The Marquise in Limbo
Madame de Pompadour and the historians
Portrait of Thomas Hobbes, oil on canvas, c. 1669, John Michael Wright,
The National Portrait Gallery
Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, oil on canvas, 1756, Francois Boucher
The traditional view and popular image of Madame de Pompadour, the celebrated mistress of Louis XV, is that of a powerful woman in a man’s world determining the policies of France thanks to her influence over a weak monarch. For those interested in eighteenth-century French art, she is seen as an innovative patroness, the high priestess of the rococo whose influence radiated from the grand setting of the Palace of Versailles or from her residence at Bellevue, overlooking the Seine. Yet, in the light of recent historical research, both these perceptions, current in the nineteenth century, are now held to be false. Should these judgements be themselves open to question?
In her lifetime, Madame de Pompadour was already the victim of libellous attacks from the clandestine press, stigmatizing, at times in salacious terms, her alleged control of State and church, and her ready access to the royal finances. The demolition of her reputation proceeded apace when the French Revolution gained momentum and freedom of the press established. In her heyday the king’s mistress employed the police to pursue authors and distributors of hostile works directed against her. Men were imprisoned in the Bastille or at Vincennes for years, and she sent emissaries abroad, especially to the Dutch Republic, to hunt down such works. With the Revolution this control was removed. The Marquise de Pompadour came to be seen as the epitome of the corruption and political incompetence of the ancien régime. Various memoirs pretending to be hers had appeared after her death in 1764, as did now parts of her private correspondence, often raising questions about their authenticity to this day. Authentic letters of hers to the Marshal-Duke de Richelieu on political matters were published anonymously (probably by Faur and Sénac de Meilhan) in 1791 with the complicity of Richelieu’s son, as part of quarrel between the latter and the abbé Jean-Louis Giraud Soulavie, who was publishing a life of the marshal at the same time. Soulavie was one of the most prolific historians during the Revolution and the Empire. He was a sensationalist, who gave a growing public avid for revelations about the fallen monarchy plenty to satisfy their curiosity. He undoubtedly saw and collected a huge amount of original material some of which has survived. It is interesting that some of his major works were also translated and published in England, though not a study he wrote on Madame de Pompadour.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, history-writing became a serious occupation for journalists and politicians. Among these, the now forgotten J.B.H.R. Capefigue was one of the first to take a favourable view of Madame de Pompadour in two of the seventy-seven books he wrote in one hundred and forty-five volumes. Inevitably critics noted that there were inaccuracies in his erudition but praised his ideas. More accurate editions of memoirs and correspondences began to appear. In the 1850s the journals and memoirs of a leading minister of Louis XV’s reign, the marquis d’Argenson, came out in two competing editions and they covered the period up to 1757. D’Argenson was not an impartial judge of the marquise but he cast shafts of light on her personality and role. A fly-by-night editor and publisher, Poulet-Malassis, nick-named “Coco-Malperché” by Victor Hugo, and active in publishing Baudelaire, left a sound edition of Pompadour's letters held in various libraries which were published in 1878. These and other sources helped to form the basis of the first scholarly work on the marquise, that by the Goncourt brothers. Their Madame de Pompadour, first published in 1879, re-edited in quarto size ten years later with the inclusion of yet more material and lavish illustrations (some made possible by the new process of heliochrome) remains a considerable achievement on several levels. The Goncourts were the first to research original documents to test the accuracy and validity of contemporary memoirs. They sought out and reproduced works of art related to the marquise, some of which they purchased themselves. They consulted sale catalogues and listed portraits of her.
It is fair to say that the main thrust of the Goncourts’s impressive work was to demonstrate that Madame de Pompadour influenced the pattern of art patronage and that she was the “mistress of the rococo.” They did cover certain aspects of her political role, as they had been able to consult the unpublished memoirs of the marquise’s close confidant, the abbé de Bernis, and to reveal her role in the secret negotiations leading to the signing of the treaty of alliance between Louis XV and Maria Theresia in 1756. But these themes were secondary to their aim of emphasizing her cultural resonance.
The political aspects of her role emerged more clearly with the publication of those memoirs of Bernis in 1878 by the young Frédéric Masson, the future historian of Napoleon and of the Empire. Masson had obtained permission from the Bernis family to use the original text dictated by the abbé to his niece. He completed his edition with the confidential correspondence between Bernis during his period as foreign minister with Louis XV, Stainville (later to become the Duc de Choiseul), ambassador to Vienna, and Madame de Pompadour, using the originals belonging to the Duc de Mouchy - a fellow Bonapartist, one might add.
