Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Madame de Pompadour: Patron, Cultural Advisor, Artist

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (December 1721-15 April 1764)


Madame de Pompadour, hand on the 
keyboard of a hapsichord,
portrait by François Boucher
The Walters Art Museum (Baltimore) has been hosting an exhibit of the prints of Madame de Pompadour--although she is best known for her role as mistress of Louis XV and the hairstyle named after her, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson is a woman with more to her than beauty, sexuality, and pouffy hair. The exhibit continues through 29 May 2016. (The link to the Walters' exhibit, "Madame de Pompadour, Patron and Printmaker," is here, though I am not sure it is/will be a stable link.)

Poisson was exceptionally well educated by her mother, Madeleine de la Motte, who is said to have recognized her daughter's many gifts and trained her to ensure that she would achieve greatness--a marriage to a wealthy man and, eventually, a place as mistress to the king.

But even before her  relationship to the French king, Poisson's accomplishments are notable. Her early convent education and subsequent private tutoring were supplemented by voice lessons at the Paris Opera and by attendance at the Club de l'Entresol, sometimes described as an "academy dedicated to moral and political questions," where she was exposed to economic and political discussions by clerics, intellectuals, government administrators, and some members of the nobility.

After her marriage in 1741 to Charles Guillaume Le Normant d'Étiolles, she established a salon at the Château d'Etoilles, just outside Paris, attended by painters, sculptors, and many of the French Englightenment intellectuals who came to be known as the philosophes, including Voltaire.

Although her sexual relationship to Louis XV was relatively brief (probably about five years), they remained devoted friends for the rest of her life. He granted her the title of marquise de Pompadour in 1745. 

Pompadour's manuscript
collection of her own etchings,
Walters Art Museum
The king relied on her for political advice, which has been viewed negatively (of course)--she was blamed for France's failures, including a humiliating loss in the Seven Years' War. But she proved extraordinarily successful as a cultural minister, not only in her patronage of the arts, science, and literature, but for her own artistic achievements. 

As patron, she collected a personal library of more than 3,500 volumes, she made sure Voltaire was hired as a historian for the court, she supported Diderot and his Encyclopédie (ensuring it was not suppressed), she commissioned a topographical survey of France, and she helped to establish the Sèvres porcelain factory. Along with the king and her brother Abel-François, marquis of Marigny, who with her help had been named "directieur générale des bâtiments du roi, arts, jardins et manufactures," she helped choose paintings for the royal collection and helped to plan and design a number of architectural projects, including the Petit Trianon in Versailles. 

But it is as an artist that she is least well known, and thus the significance of the current Walters exhibit. She was not only a patron of  the gemstone engraver Jacques Guay, she herself learned to carve, putting her own scenes into rings and bracelets, intending them as gifts. To preserve a record of her gemstone carvings, she learned to make and print etchings. It is this artwork, a selection of her 52 etchings and some of her gemstone carvings, now on display at the Walters.  

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour--so much more than a royal mistress who died young. 

One of Pompadour's 52 etchings