“On this day in 1721, Madame de Pompadour, a member of the French court and the maitresse-en-titre, or official chief mistress of King Louis XV, was born.
Born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Pompadour was the daughter of Francois Poisson and his wife Madeleine de La Motte, although many suspected Poisson was not her biological father. Pompadour, who was widely known to be intelligent, beautiful, and sophisticated, was educated at the Ursuline convent in Poissy. Thereafter, she learned the arts and became an accomplished actress and singer, through home tutoring.
In 1741, Pompadour was married to Charles-Guillaume Le Normant d’Etiolles, with whom she had two children and one who died a year after his birth. At this point, the beautiful young lady, only 19 or 20, was becoming known in the fashionable world of Paris. She founded her own salon at her estate in Etiolles, visited by many fashionable Francs, including Voltaire. On 25 February 1745, Pompadour attended a masked ball at Versailles, where she was introduced to Louis XV. By March, Louis had made her his mistress and installed her in an apartment directly below his. By May, she was separated from her husband. In June, she was presented at court as the Marquise de Pompadour. This was, of course, an official title for her real role, the King’s maitresse-en-titre, or official chief mistress.
Pompadour quickly became the Louis’ favourite. She enlivened the king’s life, accompanying him on hunting expeditions, playing cards, and throwing dinner parties for him. She also established a good relationship with his wife, Queen Consort Marie Leszczynska, assuaging Louis’s guilt. The Queen reportedly used to say, “”If there must be a mistress, better her than any other.”” Pompadour frequently had portraits made of herself, highlighting her delicate features, and reminding Louis of her beauty.
At court, Pompadour’s influence was considerable, though not always astute. She was something of a tastemaker and patron of the arts, making her two decades in power the height of artistic taste in French society. Politically, her influence was less shrewd. She urged an alliance with Austria, which entangled France in the disastrous Seven Years’ War.
By 1750, Pompadour had suffered two miscarriages and was no longer intimate with the King, though they remained close. As her health deteriorated, Pompadour arranged other mistresses to replace her and in 1764 she died from tuberculosis at the age of 42. At her death, Voltaire wrote: “”I mourn her out of gratitude… Born sincere, she loved the King for himself; she had righteousness in her soul and justice in her heart; all this is not to be met with every day.”””
Credit: © Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy
Caption: To maintain his interest, Madame Pompadour had her portrait painted frequently for King Louis XV.