingers, as well as the flowers woven into her hair, are signs of her identity. The pearl bracelets circling her wrists are indications of wealth, but also of Flora’s former status as a courtesan. There is nothing overtly sexual in this allegorical depiction, but the subject matter combined with the cloth drifting off of her shoulder to expose a large swathe of her flesh gives the work a sexual dimension beyond the aesthetic itself.
Drouais’ use of pastels and gentle brushwork adds a softness to this work. The entire The ringlets falling about her shoulders appear to float down her back. Aesthetically they have in common with the clouds she is leaning upon — reiterating this idea of lightness. She directly engages the viewer through her gaze and tender smile, which implies both beauty and compassion. Though she alludes to her Courtesan past in this work, Du Barry is portrayed in a manner that suggests warmth and purity. Not only does this make full use of the Flora allegory, but it looks to personality traits of Du Barry that the King favored — as it was this juxtaposition of innocence and sexuality that initially captivated Louis.
Madame du Barry by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun is a portrait of the Countess that flaunts her wealth and station. Her wears a gown of luxurious white satin, the billowing sleeves and low cut neckline lined with expensive lace. This indicates the extravagant materials she was able to afford because of her position. The plunging neckline reveals a flawless, pale chest — the paleness also being a sign of her wealth and status. Her wrists are circled with pearl bracelets, possibly alluding to many fine pieces of jewelry that the King gifted to Du Barry. Unlike the simple hair styles that she sported in previous portraits, her updo interwoven with flowers and feathers as curls fall about her shoulders. A pink sash tied about her waist — echoing the roses twined in her hair and the intense, youthful blush in her cheeks — highlights her slimness. There is special attention paid to texture that shows the importance of materials in the portrait. Every sumptuous detail — from the pattern of the lace to the sheen on the satin — is emphasized.
Despite her elaborate dress, Du Barry appears at ease as one arm leans against a decorous pedestal and the other rests at her side. The wreath of flowers makes an appearance yet again as she holds it delicately in her right hand, continuing the symbolism of sexuality that can be seen throughout much of her portraiture. The composition is very stage-like, with Du Barry being in the foreground and a strong beam of light spotlighting her. This makes the Countess — and more specifically her wealth and beauty — the center of the viewer’s attentions.
Though the portraits of these Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry may appear to be superficial portrayals of Louis XV’s most famous lovers, each portrait has its own message to convey that is embedded in tradition, mythology, and contemporary events at court. Each mistress shows an awareness of the way she desires to be portrayed. Madame de Pompadour changed her image throughout her long career as maîtresse-en-titre, stressing her education, power in the court, and role as lover and later friend to the King. However, Madame Du Barry was much more consistent in her public image, showing herself as the King’s sensual and bejeweled lover. The images each woman conveyed were different, but vital to their keeping their positions as maîtresse-en-titre.