Further details about the marquise’s close involvement in political matters appeared a few years later in two works about a leading member of her circle at court, the Duc de Nivernais. A cleric, Mgr Emile-Antoine Blampignon (1839-1908) published Un grand seigneur au xviiie siècle. Le Duc de Nivernais d’apres sa correspondance inedite avec les principaux personnages de son temps (1888). His was a fairly straightforward publication of fragments of correspondence between the duke, Stainville and the marquise. Nivernais had been ambassador to Rome, later to Berlin, and finally to London, where he was involved in the final stages of the Treaty of Paris in 1762-1763. A more substantial work on him than Blampignon’s was published in 1890-1891 in two volumes by Lucien Perey, the nom de plume of Luce Herpin (1825-1914), a Swiss lady historian living in Paris. Like Blampignon, she had gained access to the archives of Nivernais’s heirs and descendants, the Marquis de Mortemart, the Marquis d’Havrincourt, and the Comte de Guébriant. This was the Indian summer of a Proustian French aristocracy. They still had their hôtels particuliers in Paris and substantial country houses. Lucien Perey fortunately made extensive use of these different papers, because these family collections have subsequently been dispersed in the wake of two world wars, rigid laws of succession with papers being shared out amongst heirs, and the change of use of the chateaux in which they were housed: Saint-Vrain, Entrains, Havrincourt, and Meillant. The final dispersal took the form of sales in Paris in the 1970s and 1980s. Few of these documents were rescued by national depositories and archives.
Decoration for a Masked Ball, 1764 reprinted c.1860, Charles Nicolas Cochin I
For a comprehensive picture of the Marquise de Pompadour, these papers also needed to be matched with those of Choiseul, as the Goncourts had already observed. Their existence was already attested in 1829, when Choiseul’s nephew published some letters from them in the Revue de Paris. Then, at the turn of the century, Etienne Charavay, a respected dealer in manuscripts, came across the original autograph memoirs of Choiseul. Probably a first shot at a longer text, they were published in 1904 by Charavay’s nephew, Fernand Calmettes. The main part of this unique document relates to a court intrigue in which Choiseul was able to be of assistance to Madame de Pompadour, an event which led to his brisk political advancement. The manuscript disappeared again, only to reappear in 1966, and, after a curious Anglo-French incident, it ended up in a French library. Calmettes had clumsily completed the text by including material by Choiseul from two bound volumes in the hand of an amanuensis which had also come on the market (and have again gone into private hands). These documents showed how wrong French historians have been, and still are, in doubting the authenticity of the published Mémoires du duc de Choiseul, ancien ministre, écrits par lui-même (1790).
With all this documentation, one might have expected that a study of the Marquise de Pompadour’s significant role in the political history of the period between 1750 and 1764 might have been written. She herself left no archive, though her brother, the Marquis de Marigny, was present in her rooms at Versailles shortly after her death when Choiseul, then a minister, appeared and removed a large portfolio from her cabinet under his cloak. Marigny felt the need to go to a lawyer and leave a record of what he had witnessed. One caught a further glimpse of the marquise in the two-volume biography of Choiseul by Gaston Maugras (1910), but the author did not gain access to the Choiseul archives at Ray-sur-Saône, which seemed to be the key to success. Then, in 1917, a retired general entered the scene. General Léonce Philpin de Piépape (1840-1925) belonged to the circle of King Louis Philippe’s erudite son, the Duc d’Aumale, at Chantilly. He had written estimable books on the Princes of Condé and the Duchesse du Maine. Possibly because he had Burgundian links, the Duc de Marmier, owner of Ray-sur-Saône, showed him Madame de Pompadour’s letters to Choiseul. Piépape’s publication of them in the Revue de l’Histoire de Versailles in 1917 was an unmitigated disaster. He could not date the letters, he quoted them in dribs and drabs, elided some letters into others, and was woefully ignorant of their context.
Another chance of producing a decent book on Madame de Pompadour was missed in 1928, when Pierre de Nolhac (1859-1936), the distinguished curator of Versailles, and the author of several books on Louis XV and the court generally, published his Madame de Pompadour et la politique, d’après des documents nouveaux. He was aware of Piépape’s unsatisfactory publication, but had previously managed to obtain copies made by the Marquis de Marmier, son of the duke, of these numerous letters of Madame de Pompadour. He did not publish them all, but quoted from them extensively. One suspects he returned the copy after use. However, the problem with de Nolhac was that he had convinced himself that Madame de Pompadour had only a limited political influence. He made little or no attempt to discern the meaning of her highly allusive letters to Choiseul. An opportunity had been lost to exploit a crucial source, which remained closed again until the letters were sold in 1994. Fortunately, before their dispersal, we were able to examine them in detail. Once again, the French National archives made only a minimal attempt to retain them. Still, a large quantity of Choiseul papers remained at Ray-sur-Saône when, by the will of the last owner, they were given to the Departmental Archives in 2017. However, they are currently the subject of litigation which prevents their being made available to researchers, and even then, they will have to be catalogued first.
