Dames: Madame de Pompadour


A 1756 portrait of Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher 

Grab a glass of champers and let us tell you about a salonnière so smart and lovely that she bewitched a king and became one of the most powerful women of the 18th century. Known as Reinette (French for “little queen”), this gal wielded so much influence over the arts and politics in France that her style – Pink Pompadour, anyone? – remains a defining aspect of French culture. We are, of course, talking about Madame de Pompadour, the famously fabulous mistress of King Louis XV.

Madame de Pompadour was born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson in Paris in 1721. Tragically, when our lass was a wee girl, her father, a financier, was forced to flee France to avoid being put to death for fishy financial dealings. Tongues wagged and suspicions were confirmed when the tax collector, Charles François Paul Le Normant de Tournehem, who had long been thought to be our gal’s biological father, stepped forward and became Jeanne Antoinette’s legal guardian.


A portrait by Jean-Marc Nattier depicting Madame de Pompadour as Diana the Huntress 

Le Normant de Tournehem raised and educated our gal with great care, sending her to the Ursuline convent in Poissy and providing her with dance, music and theater lessons from the best actors and singers in Paris. As brainy and assertive as she was beautiful and talented, Jeanne Antoinette also attended the Club de l’Entresol, an exclusively male think-tank and discussion group.

When Jeanne Antoinette was 19, Le Normant de Tournehem arranged for her to marry his nephew, Charles Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles who – no surprise – was head over Pompadour heels in love with his enchanting bride. As a wedding gift, De Tournahem gifted the newlyweds a starter home – well, a lavish estate really – that would became the setting for Jeanne Antoinette’s salon, which attracted the greatest painters, sculptors, philosophers and writers of the day.

Louis XV

King Louis XV

So admired was this French salonnière for her intellect, charm and hosting skills that King Louis XV, then considered the most handsome man in France, invited her to attend his Yew Tree Ball at Versailles in 1745. Fifteen thousand others were invited to the masked fête but not to worry. Our savvy and ambitious gal wasn’t one to miss the forest for the trees. She costumed herself as a lovely shepherdess and guided herself over to the King, who was dressed as a topiary and they spent the evening dancing, flirting and delighting in one another’s company. The seeds of amour had been planted; our gal’s carriage was seen outside his Versailles apartment the very next morning.

The Yew Tree Ball at Versailles

An illustration of the 1745 Yew Tree Ball at Versailles

Within a few weeks, Jeanne Antoinette had her own digs at Versailles, an annual mistress salary and, after divorcing her husband, a new title, the Marquise de Pompadour. For years, Madame de Pompadour and the King spent their days and nights together indulging in their shared passions for art, architecture, animals and politics. After about eight years, Madame de Pompadour lost her fleshly interest in the King and – being the open-minded gal that she was – introduced him to a series of young women who were able to check the box on his carnal interests.

Of course, their deep friendship continued and Madame de Pompadour became the King’s right-hand woman and closest confidante, wielding tremendous influence over everything from court affairs to foreign policy. She even encouraged Louis XV to hire Voltaire – one of her old salon regulars – as the court historiographer, championed the first French encyclopedia, designed the Place de la Concorde in Paris and helped establish Sèvres, which became one of the most famous porcelain factories in Europe.

Pompadour Porcelain Flowers

Pompadour porcelain flowers

In the winter of 1764, at the age of 42, Madame de Pompadour died of tuberculosis. She departed the party far too early but not before leaving an indelible mark on France and the rest of the world. In addition to her many cultural and political contributions, her style inspired the Pompadour coiffure, the Pompadour heeled shoe, the Pink Pompadour shade of Sèvres porcelain, the porcelain Pompadour flower and the marquise diamond, which is said to have been created to resemble the shape of her mouth. What a gal. Here’s to Madame de Pompadour, one of the most influential salonnières of all time.

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