Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was born in December 1721 in Paris. Her mother was Louise-Madeleine de La Motte, and her father was François Poisson, who was involved in the booming financial sector. When Jeanne’s father was exiled after a banking scandal, his colleague Charles François Paul Le Normant de Tournehem stepped in as her guardian. Due to the close relationship between Charles François and Jeanne, it has been thought that she was really his biological child, although there is no proof of this.
Jeanne was educated to a very high standard for a young girl in the period. Despite her family being non-noble, they were up and coming in the financial world, where the true fortune could be made at this time. A young woman from a banking family could reach higher in marriage if she had good connections and was well educated. In 1727, Jeanne-Antoinette began her education at Poissy convent. At around the age of nine, when she returned to Paris, Louise-Madeleine, her mother, took her to see a fortuneteller. The fortuneteller said that Jeanne-Antoinette’s destiny was to be a mistress to Louis XV, the King of France. From then on, Louise-Madeleine pushed her daughter even more in her education in case these predictions came true.
Jeanne-Antoinette was married in 1741 to the nephew of her guardian Le Normant de Tournehem. Upon her marriage, Jeanne-Antoinette and her new husband, Charles Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles, became the heirs to the fortune of his uncle and received the estate of Étiolles as a gift. The new Madame d’Étiolles came into her own when living in her new home. All of the years surrounded by women like salonnière Madame Tencin, paired with her fine education, had equipped Jeanne-Antoinette well to found her own salon. At Étiolles, the young couple spent their time surrounded by musicians, writers and philosophers such as Voltaire. The couple was blessed with two children by 1744, although both sadly died within the following ten years.
When it was time for Jeanne-Antoinette to fulfil the fortune teller’s prophecy, it was a bad time to forge a career as the king’s mistress. His most recent lover Marie Anne, one of the four famous Mailly-Nesle sisters who were all mistresses of the king, had just died. On top of this, the Parti dévot, a new faction which was built up around support for the queen, were also against any new mistress being able to hold power. Against these odds, with the help of friends in high places at court, Jeanne-Antoinette captured the attention of the king, apparently after meeting him at a masked ball. Within months of beginning her affair with the king, Jeanne-Antoinette received a title, which was a prerequisite to being formally announced at court. The banker’s daughter was now made Marquise de Pompadour, after the name of the Marquisate which King Louis had purchased for her. Pompadour was soon housed in apartments at Versailles, just above the king and began proceedings to officially separate from her husband.
Madame de Pompadour, the little queen, reigned supreme at Versailles for the next twenty years. A Maîtresse-en-titre did not usually last anywhere near as long as Pompadour did, and it is believed that the way she treated Queen Marie Leszczyńska with honour and respect was a key to her success. Pompadour was seen at first as a bringer of harmony for the Royal family. She urged the king to show more affection towards his wife and also gained the approval of his daughters.
Despite being well-received at court for several years, Madame de Pompadour began to face opposition from around 1747. The Parti dévot, amongst others, were unhappy about being ranked below a woman of such low birth. The awful abuse began to circulate around the court and Paris in general about Madame de Pompadour, with writers commenting on her rank as well as mocking such intimate details as gynaecological problems. Despite such opposition, Pompadour carried on in her duties to the king.
Although formally, the Maîtresse-en-titre held no political power behind the scenes, it was often a different story. Every day, Pompadour would receive courtiers, travel with the king and serve as a hostess for court events. Madame de Pompadour began to use her experiences with her salon to become a patron of the arts and as well as rolling out an extensive building programme. Sèvres porcelain thrived under Madame’s patronage, as did other ventures with her backing, such as the publication of an early Encyclopaedia. However, Madame De Pompadour was seen to have stepped into the men’s sphere of politics and was accused of overstepping the mark and even wanting to take the crown for herself. One courtier said that she “is the prime minister and is becoming more and more despotic such as no other favourite has ever been in France”, while other people, such as the Austrian ambassador, believed that it was to her “that we owe everything, and it is on her that we should count for everything in the future”. This was after the signing of a peace treaty between the countries. Whichever opinion we look at, it is clear that Madame de Pompadour was a very influential member of Louis XV’s court.
After around 1750, the sexual element of the relationship between Pompadour and the king began to wane. The mistress suffered problems after a number of miscarriages and could not continue in this sexual role. Whereas a less intelligent and less determined woman would have been supplanted at this stage, Madame de Pompadour maintained her influence on her king and the court. Pompadour fulfilled the king’s sexual needs in another way; by providing lesser mistresses for him from the parc-aux-cerfs where she kept them housed.
Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s little queen and the pillar of the Enlightenment, died in 1764. After suffering from tuberculosis, she died at just forty-two. Many courtiers still resented the hold that Pompadour had held over the king and did not see the merits of her artistic endeavours. In the salon circles, however, her life achievements were revered. The philosopher Montesquieu believed that “In the eyes of posterity, the representatives of the eighteenth century will be Voltaire and Mme de Pompadour”. An impressive eulogy for an incredible royal mistress. 1