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A tarnished reputation.

Madame de Pompadour still gets no respect

Madame de Pompadour (nee Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson in 1721), the mistress of Louis XV from 1745 to 1764, materialized in the public eye last year abruptly but emphatically. Long review essays appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review. Lavishly advertised museum exhibitions accompanied by thick, pretty catalogues opened at Versailles, the National Gallery in London and the Kunsthalle in Munich. One could no longer, it seemed, relegate this powdered and rouged, bejeweled and bedraped lady to the realm of historicalfiction filler. More than Marie Antoinette or the Empresses Josephine and Eugenie, Madame de Pompadour, similarly wrapped in layers of gorgeous satins as she was, demanded serious consideration.

Why in 2002 a revival of interest in a period that can easily be read as a harbinger of the French Revolution? Why a fascination with an era of unscrupulous abundance and unbridled pleasure? And why this concentration on a largely forgotten but once powerful woman patron of arts and ideas? If in the scary, inhibited Cold-War 1950s the same rococo style afforded never-never-lands of escape--young men sporting "pompadour" hairdos, girls decked out in voluminous crinolines, birthday cakes spiraling our of control with their pastel-colored curlicues and rosettes--perhaps it's the same today.

After visiting the Pompadour exhibitions and reading the catalogues and books, I find it impossible to respond to these questions without cynicism, so paltry and disappointing--with one major exception--they all were. Where I had expected over-the-top fun, instead I found the presentation of Madame de Pompadour ominous.

The exhibitions. The first was installed amidst the glitter and gilt of Versailles, built by Louis XIV but embellished later by Louis XV. "Madame de Pompadour and the Arts" was squeezed into a small, windowless, ground-floor apartment: if it were possible to banish the splendor of the palace from any part of it, it would be here. One moved from painting to painting, many of the Marquise herself, but also of the king, ministers, Pompadour's brother. There were marble sculptures and exquisite, gaily-colored porcelain, thick, inviting rugs and furniture to match. So blandly were the objects displayed and so glum the trail through the galleries that it might have been an antique sale at a second-rate auction house. Never was it suggested that there was a compelling personality behind the acquisitions.

In London, the same exhibition was called "Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress." A title with an argument but again a display without one. I began to feel sick at heart about the whole project. Feminism in recent English culture and cultural criticism has been effective in a way it never was in France. The London art world is adventurous and imaginative, far outstripping any other major world capital today. So the pedantic march through the National Gallery Pompadour show was a real disappointment.

Museums of course are conservative institutions. Conserving is what they take their job to be, and is rare that such an institution considers intervention to be part of its mission. Yet in London museums often do run amok--the new Tare Modern is a splendid example--mixing up chronologies, countries and styles. So why was this particular show so bland and so boring? Was it simply old-fashioned sexism? This dame somehow put together this collection of stuff. She was just a high-class courtesan, but she snagged some smashing work, didn't she? Wink, wink, wink. Why construct these expensive exhibitions to make so paltry a statement? It makes one wonder if they weren't mounted ultimately to belittle the art--no Renaissance or Baroque masterpieces in the eyes of connoisseurs, just feminine trivia really. (Though by virtue of the very existence of the exhibition, prices of the work it presented would rise in the marketplace.)

The books and catalogues were no better. Colin Jones' Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress and Evelyne Lever's Madame de Pompadour: A Life march out the same biographical material with similar condescension. They trace Pompadour's origins in the financial bourgeoisie in Paris. They linger on her meager education at a convent, and her subsequent private tutoring in the arts of acting and singing, harpsichord playing, painting and engraving. Both authors insist on her charm as a child and as an adult. Her appeal, we are told, was mixture of her personality and her physical allure. She was not merely a beauty!

The tone of both books is insulting. From Lever: "[The Marquise] exhausted herself in the service of this man....The King still seemed infatuated....Louis XV belonged to her. She still intended to run his life down to the very last detail." From Jones: "Pompadour launched a charm offensive..."; she was "less a collector...than a cultural accumulator..."; and "Whatever Pompadour wanted, Pompadour got." (I know a Lola when I see one.)

Both see Pompadour as a scheming, climbing woman, educated in charm and cultivated by tutors, manipulative, profligate, shallow and shrewd. Nowhere is she given credit for effecting a profound and sustained change in the visual arts or encouraging and supporting Voltaire, the Encyclopedists, Montesquieu and others. Yes, they acknowledge, she knew these men and entertained them, but it was all out of pure vanity.

