MADAME DE POMPADOUR

(DE LA TOUR)

CHARLES-AUGUSTIN SAINTE-BEUVE

Madame de Pompadour was not exactly a grisette, as her enemies affected to say and as Voltaire has said in a malicious moment: she was a bourgeoise, a blossom of finance, the most lovely woman in Paris, witty, elegant, adorned with a thousand gifts and a thousand talents, but with a way of feeling that did not have the grandeur and coldness of an aristocratic ambition. She loved the King for his own sake, as the handsomest man in his realm, as the one who had seemed the most amiable to her; she loved him sincerely, sentimentally, if not with a profound passion. On her arrival at court, her ideal would have been to amuse him with a thousand entertainments borrowed from the arts, or even from matters of the intellect, to make him happy and constant in a circle of varied enchantments and pleasures. A Watteau landscape, sports, comedies, pastorals in the shade, a continual Embarkation for Cythera, that would have been the round she would have preferred. But once transported into the slippery enclosure of the court, she could realize her ideal very imperfectly. Kind and obliging by nature, she had to take up arms to defend herself against enmity and perfidy and to take the offensive to avoid being overthrown; necessity led her into politics and induced her to make herself Minister of State.

She loved the arts and intellectual things far above the comprehension of any of the ladies of quality. On her arrival at her eminent and dishonourable post—much more dishonourable than she thought—she at first only thought of herself as destined to aid, to call to her side, and to encourage struggling merit and men of talent of all kinds. This is her sole glory, her best title, and her best excuse. She did her best to advance Voltaire and to make him agreeable to Louis XV., whom the petulant poet so strongly repelled by the vivacity and even the familiarity of his praises. She thought she had found a genius in Crébillon and honoured him accordingly. She showed favour to Gresset; she protected Marmontel; she welcomed Duclos; she admired Montesquieu and plainly showed it. She would have liked to serve Jean-Jacques Rousseau. When the King of Prussia ostentatiously gave d'Alembert a modest pension and Louis XV. was scoffing in her presence at the amount (1200 livres), in comparison with the term sublime genius, for which it was given, she advised him to forbid the philosopher to accept it and to double it himself; which Louis XV. did not dare to do; his religious principles would not permit it on account of theEncyclopédie. It was not her fault that we cannot say the century of Louis XV., as we say the century of Louis XIV.

Portrait of Madame de Pompadour. De la Tour.

Portrait of Madame de Pompadour.
De la Tour.

There are then in the career and power of Madame de Pompadour two distinct periods: the first, the most brilliant and most greatly favoured, was that following the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748): in this, she completely played her rôle of a youthful favourite, fond of peace, the arts, the pleasures of the mind, and advising and protecting all things happily. There was a second period, greatly checkered, but more frequently disastrous and fatal; this was the whole period of the Seven Years' War, the attempted assassination by Damiens, the defeat of Rosbach, and the insults of the victorious Frederick. These were harsh years which prematurely aged this weak and graceful woman, who was drawn into a struggle beyond her strength.... However, my impression is that things might have been worse, and that, with the aid of M. de Choiseul, by means of the Family Compact she again covered her own mistakes and the humiliation of the French monarchy with a certain amount of prestige.

It seems that the nation itself felt this and felt more especially that after this brilliant favourite there would be a greater fall; for when she died at Versailles, April 15, 1764, the regret of the Parisian populace, which some years before would have stoned her, was universal....

The one who seemed to regret her the least was Louis XV.; it is related that seeing from a window the hearse on its way from Versailles to Paris, the weather being dreadful, he only said:

"The Marquise will not have very fine weather for her journey."

All the masters of the French school of her time painted a portrait of Madame de Pompadour: we have one by Boucher, and another by Drouais which Grimm preferred to all others; but the most admirable of all is certainly La Tour's pastel owned by the Louvre. To this we go in order to see la marquise before we allow ourselves to judge of her, or to form the least idea of her personality.