Francois-Hubert Drouais, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson,
Marquise de Pompadour,
Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, also known as Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) was a member of the French court, and was the official chief mistress of Louis XV from 1745 to her death in 1764.
“You think I fear you, but I do not fear you even now. You are merely the nightmare of my childhood. The monster from under my bed. And if my nightmare can return to plague me, then rest assured, so will yours.”
Why did so many women at court aspire to become the king's mistress?
For one, being the king’s mistress could be rewarding on a personal level, as kings were known to lavish great wealth on their favorites. Alice Perrers, mistress to Edward III of England, was granted robes and jewels belonging to the dead Queen Philippa (the jewels were worth over six million pounds in today’s money), as well as over a dozen manors, by her royal lover. Barbara Palmer and Louise de Kerouaille, mistresses of the lascivious Charles II, were granted dukedoms in their own right, with their requisite lands and incomes, and Barbara was given Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace. Louis XIV was so entranced by Athenais, the Marquise de Montespan, that he granted her a suite of 20 rooms in Versailles (compared to the queen’s 10), and had built for her the Chateau de Clagny, spending millions of livres to do so. Leopold II of Belgium shocked and angered his subjects by the wealth the aging monarch lavished on his teenage mistress, Caroline Lacroix, including millions of francs (Caroline once bragged about spending three million in a single shopping spree) and estates in Belgium and France. Even foreign visitors would know to flatter the king’s favorite: when the future Gustav III of Sweden visited the court of Louis XV, he presented the king’s mistress, the notoriously luxury-loving Madame du Barry, a collar for her little spaniel, made of diamonds and with a ruby leash.
Being the royal mistress could also be an avenue to power. Henry II of France was so devoted to his lifelong passion Diane de Poitiers that the two would often collaborate on government letters and documents, even signing the bottom “HenriDiane”. The Protestant (later Catholic) Henry IV of France relied on his beloved mistress Gabrielle d’Estrees to make peace with the noble Catholic families of the country, and it was under her influence that he created the Edict of Nantes, which gave significant rights to French Huguenots (indeed, so trusted was Gabrielle that Henry gave her a seat on his Council of National Policy). Too, as an intimate of the king, a royal mistress would be expected to have the king’s ear in private moments ordinary courtiers could never dream of sharing, and could be a useful intermediary between the king and his courtiers. Such was the power and influence of Madame de Pompadour on Louis XV that Empress Maria Theresa of Austria’s ambassador approached her for aid in the negotiations that would lead to the Treaty of Versailles and the Diplomatic Revolution that would bring Austria and France together in alliance. Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany and second son of George III, was not a king, but he was commander in chief of the army from 1795 - a position he was forced to resign in 1809, when his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, was brought before the House of Commons and testified that she had, with the duke’s knowledge and assistance, been selling army commissions (even pinning the names of those desiring commissions to the curtains in the home they shared).
Nor should family ambition be discounted; having great influence over the king meant that a mistress could secure boons for her kin as well as herself. While sleeping with Mary Boleyn and thereafter pursuing sister Anne, Henry VIII granted a number of honors to the Boleyn family: Sir Thomas Boleyn (father to Mary and Anne) was made Viscount Rochford in 1525, Earl of Wiltshire in 1529, and Lord Privy Seal in 1530; their brother George was knighted and made a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber in 1529 (at which time he was also granted the courtesy title Viscount Rochford), held several key offices in Henry VIII’s court, and was made an ambassador to France, doubtless via his sister’s influence. The family of Anne, Duchess of Etampes, benefited greatly from her affair with Francis I of France, as her uncle, Antoine Sanguin, was made Bishop of Orleans and a cardinal and named Grand Almoner by Francis I when the post became vacant and two brothers also rose high in Church hierarchy. (However, when Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, suggested that his daughter Mary - widow of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy - become the king’s mistress to wield similar influence she pointedly refused.)
And there was always the chance, however small (and however politically meaningless), that the king would make his mistress his wife. Indeed, Henry IV had come extremely close to marrying Gabrielle: in 1599, after writing to Pope Clement asking for an annulment from his marriage to Margaret of Valois, Henry gave Gabrielle his coronation ring and promised to wed her (unfortunately for Henry, she died on April 10 of that year, probably from eclampsia). Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, actually did marry his mistress, Catherine Dolgorukova, a little more than a month after his first wife, Marie of Hesse and by the Rhine, died, and gave Catherine the title Princess Yurievskaya and the status of “Serene Highness”; although the marriage was morganatic, there were fears, particularly within the imperial family, that Alexander would strive to put his children by Catherine in the succession (particularly as Catherine claimed Alexander had placed the imperial crown on her head in a private ceremony, and as Alexander had legitimized the children and made pointed comments about his son by Catherine, George Alexandrovich - commenting that George was a “real Russian” and introducing him to his heir, the future Alexander III, as George’s “eldest brother”). Louis XIV was far more secret about his marriage to Madame de Maintenon; although the marquise was never formally acknowledged as his wife, her presence at court was substantial, and for the roughly three decades their marriage lasted, Madame de Maintenon exerted far more influence over the Sun King than her predecessor, Maria Theresa, ever had.
During the 1850s in France, there was renewed interest in eighteenth-century literature, art, and architecture and nostalgia for the lost world of Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, who symbolized gracious living for the aristocracy and newly rich bourgeoisie. The resurgence of interest in rococo artists included reissues in England and France of engravings after the ornamental designs and paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau. The fabric itself, a Jacquard-woven silk produced in Lyons, reveals the derivative nature of mid-nineteenth-century textile design, which often used elements copied directly from prints of the work of well-known artists.
For the fabric of this ball gown, two images by Jacques-Philippe Le Bas after Watteau have been combined. It is likely that the fabric was originally meant to have been used for furnishings, probably for a bedroom or boudoir (dressing room or private sitting room). The silk’s swing design would have been considered provocative for the time since it had long been associated with love-making and seduction. The gown was possibly worn originally by a member of the demimonde such as an actress-or by a naive young woman. The choice of the swing theme was especially appropriate for an evening dress, in which the wearer would want to appear demure yet flirtatious.