Elise Goodman's The Portraits of Madame de Pompadour: Celebrating the Femme Savante is the only recent book that takes Madame de Pompadour seriously and along with her all the women of the Enlightenment who strove to educate themselves. From Goodman we get details about Pompadour's education, what she read, that she was a serious musician, that drawing was a life-long love and that in most of the many portraits of her she is depicted as a femme savante, a learned woman. She accumulated a library of "dictionaries, prints, poetry, drama, history, and books on science, rhetoric, geography, music, and painting" She was the woman of whom Montesquieu wrote: "In the eyes of posterity, the representatives of the 18th century will be Voltaire and Madame de Pompadour." Voltaire himself said that Pompadour is "one of us." And even an enemy of hers, the president of the Paris Parlement, said, "I must admit that I was as struck by her easy speech as by the perfection of the style...and I looked at her with pleasure and ad miration while she spoke so well."

The problem, however, is that Goodman is excessively positive. As a result, the reader questions her judgment too, and the Marquise remains a wooden emblem of the possibilities available to a handful of rich women.

The question remains: Who is Madame de Pompadour? One knows she's there somewhere, but one grasps neither her intentions nor her personality from any of these recent productions.

There are a couple of things one can be certain of. One is the representation of Pompadour in painting; the other is the pictorial style she cultivated and patronized. A number of different artists painted her: Francois Boucher, Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, Cane Vanloo, Francois-Hubert Drouais. She patronized Boucher more than any other artist, so if he flattered her it wouldn't be surprising. Quentin de La Tour, however, was a prickly, independent-minded man often referred to as the painter of the intelligentsia. He frequented the salons where intellectuals went. He counted among his friends Diderot and Voltaire. His career was not built on flattery. His portrait of the Marquise, made in 1755, measures approximately four by six feet and is in pastel, Quentin's preferred medium. Pompadour is luxuriantly but characteristically dressed in white satin embroidered with gold and rose. Lace drips from her elbows. Her pertly turned out feet are clad in pink satin pumps. Quentin represents her as a femme savante. She sits at her desk, resting one arm on a massive tome while she holds a charmingly curving musical score. Behind her on a couch a guitar is propped up against an open book or score. At her feet, leaning against her desk, is a portfolio filled with drawings. More prints hang from the side of her desk. As a number of writers have pointed out, the area around her head is lightened almost as if it were a halo.

This is an informative, gracious and, it seems to me, respectful picture of Pompadour as a patron of the arts. This single painting convinces me to agree with Elise Goodman that "When [historian Donald] Posner casts Pompadour as a mere 'public relations' expert rather than a woman of learning and intellectual substance, his argument contradicts the testimony of contemporaries." This image of the femme savante has a history in paintings and prints of learned--and fashionable--women. As Goodman points Out, the learned and cultivated mistresses of Louis XIV, Madame de Montespan and Madame de Maintenon, were pictured similarly. The symbolism of Quentin's portrait is typical of representations of Pompadour; of course, she had control over how she was represented, but picture after picture of her, filled with symbols of learning and art, does not lie.

Pompadour loved and championed rococo art, epitomized by the work of Francois Boucher. Bodies in his paintings have a pre-lapsarian, pre-gendered sensuosity. Figures languish near ponds, zoom around on cloud banks, loll in gardens. The paintings are filled with sensual and sexual appetite, strikingly uninflected by gender. Of course, this is work made for the very few. It is an art that tells us in retrospect that there will and should be a democratic revolution, but it is art that also pulls the viewer away from the world of traditional masculine activity. War, weapons, ammunition dissolve into baths, parks and putti. It is a world of privilege, luxury and leisure, but it was also a world whose values were not all bad. Who would argue against a realm of polymorphous perversity if we could all have it at least some of the time?

What is missing from Lever's and Jones' books and the recent exhibitions is the understanding that Madame de Pompadour was a person with desire and subjectivity. She is patronized by one and all, and that is what I find so ominous. Her desires are reduced to the accumulation of material goods and keeping her man happy. No one but Goodman sees her as she might have seen herself.

And so, despite the attention Madame de Pompadour has received recently, she slips below the horizon, trailing only her satins and silks and a whiff of perfume That's a shame.

RELATED ARTICLE: Madame de Pompadour: A Life by Evelyne Lever, translated by Catherine Temerson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, 310 pp., $26.00 hardcover.

Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress by Colin Jones. London: National Gallery Company Limited, distributed by Yale University Press, 2002, 176 pp., $35.00 paper.

The Portraits of Madame de Pompadour: Celebrating the Femme Savante by Elise Goodman. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000, 188 pp., $45.00 hardcover.

"Madame de Pompadour et les arts," Exhibition, Versailles, February 14-May 19, 2002

"Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress," Exhibition, the National Gallery, London, October 16, 2002-January 12, 2003

EUNICE LIPTON, author of Alias Olympia and Looking into Degas, writes for The Guardian (UK), The Nation, Art in America and Tikkun. She lives in Paris and New York.
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Title Annotation:Madame de Pompadour
Author:Lipton, Eunice
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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