Tea with Madame de Pompadour

At the Wallace Collection

Francois Boucher – Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, 1759
Francois Boucher – Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, 1759
29 OCT 2016
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Invited for afternoon tea chez Madame de Pompadour, one will be looking forward as much to the beverage of decadence and indulgence, reserved for the elite, as to the exquisite crockery in which it will be served. It most certainly would be a set of Sèvres porcelain: beautifully crafted and extravagantly decorated, in sumptuous colours, delicate yet a symbol of power. Madame de Pompadour, a beautiful, intelligent and educated woman, loved Sèvres porcelain. In 1745, when she became Louis XV’s maitress-en-titre, the porcelain factory at Vincennes was allowed unique privileges; a law was passed which forbid the manufacture of porcelain by anyone else. Later, the factory moved to Sèvres, close to Madame de Pompadour’s chateau de Bellevue.

Portraits of Madame de Pompadour testify to her superior beauty and style. As well as porcelain and architecture, the king’s mistress was interested in and informed about art, music and literature; through the influence she had on the king, and her brother, the Marquis de Marigny, who was Louis XV's minister for the arts, she secured royal patronage for painters and artists. The image that our collective mind has of the marquise de Pompadour was mainly created by the royal painter Francois Boucher from whom she commissioned several portraits. We see the young and beautiful marquise, luxuriously dressed, coiffed and accessorised, reclining with her elbow supported by several books, another open book or a diary in her hand. In another portrait she is standing, wearing her improbable dress, her hand resting on the keyboard of a clavichord; on the floor there are flowers (a symbol of love) a leather-bound book with her coat of arms on the cover (signifying wealth) and a globe, a clear reference to her extensive education and interests. This is the woman one would consider himself lucky to have an audience with: affectionate and sensitive, witty, intelligent and cultured, of impeccable taste.

Given her official job title, it may be stretching a point to suggest Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, as a feminist icon – but in 18th century France she had more power and political influence than any woman was afforded. She appreciated and supported art, architecture, philosophy and literature, enabling their progress. When the love affair with Louis XV ended, around 1751, she became the king’s friend and confidant, and cleverly forged a relationship with the Queen, becoming her lady in waiting – a prestigious position.

The portrait at the Wallace Collection, dated 1759 and probably the last one Boucher painted, reflects the change in her role vis-à-vis the king. Miraculously, the passing years have left no mark on the Marquise youthful looks and perfect complexion. She is standing in the rococo garden at chateau de Bellevue like on a stage, wearing a peach colour silk and lace dress. There are flowers at her dainty feet, and a flower at her decollete; her arm is parallel to the drape of the statue behind her and the fan in her hand points to her pet spaniel, Ines, who sat obediently on the painted bench – a tender symbol of fidelity. The statue recalls the work commissioned by Madame de Pompadour from the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle titled Love and Friendship, a reference to the new dynamics of her relationship with Louis XV.

She was beautiful and spirited, seductive and charming with her small and perfectly formed cupid mouth and large almond shaped eyes. She saw her role as an entertainer for the king, providing this lightness and a sense of fun, which apparently he lacked. An incurable romantic, Madame de Pompadour favoured the Rococo style of painting, with its cupids and pink flesh, lace and sensuous drapes, with its metaphors and allegories. Her insistence in repeating the message of friendship and loyalty to the king and to the French people is touching. Some may view it as a characteristic of a ruthless politician. But, like any celebrity, Madame de Pompadour had to maintain and enhance her image and satisfy her fans – and she skilfully used the media of the time to achieve that. Her role in positioning Paris as the European capital of style is significant.

Apart from word of mouth, whispers and gossip, the most effective media in XVIIIth century Paris was painting. Her loyal portraitist Francois Boucher produced a number of flattering images of the marquise, all pink ribbons and pom-poms, in full make-up but undeniably beautiful. There was another message Madame de Pompadour wanted to convey to her friends and enemies at court; her role as the king’s right hand, confidant and advisor. The Rising of the Sun and The Setting of the Sun, two tapestries commissioned by Pompadour, are designed to express this role. Using an allegory that became familiar during Louis XIV reign, Boucher’s paintings (full scale models for the tapestries) show the sun god Apollo setting out to spread light onto the world, and in the second episode returning from the day’s business. The nymph Thetys – bearing a more than passing resemblance to Pompadour - is seen assisting him when he departs and more importantly welcoming him back. With their swirling composition, jolly colours and featuring lots of pink flesh, the tapestries decorated the king’s bedroom for a time, while the paintings, unusually, were retained by Madame de Pompadour.

The paintings, like many of Boucher’s creations, embody the curly, light and playful, even frivolous style that was so fashionable at the time. The king’s apartment at Versailles as well as the Marquise’s apartment one floor above the king’s own, linked by a secret staircase (of course!) was furnished and decorated in the Rococo fashion. Rococo was well suited to the possibilities of porcelain: vases, cups, pomade pots, flowers and perfume diffusers presented opportunities for beautiful and delicate curves, detailed painting and sumptuous gilding. Made by the magic of porcelain, decorated by skilful artists, these objects combined the aesthetics with the functional.

Take for instance the toilette: far from the intimate and private ritual we are familiar with today, the toilette was a public affair, a ceremony; dignitaries, noblemen and household servants usually attended the king’s levée. Madame de Pompadour’s toilette was assisted by hairdressers, make-up artists and an army of servants. On her dressing table, in front of an oval mirror, there were her personal beautiful porcelain objects: a pomade pot, a face patch box, a couple of boxes for hair powder, decorated with flowers and corn (used in the preparation of hair powder) and sealed with a gold mount to prevent dampness or mites entering the box. The vergette, the small round brush for dusting the wig powder off the shoulders, is the only exemplary in existence. As the application of white foundation, rouge, hair accessories and so on took a long time, refreshments may have been served: tea, chocolate or a light consommé, so tea cups and deep saucers would have been at hand on the dressing table, as well as a jug and basin for washing the hands.

Yes, tea with Madame de Pompadour would have been an exciting, interesting and unforgettable experience. Surrounded by pretty objects, the conversation would flow easily, the marquise making erudite yet witty remarks, the occasional humorous dig at a courtier. And joining her at the toilette table, we could have learned the art of applying face patches and overusing rouge with grace.