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Madame de Pompadour Was Far More Than a ‘Mistress’

Even though she was a keen politicker and influential patron, she’s been historically overlooked

Madame Pompadour, by Francois Boucher (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

The mystique and allure of Madame de Pompadour’s partially mythic legacy has attracted the attention of generations of historians and the public. But her full legacy includes more than just being the beautiful and adored mistress of King Louis XV. Here are three important aspects of Enlightenment France that Pompadour helped to shape.

Politics

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson is better remembered as Madame de Pompadour, the official chief mistress of Louis XV. Her position was a highly political one as well as a sexualized one–a duality many women in power have navigated over the years–but it isn’t always remembered as such.  

The court of Louis XV was a generation away from the French Revolution, and Louis XV's reign can be remembered as “disastrous” for France, laying many of the seeds of that revolution, writes historian Tess Lewis. In this tense political climate, the King’s favored mistress drew a lot of extra criticism.

She “shouldered much of the blame” for France’s failure in the Seven Years War and for the running court debts, writes Lewis, as she began to function as “de facto prime minister.” As the king's closest confidant and advisor, she often controlled who had access to audiences with Louis XV and sometimes even made public statements on his behalf.

Pompadour has been portrayed as a wily schemer who used sex to gain inappropriate influence over the king and grab power for herself, Lewis writes–but to the extent this is true, she was hardly alone. In the cloistered court at Versailles, everyone was vying, directly or indirectly, for power and influence over one central figure: the king.

“The Marquise, certainly, had her flaws, but these flaws were simply not great enough to warrant the relentless maligning of her reputation in her lifetime and after her death,” writes Lewis.

Art

Thanks to 2000s historical scholarship, Pompadour has begun to be remembered for her artistic contributions both as patron and creator.  “Pompadour wasn’t only a well-known patron of the arts but also the owner of a creative mind,” writes Marissa Fessenden for Smithsonian.com. She did etchings, cut gems, played music, staged court amusements and curated and commissioned artists to produce works that were displayed in her private collection and at the court.

Her interest in art stretched to production–she is also remembered for supporting a royal porcelain factory that made beautiful dishes and other things at Sèvres, near Versailles, and for supporting the tapestry industry.

Knowledge

Women who could interpret and curate artistic and scientific innovation played an important role in the French Enlightenment. That’s true for Pompadour–she knew and patronized Enlightenment figures like Voltaire. As Nancy Mitford writes for Encyclopedia Britannica, she was “a protector of most of the authors and the editor of the Encyclopedie.”

This text, the first French encyclopedia, “was a showcase for representatives of the new schools of thought in all branches of intellectual activity,” writes the Encyclopedia Britannica in a separate entry. “In its skepticism, its emphasis on scientific determinism, and its criticism of the abuses perpetrated by contemporary legal, judicial, and clerical institutions, the Encyclopédie had widespread influence as an expression of progressive thought and served in effect as an intellectual prologue to the French Revolution.”

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