The Life of Madame de Pompadour, Royal Mistress and Advisor

Meet the French courtier who influenced the Enlightenment

Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, circa 1748-1755
Portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (Image: Louvre Museum / Wikimedia Commons).

Madame de Pompadour (December 29, 1721–April 15, 1764) was a French noblewoman and one of Louis XV’s primary mistresses. Even after her time as the king’s mistress came to an end, the Madame de Pompadour remained an influential friend and advisor to the king, especially as a patron of arts and philosophy.

Fast Facts: Madame de Pompadour

  • Known For: Beloved mistress of King Louis XV who became an unofficial advisor to the king and an influential leader of the arts
  • Full Name: Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour
  • Also Known As: Reinette
  • Born: December 29, 1721 in Paris, France
  • Died: April 15, 1764 in Paris, France
  • Spouse: Charles Guillaume Le Normant d'Étiolles (m. 1741; separated 1745)
  • Children: Charles Guillaume Louis (1741-1742), Alexandrine Jeanne (1744-1754)

Early Life: The Reinette

Jeanne Antoinette was the daughter of Francois Poisson and his wife Madeline de la Motte. Although Poisson was her legal father and the husband of her mother, it is more likely that Jeanne’s biological father was Charles François Paul Le Normant de Tournehem, a wealthy tax collector. When Jeanne Antoinette was four, Francois Poisson had to leave the country due to unpaid debts, and Tournehem became her legal guardian, thus giving even more credence to the rumors that he was her real father.

Like many girls from families of means, Jeanne Antoinette was sent to be educated at a convent when she reached the age of five. The education was excellent, and she proved to be a popular student. However, she became ill and returned home four years later.

Her mother took her to a fortuneteller, who predicted that Jeanne Antoinette would win the heart of a king. From that point on, those closest to her began calling her “Reinette” (a diminutive, or nickname, meaning “little queen”). She was educated at home by the best tutors. Tournehem arranged for her instruction in all the subjects deemed necessary for a woman’s education, in order that she might one day attract the interest of the king.

Wife and Socialite

In 1740, Jeanne Antoinette married Charles Guillaume Le Normant d'Étiolles, the nephew of her guardian Tournehem. Upon their marriage, Tournehem made Charles his sole heir and gave Jeanne Antoinette an estate (one situated near the royal hunting grounds) as a wedding gift. The young couple were only four years apart in age, and they did fall in love with each other. Jeanne Antoinette promised she would never be unfaithful—except for the king. They had two children: a son who died as an infant, and a daughter, Alexandrine, who died at the age of nine in 1753.

As a stylish young married woman, Jeanne Antoinette spent time at many of the elite salons in Paris. She encountered many of the figures of the Enlightenment and, in time, began hosting her own salons at her Étiolles estate, which also attracted many leading figures of the day. Educated and curious, she became a notable and witty conversationalist in the company of these people.

By 1744, Jeanne Antoinette's name was being mentioned at court, attracting the attention of Louis XV. Her estate was adjacent to the king’s hunting grounds in the forest of Sénart, so she was permitted to watch the royal party from a distance. To get the king’s attention, however, she rode directly in front of his group—not once, but twice. The king took notice and sent her a gift of venison from the hunt.

The king’s official mistress died in December 1744, leaving the position vacant, and Jeanne Antoinette was invited to Versailles to the masked ball celebrating the engagement of the Dauphin. At the ball, Louis publicly unmasked and declared his affection for Jeanne Antoinette.

Becoming the Royal Mistress

In order to be properly introduced at court, Jeanne Antoinette had to have a title. The king solved this by purchasing the marquisate of Pompadour and giving it to her, making her the Marquise de Pompadour. She became the king’s official mistress, living at Versailles in apartments near his, and was formally presented to the court in September 1745. Notably, she got along quite well with the queen consort, Marie Leszczyńska, and worked to have a good relationship with the royal family overall.

Madame de Pompadour was more than just a mistress. Louis XV respected her intelligence and understanding of social nuance, and as a result, she functioned as an unofficial prime minister and advisor. She supported the First Treaty of Versailles, which created an alliance between former rivals France and Austria, and rallied support behind government ministers whose fiscal reforms helped France become one of the world’s wealthiest countries.

Madame de Pompadour's influence was not limited to the political sphere. Building on her years in the Paris salons, she championed scientific, economic, and philosophical exploration as well. Her patronage protected the growing theory of physiocracy (an economic theory that emphasized the value of agriculture) and defended the Encyclopédie, a fundamental text of the Enlightenment that was opposed by religious figures. Her activities and her common birth earned her enemies and made her the subject of malicious gossip, but her relationship with Louis and the royal family remained mostly unaffected.

The King’s Friend and Advisor

By 1750, Pompadour ceased being Louis’s mistress, in large part due to her many health problems, including recurring bronchitis, three miscarriages, and chronic headaches. Nevertheless, she maintained her influential position, since their relationship had become much more than just a sexual one. The king did not take a new official “favorite,” but instead installed a succession of temporary mistresses at a chateau away from court. According to most reports, his heart and loyalty remained with Pompadour.

During this era, Pompadour turned her patronage to the arts, which she used to announce her loyalty to the king (through commissions honoring him) and to cultivate her own image. In 1759, she purchased a porcelain factory, which created many jobs and ultimately become one of the most famous porcelain makers in all of Europe. Pompadour herself learned to engrave under the tutelage of Jacques Guay and Francois Boucher, and she was a significant influence in the development of Rococo style. It is likely that she contributed a fair amount to the work of the artists under her patronage. In fact, some historians consider her an actual collaborator on many works.

Death and Legacy

Madame de Pompadour's poor health eventually caught up to her. In 1764, she suffered from tuberculosis, and Louis himself cared for her during her illness. She died on April 15, 1764 at the age of 42, and was buried at the Couvent des Capucines in Paris. Because of her influence on French society and her unusual advisory role to the king, the Madame de Pompadour's legacy has endured in pop culture, from the publication of biographies to an episode of Doctor Who to the naming of a particular diamond cut.

Sources

  • Algrant, Christine Pevitt. Madame de Pompadour Mistree of France. New York: Grove Press, 2002.
  • Eschner, Kat. “Madame de Pompadour Was Far More Than a ‘Mistress’.” Smithsonian, 29 December 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/madame-de-pompadour-was-far-more-mistress-180967662/.
  • Foreman, Amanda, and Nancy Mitford. Madame de Pompadour. New York Review of Books, 2001.
  • Mitford, Nancy. “Jeanne-Antoinette Poission, marquise de Pompadour.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 25 Dec. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jeanne-Antoinette-Poisson-marquise-de-Pompadour.