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.

She is represented as seated in an arm-chair, holding in one hand a book of music, and with her left arm resting on a marble table on which are placed a globe and several volumes. The largest one of these books, which is next to the globe, is Volume IV. of the Encyclopédie; next to it in a row are the volumes of L'Esprit des Lois, La Henriade, and Pastor Fido, indicative of the tastes at once serious and sentimental of the queen of this spot. Upon the table also and at the base of the globe is seen a blue book upside down, its cover is inscribed: Pierres gravées; this is her work. Underneath it and hanging down over the table is a print representing an engraver of precious stones at work with these words: Pompadour sculpsit. On the floor, by the foot of the table, is a portfolio marked with her arms and containing engravings and drawings; we have here a complete trophy. In the background, between the feet of the consol-table, is seen a vase of Japanese porcelain: why not of Sèvres? Behind her arm-chair and on the side of the room opposite the table is another arm-chair, or an ottoman, on which lies a guitar. But it is the person herself who is in every respect marvellous in her extreme delicacy, gracious dignity, and exquisite beauty. Holding her music-book in her hand lightly and carelessly, her attention is suddenly called away from it; she seems to have heard a noise and turns her head. Is it indeed the King who has arrived and is about to enter? She seems to be expecting him with certainty and to be listening with a smile. Her head, thus turned aside, reveals the outline of the neck in all its grace, and her very short but deliciously-waved hair is arranged in rows of little curls, the blonde tint of which may be divined beneath the slight covering of powder. The head stands out against a light-blue background, which in general dominates the whole picture. Everything satisfies and delights the eye; it is a melody, perhaps, rather than a harmony. A bluish light, sifting downwards, falls across every object. There is nothing in this enchanted boudoir which does not seem to pay court to the goddess,—nothing, not even L'Esprit des Lois and L'Encyclopédie. The flowered satin robe makes way along the undulations of the breast for several rows of those bows, which were called, I believe, parfaits contentements, and which are of a very pale lilac. Her own flesh-tints and complexion are of a white lilac, delicately azured. That breast, those ribbons, and that robe—all blend together harmoniously, or rather lovingly. Beauty shines in all its brilliance and in full bloom. The face is still young; the temples have preserved their youth and freshness; the lips are also still fresh and have not yet withered as they are said to have become from having been too frequently puckered or bitten in repressing anger and insults. Everything in the countenance and in the attitude expresses grace, supreme taste, and affability and amenity rather than sweetness, a queenly air which she had to assume but which sits naturally upon her and is sustained without too much effort. I might continue and describe many lovely details, but I prefer to stop and send the curious to the model itself: there they will find a thousand things that I scarcely dare to touch upon.

Such in her best days was this ravishing, ambitious, frail, but sincere woman, who in her elevation remained good, faithful (I love to believe) in her sin, obliging, so far as she could be, but vindictive when driven to it; who was quite one of her own sex after all, and, finally, whose intimate life her lady-in-waiting has been able to show us without being too heavy or crushing a witness against her.

In spite of everything, she was exactly the mistress to suit this reign, the only one who could have succeeded in turning it to account in the sense of opinion, the only one who could lessen the crying discord between the least literary of kings and the most literary of epochs. If the Abbé Galiani, in a curious page, loudly preferring the age of Louis XV. to that of Louis XIV., has been able to say of this age of the human mind so fertile in results: "Such another reign will not be met with anywhere for a long time," Mme. de Pompadour certainly contributed to this to some extent. This graceful woman rejuvenated the court by bringing into it the vivacity of her thoroughly French tastes, tastes that were Parisian. As mistress and friend of the Prince, as protectress of the arts, her mind found itself entirely on a level with her rôle and her rank: as a politician, she bent, she did ill, but perhaps not worse than any other favourite in her place would have done at that period when a real statesman was wanting among us.

When she found herself dying after a reign of nineteen years; when at the age of forty-two years she had to leave these palaces, these riches, these marvels of art she had amassed, this power so envied and disputed, but which she kept entirely in her own hands to her last day, she did not say with a sigh, like Mazarin, "So I must leave all this!" She faced death with a firm glance, and as the curé of the Madeleine, who had come to visit her at Versailles, was about to depart, she said: "Wait a moment, Monsieur le Curé, we will go together."

Madame de Pompadour may be considered the last in date of the Kings' mistresses who were worthy of the name: after her it would be impossible to descend and enter with any decency into the history of the Du Barry. The kings and emperors who have succeeded in France, from that day to this, have been either too virtuous, or too despotic, or too gouty, or too repentant, or too much the paterfamilias, to allow themselves such useless luxuries: at the utmost, only a few vestiges have been observable. The race of Kings' mistresses, therefore, may be said to be greatly interrupted, even if not ended, and Mme. de Pompadour stands before our eyes in history as the last as well as the most brilliant of all.19

Causeries de Lundi (Paris, 1851-57), Vol. II.


19 Here is an exact statement of the civil register of the State relating to Mme. de Pompadour: Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour, born in Paris, Dec. 29, 1721 (Saint-Eustache);—married March 9, 1741, to Charles-Guillaume Lenormant, seigneur d'Étioles (Saint-Eustache); died April 15, 1764; interred on the 17th at the Capucines de la place Vendôme. Her parish in Paris was la Madeleine; her hôtel, in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, now l'Élysée.

M. Le Roi, librarian of Versailles, has published, after an authentic manuscript the Relevé des dépenses de Mme. de Pompadour depuis la première année de sa faveur jusqu'à sa mort. This statement, which mentions the sums and their uses, presents a complete picture of the marquise's varied tastes, and does not try too much to dishonour her memory.