Madame de Pompadour: History’s Greatest Mistress

Madame de Pompadour didn't come from an aristocratic family, yet she managed to capture the king's heart and shape the culture of her country.

Jun 6, 2024By Jacob Wilkins, BA History

madame de pompadour history great mistress


Power was largely a male preserve in eighteenth-century France. Though women were valued for their beauty and femininity, the realms of politics, war, science, art, and architecture were dominated by men.


Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV, was an exception. Her decisions impacted the king, the royal court, and French society. Rather than limiting her sphere of influence to her lover’s bedroom, her beauty was a stepping stone to power.


The Making of Madame de Pompadour

View of Versailles, Garden Façade by Adam Perelle, c. 1680s. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Unlike other royal mistresses, Madame de Pompadour did not come from an aristocratic family. Her real name was Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, and she was born into an upper-middle-class family in Paris. Her father, François Poisson, was forced to go into exile following a financial scandal, though he did return to France several years later.


Not much is known about Jeanne-Antoinette’s childhood. But we do know she had a knack for art and performance. Having been taught by exceptional tutors, Jeanne-Antoinette could act, dance, and sing at a young age. She also loved gardening, painting, and natural history.

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Jeanne-Antoinette benefitted from the influence of Charles François Paul Le Normant de Tournehem, her legal guardian and father figure. Tournehem opened doors for Jeanne-Antoinette, allowing her to mix in cultured Parisian circles. One of his nephews, Charles Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles, became Jeanne-Antoinette’s first husband. The couple had a son and a daughter, but both children died young, and the relationship was not destined to last.


Jeanne-Antoinette met King Louis XV, her future lover, during a masked ball at the Palace of Versailles in February 1745. It was a splendid occasion. The palace was illuminated inside and out. There were coaches, candles, torches, flares, and buffets. Beautiful young women from the capital tried their chances with the king, and Jeanne-Antoinette made the greatest impression.


Few at the royal court believed the relationship would last long. But these assumptions were incorrect. Within weeks, Louis moved his new mistress into a suite of rooms at Versailles. He also bought Jeanne-Antoinette an estate in the commune of Pompadour, along with a new title: Madame de Pompadour.


Lover, Friend, and Entertainer

marquise de pompadour maurice quentin
Full-length Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 1755. Source: Musée du Louvre, Paris


The king of France was a complex man. Though he wanted to live up to the divine standards expected of him, he had many extra-marital relations and sometimes felt guilty about being unfaithful to his wife.


Louis was also a military man and spent much of 1745 alongside his troops during the War of the Austrian Succession. Madame de Pompadour, meanwhile, had to adjust to the climate of the French court, learning the language, codes, and formalities. There was a particular way of getting up, walking around, and holding cutlery. Cheerfulness, even if it wasn’t genuine, was synonymous with politeness.


It was essential to learn these customs, for a discarded royal mistress would lose much of her social standing. Thankfully, Pompadour was more than capable. She was a very intelligent young woman with plenty of knowledge. The philosopher Voltaire said she had read more than any of the older women living at Versailles.


Pompadour devoted herself to Louis, enriching his life beyond the confines of the bedroom. She played cards with the king, went hunting with him, joined daily briefings with the ministers of state, and became his dearest friend. She entertained her lover with amateur dramatics for many years, managing and starring in plays like Tartuffe by Molière.


In addition to amateur dramatics, Pompadour organized fêtes and supper parties with a large array of food. Helped by a traveling chef and his expert assistants, Pompadour’s events often featured eight courses and approximately fifty dishes, ranging from stews and soups to roasted meats. Gifted though these chefs undoubtedly were, some of the surviving menus feature dishes that would probably raise eyebrows today.


The Failure of the Seven Years’ War

the death of wolfe benjamin west
The Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West, 1771. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Madame de Pompadour wielded a significant amount of influence over her lover. In 1749, for instance, she convinced Louis to exile the Count of Maurepas from Paris after he was accused of writing derogatory epigrams about her.


Though Pompadour’s sexual relationship with the king ended in 1751, she still had plenty of influence. Indeed, the epigram incident wasn’t the only time she exercised her power.


Immersing herself in the court’s internal politics and state affairs, Pompadour pressed Louis to fire ministers who disliked her, determined to hang onto her privileged position. She managed to befriend the Duke of Choiseul, whose diplomatic ventures were key to France’s involvement in the Seven Years’ War.


The war started well for France, with early campaign successes in Germany, Canada, and India. Pompadour helped bring about the appointment of several influential figures during the war, including the Duke of Belle-Isle and Cardinal de Bernis.


