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LONDON — This country is currently obsessed with a royal mistress, but her name isn’t Camilla.
Two exhibitions are celebrating Madame de Pompadour, the mistress and later adviser to King Louis XV of France, and one of that nation’s most powerful 18th-century women.
This story first appeared in the December 27, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The first show, “Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress,” is exhibiting at The National Gallery through Jan. 12. The second, which finishes Jan. 5, is showing at The Wallace Collection in London and includes portraits, furniture and porcelain.
The National Gallery show explores how de Pompadour used the arts — and especially the portraits she commissioned — to define herself first as the lover of the king, then as his confidante, and finally as a woman of power and virtue. It also reveals the pet names she and the French king had for one another: for her, Belle Minette (“Beautiful Pussycat”), and for him, Chat Roi (“King Puss”).
An enthusiastic patron of the arts, de Pompadour commissioned paintings and sculptures from such artists as François Boucher, Jean-Marc Nattier, Carle Vanloo, Etienne Falconet and Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, and the exhibition includes works from all of them. The show also contains her engraved gems, furniture and porcelain, including a group of 19 monkey figures that form the Meissen Monkey Concert.
One of her favorite artists was Boucher, who painted her frequently during the 1750s and made sure to cast her as a woman of breeding and education, with a mind of her own — just as de Pompadour wanted to see herself.
Her final portrait, painted by François-Hubert Drouais, was completed in 1764 — the year she died at the age of 42. It gives no indication of her frailty; instead she is presented as a refined middle-aged woman, strong and composed.
Many believed her early demise was due to her distress over the death of her 10-year-old daughter, Alexandrine, who is also featured in the exhibition.
After her death, de Pompadour was succeeded as Louis XV’s mistress by Marie-Jeanne Becu, whose portrait by Drouais is included in the show. A daughter of lower-class parents and a former assistant in a Paris fashion house, Becu could not be officially recognized as the king’s mistress because she wasn’t a noble. So she arranged a marriage to the Comte du Barry and, in April 1769, was installed at court. While yielding little of de Pompadour’s political power, the new Comtesse du Barry also was a patron of the arts. But two years after Louis XV died in 1774, she was banished to a nunnery and, in 1792, she was guillotined for aiding royalists in England. Clearly being a royal mistress isn’t all that easy.