Life of A Courtesan at Versailles

From the moment she stepped down from one of the royal carriages in the courtyard of Versailles on the evening of the 10th of September 1745 and went upstairs to take possession for the first time of the sumptuous apartment that her royal lover had prepared for her, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Madame de Pompadour was the undisputed Queen of Versailles.

The King’s Favourite

Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, recently ennobled as Marquise de Pompadour, had actually become the King’s mistress several months earlier after a masked ball at the Hôtel de Ville in February of that year, but increasing hostility between Austria and France had forced Louis XV to depart to the front shortly after their first rendezvous, effectively separating the deeply enamoured couple until he was able to return. However, during his absence the adoring King made sure that Madame de Pompadour, known to her family since childhood as Reinette, was kept well occupied at her newly purchased country estate by learning all of the intricate rules, etiquette and mannerisms that would be required of her upon her début at Versailles.

Louis’ snooty courtiers at Versailles scoffed that he really ought to have chosen one of them to share his bed - a proper aristocratic mistress in the mould of Athénaïs de Montespan or Diane de Poitiers who already knew their ways and how to behave at court. It seemed intolerable to them that Louis, who was such a proud man and exactly like his grandfather Louis XIV in so many ways in his meticulous adherence to courtly etiquette and politesse, should have plucked the undeniably bourgeoise if extremely lovely Jeanne-Antoinette to fill the much longed for position of royal mistress. However, in this they made the mistake as so many would during the course of her twenty year ‘reign’ of entirely underestimating the various and manifold talents and, above all, determination of Madame de Pompadour.

Stifling Court Etiquette

Quick witted, intelligent, intellectually curious, graceful and erudite, Madame de Pompadour took to her lessons like a duck to water and was exceptionally quick to assimilate the often ridiculous rules of Versailles - which encompassed everything from the way one walked, to the pitch of one’s voice to the way one knocked on doors (knocking wasn’t allowed - instead courtiers and servants were expected to grow one fingernail extra long to scratch loudly with). By the time Louis returned to the palace and installed his mistress in her rooms there, she was fully prepared in every way for even the most ridiculous vagaries of court life.

The apartments that Madame de Pompadour so proudly took possession of were located on the second floor of the north wing of the palace, with a small balcony that overlooked the north parterre and basin of Neptune. Imbued with a rare talent for living well, the Marquise filled her beautiful rooms with flowers, beautiful scents, cosmetics, books, music, paintings, multitudes of exquisite objects, apparatus for her many hobbies, pets and friends, surrounding herself as she had done in Paris with the things and people that she loved the most.

A Sophisticated Eye for Interior Decoration

Unlike the baroquely opulent and occasionally gaudy extravagances of her predecessors at Versailles, Madame de Pompadour’s own taste inclined more towards the delicate and pretty with pastel fabrics in the colours of sugared almonds or macarons and exquisite pearlised paints. Her lovely pale pink, blue and green rooms in the palace must have seemed like a balm to her royal lover, forced as he was to spend most of his time in the lavishly ostentatious marble, gilt and crimson chambers decorated for his grandfather.

‘It isn’t you he loves,’ one of Madame de Pompadour’s friends used to say to her. ‘It’s your staircase.’ It was true - the infatuated King would take every opportunity possible to sneak away from official business and bound up the stairs to his mistress’ gorgeous apartment, as enamoured with her lovely rooms as he was with her beautiful person. Later on, when the lovers became older and less energetic, the stairs would become an inconvenience and Louis commissioned a special ‘flying chair’ or lift which involved a special chair suspended in a small shaft, which the Marquise’s servants could haul up to the second floor.

Patron of the Arts

Unwilling to be treated like some sort of pampered odalisque, the usual fate of the royal mistress − particularly one not born into the aristocracy − Madame de Pompadour kept herself very busy in between her lover’s visits. Her interests were many and varied, encompassing the patronage of artists, writers and sculptors, music, engraving semi precious jewels, embroidery, amateur theatrics, hunting and political intrigue. She was also an indefatigable and enthusiastic hostess, presiding over the King’s hunting supper parties, invitations to which were much sought after at court and regarded as a mark of serious favour.