However, by the end of the conflict, Britain had taken many French territories, including those in America and India. The cost of war increased taxation, contributing to the economic woes that preceded the French Revolution. Given Pompadour’s contribution, France’s failures did not improve her reputation.


In contrast to the War of the Austrian Succession, the king did not go to the front lines himself, opting to remain with Pompadour throughout the conflict. Yet the failures of the Seven Years’ War had taken a mental toll on Pompadour, leaving her with feelings of depression.


Painting the Royal Mistress

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Pompadour at Her Toilette by Francois Boucher, 1750. Source: Harvard Art Museums


Though Madame de Pompadour did not excel in matters of war, she had an abundance of positive influence when it came to the arts. Due to her celebrity status, her artistic decisions had ripple effects, impacting both the royal court and French society at a time when Rococo art was the biggest trend.


Moreover, as a youthful, good-looking mistress with an elegant posture and fashionable clothing, she appealed to the great portrait painters of the age. Jean-Marc Nattier, known for his royal and aristocratic portraits, painted Pompadour when she was a newcomer to the French court. The new mistress was portrayed as the goddess Diana with a quiver of arrows, and the portrait can now be found at the Louvre.


marquise de pompadour beautiful gardener carle van loo
Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, as a Beautiful Gardener by Carle Van Loo, c. 1760 Source: The Versailles Collections


François Boucher also immortalized the youth of Pompadour, and his work can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Louvre. However, his most famous portrait of the royal mistress, Pompadour at Her Toilette, sits inside the Fogg Museum at Harvard


Carle van Loo is another noteworthy name. A contemporary of Boucher, van Loo was raised in a family of painters and depicted a range of subjects during his career, including biblical scenes and legendary characters. He produced two of Pompadour’s most famous portraits: La Belle Jardinière and The Sultana.


Decor and Architecture

sevres porcelain factory product
A porcelain product from the manufactory at Sèvres, 1757. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Madame de Pompadour influenced decorative arts and architecture in the eighteenth century. In 1756, she arranged for the porcelain manufactory at Vincennes to be moved to Sèvres, which was conveniently close to her Château de Bellevue. The sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet supervised the new manufactory. Pompadour provided the company with a royal warrant and visited regularly, offering ideas of her own for the manufacturing process.


Shortly afterward, a new ground color was invented by the chemist Jean Hellot. Named after the great royal mistress, Rose Pompadour was a rich pink that worked well with flower designs and scenes of French country life.


Pompadour also influenced French architecture, appointing her brother Abel-François as general director of the King’s Buildings. He directed the construction of buildings such as the École Militaire and the Petit Trianon, the latter of which became a favorite home of Marie Antoinette, the future Queen of France who lost her head during the French Revolution.


Madame de Pompadour’s Death & Legacy

madame de pompadour tambour frame fran‡ois hubert drouais
Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame by François-Hubert Drouais, c. 1760. Source: National Gallery, London


Madame de Pompadour was never the healthiest of individuals. She suffered from breathing difficulties, heart palpitations, and dizziness, and her gloom deepened in later years due to France’s poor performance in the Seven Years’ War.


While staying in Choisy in 1764, Pompadour developed a migraine. It was so severe a valet had to help her walk to her room. A fever followed, and a doctor diagnosed her with pneumonia – though it was probably tuberculosis.


Pompadour returned to Versailles on April 7, but the bad weather did nothing to improve her condition. It soon became clear that Pompadour’s life was coming to an end. Many visitors came to see her during her final days, including her lifelong friend and former lover, the king of France.


Death came on April 15. Louis was moved by the loss, demanding his deceased mistress be buried in accordance with her rank. Two days after her death, eight men carried her coffin to the Church of Notre Dame in Versailles. The procession also included priests, choir boys, and horses. Pompadour was laid to rest at the Couvent des Capucines with her mother and daughter.


Pompadour’s rise certainly wasn’t conventional, but despite being a woman from a non-aristocratic family, she wielded a considerable amount of power. She was more than just a dispensable mistress. She became the king’s best friend, influencing his decisions at court and beyond.


Though the Seven Years’ War somewhat tarnished her reputation, her cultural impact cannot be ignored. Her successes in the realms of art and architecture were remarkable, given she lived through a time when men dominated both political and cultural decision-making.

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By Jacob WilkinsBA HistoryJacob Wilkins holds a BA in History from Royal Holloway, University of London. He has written for several publications and has a particular interest in modern European and British history. When he’s not working, he enjoys reading books, watching tennis, and running up hills.