Since 1923 then, no progress has really been made to return seriously to the subject of the political role of the marquise. The reasons for this situation go beyond the question of the availability of relevant archives, a problem which has, to some extent, been overcome over the years. Firstly, the “Life-and-Times” kind of history went out of fashion in the twentieth century in France as it did elsewhere. Secondly, the prevalence of social and economic history captured the serious market, especially once the “Annales” school of history became prevalent, with its hostility to “histoire événementielle” and to the medium of biography. Narrative and biography became the preserve of historians working on nineteenth-or twentieth-century politics, although it is amazing how many historians of the Annales school have been willing to turn their hand to writing biographies for an eager “general public.” The political history of the ancien régime has become largely the study of the development and interplay of the institutions of the monarchy. Thirdly, there was the undeniable impact of the Action Française school of history. Founded by Charles Maurras (1868-1952), the Action Française was an anti-democratic and royalist political, philosophical, and cultural movement. It tackled the re-writing of the history of France, especially that of the monarchical period, which it claimed, not without some justification, had been deliberately slanted towards a Republican and secular vision. Its leading historians were Jacques Bainville (1879-1936) and Pierre Gaxotte (1895-1982). Both were fine writers, members of the French Academy, and their works are still in print, while their reputations outlived the decline of the Action Française in the wake of that movement’s adherence to Vichy France.
In his Siècle de Louis XV (1933) Pierre Gaxotte rehabilitated Louis XV as a serious monarch, and he belittled the role of mistresses as they detracted from the image of kingship, and such mistresses could be relegated at best to cultural and artistic adornments of the court, or indeed as pastimes in the daily lives of most well-heeled princes, noblemen or financiers. The influence of Gaxotte spread to the academic world. Michel Antoine (1925-2015), a product of the prestigious Ecole des Chartes and the leading historian of Louis XV adopted Gaxotte’s vision. Antoine was primarily an institutional and administrative historian, charting the development of the machinery of government during the king’s reign in two substantial works, Le Conseil du Roi sous le regne de Louis XV (1970) and the biography Louis XV (1989). The reader is reminded that Madame de Pompadour was not a member of the royal council (a fact, by the way, she recognized herself in a reply to a royal commander in Toulouse who was pressing her to act on his behalf). For Antoine, like Gaxotte before him, the king and the marquise and various ministers might talk about political matters in the intimacy of sumptuous private apartments at Versailles, Trianon, or Bellevue, but the marquise was not an official part of the established political process. This rigid and simplistic view has led to the marquise being regarded as a political light-weight. Subsequent biographers, who were mainly women, took this line and, while emphasizing her patronage of the arts, played down her political influence. Nancy Mitford, in a highly readable and sympathetic account of 1955 turned her into a jolly member of the Mitford clan, the view of A.J.P. Taylor. Danielle Gallet, in a book with the promising title of Madame de Pompadour, ou le pouvoir féminin (1985) claims that Louis XV allowed her to believe that she played a political role, not exactly a powerful woman in a man’s world. Evelyne Lever, in her Madame de Pompadour (2000), was unencumbered by these concerns, and saw the marquise as l”amie nécessaire” of Louis XV acting as wife, minister, “thérapeute” as well, and making and unmaking ministers. Hers is not a sufficiently critical approach, though she was aware of the archival constraints, and the book is padded out by the transcription of the marquise’s letters to Richelieu which had already been largely published over a century earlier.
With Elise Goodman, The Portraits of Madame de Pompadour. Celebrating the femme savante (2000) an art historian reflects the emphasis increasingly placed on the marquise’s portraits. The books and props that appear in certain portraits, in particular the celebrated pastel by La Tour show her wide range of attributes: Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des loix, a volume of the recently published Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, a portfolio of prints to which she had contributed a drawing. All these items display her cultural interests. According to the author their presence established the marquise as a woman of the Enlightenment. Yet she became wary of the philosophes and identifiable books disappeared from her later portraits.
