History has given us some great characters and some falsehoods to banish.
On the 29th of December, 1721, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour and mistress of King Louis XV of France (1710-1774,) was born in Paris to financier Francois Poisson and his wife Louise-Madeleine. Or rather, that was the respectable version of events. It’s likely that Jeanne was the daughter of either the tax collector Charles Francois Paul Le Normant de Tournehem or the financier Jean Paris de Monmartel.
Francois Poisson fled France when Jeanne was four years old because he had unpaid debts which carried the potential punishment of a death sentence. It was eight years before the authorities informed him that he could return home as his name had been cleared. Jeanne’s legal guardian from 1725 was Charles the tax collector.
When nine years old, her mother took her to see Madame de Lebon, a fortune teller, who predicted that Jeanne would one day hold the heart of a king. After visiting de Lebon, their time was spent preparing Jeanne for her distant role of the love of a king, an outcome which was never in question as far as Louise-Madeleine was concerned. She called her daughter Reinette ("little queen").
“The King was with me as often as the affairs of the crown would allow; leaving all grandeur behind him...”
— Madame de Pompadour
Marriage, Money and Property
Aged nineteen, Jeanne was married to the nephew of Charles Le Normant de Tournehem, the tax collector. Charles Guillaume Le Norman d’Etiolles became the elder Charles’ sole heir when he disinherited his other nieces and nephews. A great fortune was settled on Charles Guillaume and Jeanne. Charles the elder made Jeanne a gift of the extensive Etiolles Estate situated on the edge of a royal hunting ground in Senart in north-central France.
Charles Guillaume was deeply in love with her, and for her part, she promised that she would only leave him when the king formed an attachment to her.
Two children were born to the couple, a son who died in infancy and a daughter Alexandrine, known as Fanfan. She passed away aged nine.
Attracting Louis XV's Attention
When Louis XV of France came to the throne, following the long reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715,) he was just five years old so a regency was appointed to carry out the day to day running of his realm until he was thirteen years old, then considered the age of maturity. Louis had his coronation ceremony in October 1722 at Reims Cathedral and he made his main residence Versailles instead of Paris' Louvre Palace which his predecessors had resided in. In 1725 he married Maria Leszczynska (1703-1768,) the daughter of deposed ruler Stanilaw I Leszczynski of Poland and his wife Catherine.
Jeanne contrived a meeting with the unsuspecting king at his hunting ground in the forest of Senart. She, as his neighbour, was permitted to follow the king’s hunt at a distance. This was not sufficient for Jeanne. She rode directly in front of the king twice, once in a blue dress in a pink phaeton and secondly in a pink dress aboard a blue phaeton. He sent her some venison but did not knock at her door declaring his lust for her. Louis XV mistress Marie Anne de Mailly, Madame de Chateauroux died in December 1744 and two months later Jeanne received an invitation to attend a ball at Versailles.
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Marquise de Pompadour
Louis XV, wearing a mask and accompanied by several courtiers, loudly proclaimed his affection for Jeanne at the Versailles ball and then unmasked himself. She was installed at Versailles in March 1745 and her rooms were above the king’s. By May, Louis had organised Jeanne and Charles Guillaume’s official separation. Her husband never forgave her for deserting him. Divorce was not viable in resolutely Catholic France so Charles Guillaume kept a series of mistresses.
On the 24th June Jeanne was created the Marquise de Pompadour and she made her debut at the court of Versailles on the 14th September. She cleverly tried to make great friends of the members of France’s royal family. She was not universally accepted. Numerous courtiers were scandalised that the king’s mistress was of lowly stock, a commoner, and they used her maiden name against her. Poisson, the French for fish, offered opportunities for insults, witticisms and puns and libellous texts known as poissonades. The slights privately upset her but she did not show it publicly.
Sadly, her mother Louise-Madeleine passed away on Christmas Day 1745 so she did not see Jeanne’s installation as the undisputed maitresse en titre, official primary mistress, to Louis XV.
Parc au Cerfs
Other courtiers ingratiated themselves with Jeanne so that she would petition the king on their behalf. Louis trusted her to tell him the truth. She became indispensable to him as an unofficial president-prime minister influencing the appointments and dismissals from high positions. Jeanne was raised to the rank of duchess on 12th October 1752 and she was a lady in waiting to Queen Marie from 1756.
Contrary to rumours, Madame de Pompadour did not provide girls for the king’s pleasure. The Parc au Cerfs (Stag Park) on the Versailles grounds was not the brothel of legend with Jeanne acting as a madam. Apparently, it housed one woman at a time, albeit in sometimes quick succession as Louis became bored easily. Jeanne preferred the park to having a rival at court. The ladies of the Parc au Cerfs did not have his heart as she did, and in her opinion, they were incapable of usurping her.
By 1750 Louis and Jeanne’s passion had turned to strong friendship. Jeanne accepted the responsibility for the shift in their relationship; her ill health often left her indisposed and she claimed to suffer from a “cold temperament,” a low libido. She presented herself increasingly through art commissions as the devoted friend and confidante of his majesty.
Au Revoir Louis
In the 1760s Jeanne fell ill with tuberculosis. The king took time to care for her as she faded. Madame de Pompadour died aged forty-two on 15th April 1764 at Versailles. She was buried at the Capuchin convent in Paris where her mother and daughter already lay.
Jeanne’s estranged husband Charles Guillaume quietly married his mistress, the dancer Marie Aimee Maltha, the mother of several of his children. Queen Marie was the longest-serving queen consort in French history, at 43 years. She passed away in June 1768. Louis XV survived until 10th May 1774 when smallpox claimed him.
Further reading: Nancy Mitford: Madame de Pompadour, 1954 and Madame de Pompadour's two volume memoirs.
- Mitford, Nancy, & Foreman, Amanda. (2012). Madame de Pompadour (eBook). NYRB Classics
When Madame de Pompadour became the mistress of Louis XV, no one expected her to retain his affections for long. A member of the bourgeoisie rather than an aristocrat, she was physically too cold for the carnal Bourbon king, and had many enemies.
- Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour | French Aristocrat | Britannica
- Madame de Pompadour Was Far More Than a ‘Mistress’ |Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine
- Madame de Pompadour: Rococo style icon | Art UK
© 2021 Joanne Hayle