One of the most important changes that Madame de Pompadour instigated during her time at Versailles was the installation of a small theatre in one of the palace galleries. It was necessarily minuscule, with a tiny stage and only fourteen seats, which like the King’s supper parties effectively tapped into both the couple’s taste for intimate gatherings and also, as tickets and parts in the plays were highly and rather desperately sought after, the wider court preoccupation with social one-upmanship and gaining the closest possible proximity to the King. Madame de Pompadour was in her element while organising these theatricals and was considered even by her detractors to be a highly talented actress and singer - although, obviously at a time when actresses were considered little better than prostitutes and were even denied the right to burial in consecrated ground, praising a woman for her acting abilities wasn’t always intended as a compliment.

Poor Health

Sadly, Madame de Pompadour wasn’t always in the most robust health and a series of miscarriages and personal tragedies such as the early death of her young daughter, Alexandrine led to a general decline in her well being which led to a cessation in sexual relations between herself and Louis in around 1752. They were still in love though and keen to show his respect for her and keep her close to him at Versailles, Louis moved Madame de Pompadour down, from her gorgeous jewel-like little apartment underneath the eaves of the palace, to a much larger and rather opulent apartment on the ground floor of the north wing, which had once housed Madame de Montespan. Although the court fizzed with gossip about the precise nature now of relations between the lovers, it is notable that this new apartment also had a secret staircase linking Madame de Pompadour’s gorgeously decorated new bedroom with that of the King.

The Original Style Icon

Intensely interested in interior decoration (she was the vastly wealthy eighteenth century equivalent of those people who buy dilapidated houses, spend a fortune and a lot of time doing them up then move on to the next one), Madame de Pompadour threw herself wholeheartedly into the task of doing up her new apartments, having one room panelled entirely in gleaming red lacquer and fitting up a new bathroom for herself, which involved having the original enormous marble bath tub removed (it took twenty two men to carry it out) and transformed into a fountain.

Despite the fact that their relationship had now mellowed into one of romantic but platonic friendship, Louis was just as dependent on Madame de Pompadour’s company as ever and the daily visits to her rooms continued just as they had always done with the King hastening down the secret staircase whenever he had some free time and often when he didn’t. Just as always, the couple spent hours just chatting or playing cards and the King would often make them a simple supper of omelettes followed by hot chocolate or coffee, which he loved to brew by himself on a small stove. In fact, Louis XV was so fond of cooking that he had a tiny kitchen installed for himself amongst the attics of Versailles.

The Petit Trianon

It was at this time that Louis and Madame de Pompadour conceived what would perhaps be their most significant addition to Versailles - the Petit Trianon, which Louis hoped would be a perfect little idyllic getaway for them both on the estate. Construction work began on the small château, designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, in 1762 but unfortunately Madame de Pompadour was never to see it completed.

Her health, always shaky, became increasingly precarious in the early 1760s and by early 1764 it was becoming clear that she was dying, probably from tuberculosis. Originally taken mortally ill at the royal château at Choisy, Louis ignored the etiquette that dictated that only royalty was allowed to die at Versailles and immediately moved her back to her apartments there, where he insisted upon remaining at her side until the obvious imminence of death meant that he had to leave her so that she could take the Sacrament and die in a state of grace.

The End of the Affair

Madame de Pompadour, brave and gracious to the very last, died on the 15th of April 1764 in her apartment on the ground floor of Versailles. However, although etiquette had been ignored to an extent to allow her to die there, her body could not be permitted to remain and so it was almost immediately placed on to a stretcher and carried down the road to her own mansion nearby. The King was naturally inconsolable - Madame de Pompadour had been a huge part of his life for almost twenty years and he had grown not just to love her but also to depend immensely on her judgement and wisdom.

On the day of her funeral, unable to attend due to the usual court etiquette, he stood motionless and without hat or coat on his bedroom balcony overlooking the marble courtyard and watched as her black draped cortège proceeded slowly in the pouring spring rain down the Avenue de Paris. ‘The Marquise has bad weather for her journey,’ he remarked to his companions but nonetheless he remained rooted to the spot until the carriage bearing her coffin had vanished from sight. ‘This is the only tribute I can pay her,’ he finally said when he turned away, overcome with tears, to go back into the château.

Find out more about Madame de Pompadour and the rest of the fascinating figures which crowd the history of Versailles on a private tour with a professional art historian.

For more fascinating insight into the lives of queens and courtesans in 18th century France, visit Melanie Clegg's blog, Madame Guillotine. Her latest historical novel, Minette, is available to buy on Amazon.com.

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