In 2002 a great exhibition was held consecutively in Munich, at Versailles, and in the National Gallery in London, with the new emphasis on Madame de Pompadour and the Arts. It was in a sense directed against the legacy of the Goncourts. The organizers of the exhibition drew attention to the inventory of her effects which was carried out after her death. The Goncourts had not seen it; it was not published until 1939 by Jean Cordey. It revealed the extent, and therefore the limits, of her artistic taste. She was found to be little interested in painting and had no desire to influence its evolution. Her chief passion lay in objets d’art and in furniture, where her taste was forever in search of novelty, including the neo-classical style. The thrust of the exhibition was blunted by the failure to arrange beautiful furniture and artefacts as parts of decorative ensembles, bringing rooms to life. The approach was also larded in the catalogue with modish new concepts. There was a strong attempt to convince the visitor that Madame de Pompadour was constantly “presenting an image of herself”, “inventing” or “re-inventing herself”. There was little documentary evidence advanced to support this anachronistic and unconvincing type of interpretation, which was also carried forward in part, but only in part, in Colin Jones’s book of the exhibition, Madame de Pompadour. Images of a Mistress (2002). In this and in a later collective work (2012) Jones usefully revealed the hitherto unpublished disrespectful and obscene caricatures which one of her own favoured artists, C.G. de Saint-Aubin, secretly produced of her and her pretensions.
Finally, more challenging in its approach is the work of a French social historian, Robert Munchenbled. In his Mystérieuse Madame de Pompadour (2014) he uncovers the financial underworld of the ancien régime, seeing her as linked from birth to a web of private financiers and army suppliers who had made their fortunes thanks to the continuous and costly wars at the end of Louis XIV’s reign. François Poisson, her supposed father, worked as an efficient driver of horses and supplier to the armies under the direction of the Pâris brothers, already powerful financiers. Like them, he was a great survivor in a cut throat world where embezzlement and bankruptcy were ever present threats. He managed to buy ennobling office, move to Paris and married the beautiful daughter of the meat supplier to the Invalides, where the French military establishment was based. It was a milieu in which conjugal fidelity was a bar to further social and financial advancement. Madame Poisson deployed her charms generously, and it is possible that her daughter was the child of a farmer general of taxes called Le Normand de Tournehem. The young Jeanne-Antoinette was duly married to Le Normand’s nephew and heir, Le Normand d’Etioles. Munchenbled dwells upon her looks, her graceful bearing and the unusually comprehensive education she received under Tournehem’s guidance. She became a brilliant hostess at Etioles, their place in the royal forest of Sénart, where the Pâris brothers also had their residences. In years to come, she became an active player in a private financial network that had some hold on the State. This is clearly an important discovery, although it still remains for other historians to discover the precise nature of her influence on internal politics and on the conduct of diplomacy and war once she moved to Versailles.
In conclusion, with her political role increasingly discounted, and her patronage of the arts downgraded, the marquise now seems to be in limbo, finding dubious favour only with art historians who think the portraits and sculptures she commissioned for her private houses and gardens reflected merely her “concern” to present an “image” of herself. How can the marquise be rescued from this fate? She remains an attractive figure. She was the most remarkable example of social mobility within the stratified society of the ancien régime. She is also a tragic figure; for a woman with a weak heart, the pace and stresses of court life and intrigue eventually proved fatal and she had no time to enjoy her wealth and status.
The rescue of the marquise must begin by emphasizing that she remained part of a ruthless financial network and was influenced by its refined taste. Her unique and sophisticated upbringing made it relatively easy for her to penetrate the great salons of Parisian high life and culture. She also penetrated the court and when she became the king’s mistress, she already had close financial contacts in his immediate household.
If we explore further the intricate workings of the governmental system, we can piece together the ways by which she did play a role in it, chiefly by striving to bring a degree of coherence into that system. She succeeded in placing her protégés in government, in the army, and in embassies, and, on a lower level, secured army commissions for relatives and friends, or jobs anywhere in France for friendly writers, or even membership of a French academy for a Polish aristocrat. She had a long-standing relationships with powerful financiers on whom the State depended. Munchebled can help us to disentangle her opaque financial dealings. All these avenues, once explored, will give us keys to learning more about her and, I hope, rescuing her from limbo.
Portrait of Louis XV of France, pastel on grey-blue paper, 1748, Maurice Quentin de La Tour
Madame de Pompadour in her Study, pastel on grey-blue paper, c.1749-1755, Maurice Quentin de La Tour
Portrait of Denis Diderot, oil on canvas, 1767, Louis-Michel van Loo
Duc de Choiseul at his desk, oil on canvas, 1786, Adelaide Labille-Guiard
Background painting is The Education of the Children of Clovis, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1861