A 1756 portrait of Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher
In honor of Women’s History Month, join us as we 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 Jeanne Antoinette was just a wee girl, her financier father 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 Jeanne Antoinette 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—a lavish estate really—that became the setting for Jeanne Antoinette’s salon, attracting the greatest painters, sculptors, philosophers, and writers of the day.
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 guests were invited to the masked fête, but 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. They spent the evening dancing, flirting, and delighting in one another’s company, and the seeds of amour were firmly planted—our gal’s carriage was seen outside his Versailles apartment the very next morning.
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 less than a decade, 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 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
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 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. Bravo Madame de Pompadour, one of the most influential salonnières of all time.
To read more about the great salonnieres in history, click here.