While this project has a fixation on Boucher, since his 1756 work was the only portrait that could have drawn the public eye during her lifetime, Madame de Pompadour’s preference for him becomes most characterizing when his depictions of her are compared with those of other artists she commissioned.
Hired by the National Gallery to write an analytical book to accompany an exhibition of her portraits, Colin Jones provides an invaluable guide to her masterful vanity in Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress. The following are but a few pieces of artwork discussed by Jones, pieces that would have hung in the halls of Versailles for the King and his friends to see.
Her love affair with complementary artists began with Jean-Marc Nattier. Famous for “prettifying” his noble subjects and painting them as characters from Greek mythology, Pompadour commissioned pieces from him in the late 1740s in which she was painted as Diana. Though ethereal and likely very forgiving, Nattier’s works have far less pomp and less of a fantastic air than Boucher’s. In the 1746 portrait, she holds her bow with the same delicacy with which we see her playing the clavichord in Boucher’s 1750. Probably a reference to her following the King’s hunt before their courtship as well her personal hunt for him, this has some implications that she views the hunt as an instrument and as one her many artistic gifts.
The first Boucher portraits were commissioned around 1750. They both show her in the exact same pose, but doing different activities. “Madame de Pompadour standing at her Dressing Table” has her picking up pearls from the table and looking left. The painting style is not so detailed. Her dog is at her feet (a symbol of loyalty, according to Jones) and papers are barely visible in the bottom right corner. It is almost a rough draft for “Madame de Pompadour standing at a Clavichord,” in which the table has been replaced with the instrument. Her hands remain in the same place and position, but there is no dog, the painting is done in more detail, and papers and objects about in the bottom right. Flowers litter the floor (a clear symbol of love, according to Jones) mixed with scrolls, her etchings, a globe, and a leather bound book with her coat of arms on the cover, personalization serving as an indication of great wealth. This is a symbol she will use over and over, her mixing of love with intellect. In both portraits, a large bookcase dominates the background, reflected in the mirror. This is another hint for the viewer not to let her beauty detract from her brains.
One of the images I chose to have her “re-create” was “…standing at her Dressing Table.” (The closest thing we could find to a dog was my stuffed rabbit, Gretchen). I am holding pearls in my hands with flowers only on my person, French sheet music open at my feet.
Maurice-Quentin de La Tour painted Madame de Pompadour with a very similar setting and tone, although his 1755 portrait has a much more realistic, womanly quality, and the finished product has sublimely superior detail. Her face, neck, and torso actually appear proportional and lack adornment entirely. She holds sheet music, surrounded by more etchings, another globe, a guitar, and endless, half-read books, and another portfolio with her coat of arms, but there are no flowers to be found. There is no doubt this portrait is more centered on her intellect, especially because of the faint blue light around her head. The titles of the books can be read, and some of them are by cutting-edge philosophes like Montesquieu and Voltaire.
Boucher’s next conquest was his full-length 1756 masterpiece, which I have also recreated. The dog, flowers, bookcase, and general lavishness are back. Everything in the portrait is half-done, giving a sense of action. A quill rests in an inkwell, an envelope rests unsealed. Her book lies wrinkled and half-open in her hands. Papers and books lie about as if she had tossed them aside all at once. The deception here is bold, seeing as she looks even younger in this portrait than she did in de la Tour’s. Jones provides an source of Madame de Pompadour calling herself fat around this time, but that is nowhere to be seen in this image. The roses are now part of her dress. Since Madame had this portrait sent back and forth from the palace to the studio for approval, this placement of roses and pink increasingly close to her person is probably highly intentional, to counteract her growing further and further from the romantic interests of the King.
Boucher’s next two portraits took place outside in a characteristically theatrical, pastoral setting. Their collaborative interpretation of “nature” seems to include some element of culture upon which she leans. He paints her face as young as he did a near decade ago. In the 1759 image presented here, she leans on a statue said to resemble the one she commissioned from Jean-Baptiste Pigalle called Love embracing Friendship, Friendship being the motherly figure to the young cherub. This is almost an announcement of her steering herself into a new, platonic role, held in balance by her rose pink dress.
This platonic, almost pious image reached a new level when Drouais was commissioned to paint the Mistress of France as a Vestal Virgin in 1762-3. Critics regarded Drouais’ portraits as having a “striking resemblance” to the Madame (Jones, 148).
In the early 1750s, Carle Vanloo emerged as a new painter in court. His portraits of the Madame, though contextually provocative (particularly the ones where she is portrayed as a Sultana wearing pants), show a much older, fuller woman. At this point, it is obvious that Boucher has been more than gracious to the Madame’s appearance over the years, and perhaps this is why one of her Drouais portraits was only displayed posthumously. But Boucher was important for personal political reasons. His liberal use of dream-like symbolism was a powerful weapon the marquise used to help her achieve and maintain both her courtly authority and the King’s adoration through perpetual intellectual and visual seduction.
Even though the public did not know about many of these commissions, they witnessed the King and his Mistress make other, visible expenses. Extravagant spending in addition to a deteriorating wartime economy turned the middle class media against the Royalty, specifically against Madame de Pompadour, the woman they suspected of corrupting and even controlling the King. One anonymous pamphlet called Les Fastes De Louis XV went so far as to say Madame de Pompadour rules over “an abyss for innocence and simplicity which swallowed up throngs of victims and then spat them back into society, in which they carried corruption and the taste for debauchery and vices that necessarily infected them in such a place.”
The slightly accusatory tone of the accompanying fictional publication reflects this hostility shown by the media to Madame de Pompadour in her later years, which was extended to the Old Regime as a whole during the reign of Louis XVI and propagated the Revolution of 1789.