The Marquise de Pompadour was an unusually talented, intelligent, and beautiful woman who wielded tremendous influence on culture and the arts during France’s mid-eighteenth century Enlightenment period, under the reign of King Louis XV. The story of this “most successful mistress in history” was the subject of a highly entertaining and visually abundant presentation October 20 by Professor Alden Gordon. It was the inaugural lecture by Gordon in his role as Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts at Trinity College.
Born a commoner in a world dominated by the old nobility, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson (1721-1764) had a meteoric rise to prominence when the king of France fell in love with her and brought her to live at the French court. When they met, she was in her mid-twenties, the wife of a successful financier, and well on her way to becoming one of Paris’ trend setters, known as salonnières. She had talent and training as a singer, dancer, actor, and an artist; she was skilled at making engravings and miniatures.
Once King Louis XV determined he wanted Jeanne-Antoinette as his maitresse en tître—the officially recognized hostess and bedmate of the king of France—there was one hurdle, said Gordon. While it was not controversial that the king would take a mistress, her status as a commoner was definitely problematic. And so, the king arranged for her to become “the possessor of a marquisate,” said Gordon, “without the benefit or burden of a marquis…since titles in ancien régime France attach to land and not to a person.”
That was how, in addition to possessing physical beauty, creative talent, and intelligence, Jean-Antoinette came to possess a marquisate, attached to the chateau de Pompadour. Her title, and the affection and allegiance of the king, however, did not shield her from the hostility and condescension of the court. Gordon said that the focus of his presentation was to present the context in which the art patronage and portrait images of Madame de Pompadour should be appreciated—recognizing her two guiding principles: “protection of her own privacy and an extreme delicacy toward the Queen and royal family.”
Using slide images of works of art, and dual-screen projection, Gordon shared evidence of the two lives led by the marquise—“a public life at court and an entirely different life in her own private residences.” Comparing, for example, a portrait of the marquise, seated modestly in a private apartment, with a formal portrait of the queen, standing in full regalia of the monarchy, Gordon noted how the marquise took great care not to usurp the role of the queen.
Through the eyes of the father of Wolfgang Mozart, Gordon offered a glimpse of how a different style of portraiture could be displayed at a private residence. Leopold Mozart wrote in a letter of visiting the Paris residence of the marquise, and upon entering the grand Salon used for musical entertainment, finding a life-size portrait of the marquise alongside a life-size portrait of Louis XV—a juxtaposition that would have never been seen at Versailles.
Other examples of portraiture in a private setting were found at Bellevue, Madame de Pompadour’s private home located along the route from Versailles to Paris, in a bucolic setting high on a bluff overlooking the Seine. A series of paintings by Carle Vanloo, Allegoires des Arts figurés par des enfants, featured idealized portraits of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour as children. (In one, the king as a child is directing the architects in the construction of Bellevue.) And in a nod to the marquise’s talent as an actress, Bellevue featured paintings specifically linked to roles that she had played, many of them at the theater on the grounds of Bellevue.
“The central work of art in a Marquise de Pompadour house was Madame Pompadour herself,” observed Gordon, who is working on a book, The Creation of the Myth of Madame de Pompadour, to share even more of the story of this fascinating woman whose lasting mark on history included the founding of the Ecole Royale Militaire, the sponsorship of the Encyclopédie, and the creation of France’s outstanding porcelain manufactory at Sèvres.
The inaugural lecture was attended by Paul E. Raether ’68, P’93, ’96, ’01, chairman of Trinity’s Board of Trustees, as well as President James F. Jones, Jr., College trustees, Trinity administrators, faculty, and students, and members of the general public.
A seasoned researcher in the French archives, Gordon was recognized by the French Ministry of Culture for his contribution to the knowledge of French culture with the title of Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1999). He has been a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris; the Centre de Recherche du Cháteau de Versailles; the Getty Research Institute; the American Council of Learned Societies; and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Professor Gordon is a 1969 honors graduate of Trinity College. After receiving his doctorate at Harvard University, he joined the Trinity faculty in 1978 and is the founding director of the Trinity College campus in Paris.
The Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professorship of Fine Arts is the fifth of five chairs established in 2009 with gifts from the personal foundation of Paul E. Raether ’68, P’93, ’96, ’01, who is chairman of the Trinity College Board of Trustees. Trinity now has secured 13 of 20 new endowed chairs/professorships that are among the highest priorities of the Cornerstone Campaign for Trinity, a $300-million comprehensive fundraising effort that was publicly launched in October 2007. Endowed professorships are critically important for Trinity’s ongoing efforts to recruit and retain exceptional faculty.