Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour, was born in Paris on December 29, 1721. At the age of nineteen, she married Charles Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles, giving her significant social stature. She later became Louis XV’s official mistress, in 1745. Her position gave her significant political power during his reign and also allowed her to wield a profound influence on the art style of the time.
Madame de Pompadour’s Contributions to Art
Due in part to her patronage, the Louis XV style moved away from the more imposing and extravagant Baroque style that had dominated Louis XIV’s reign. It evolved into the gentler and lighter Rococo style. The Louis XV style was more fitting for the smaller, more intimate salons that became prominent during his reign. Madame Pompadour often frequented these salons, and eventually founded and managed one herself.
Her time spent in salons allowed her to meet many members of the cultural elite, and taught her the art of conversation. She also heavily supported the French tapestry industry. However, Madame de Pompadour was not only a patron of the arts, but also an artist in her own right. She acted in numerous plays which she staged at her private theaters, and she also made many print engravings.
Madame de Pompadour was also a principal supporter of the royal porcelain factory in Sèvres, which became one of the most important porcelain factories in Europe.
The recipe for porcelain was first brought to Europe by Johann Friedrich Böttger, and the first European porcelain factory was established in Meissen, Germany. The first French porcelain factories, in Chantilly, St Cloud, and Vincennes were often imitative of the Meissen porcelain. In 1756, a new porcelain factory was established on the edge of the village of Sèvres. The Sèvres factory distanced itself from the Meissen style, and created its own unique style of porcelain forms and decorations.
The Enlightenment and Political Power
Beyond her contributions to the art of Louis XV’s reign, Madame de Pompadour was also a supporter of the French Enlightenment. She patronized important members of the French Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Diderot. Louis XV’s lack of interest in governing also allowed Madame de Pompadour to wield significant political power during his reign.
She served as what was essentially the king’s appointments secretary for two decades, and often represented him in negotiations. She also controlled who had access to an audience with the king, and frequently made statements on his behalf. This has caused some people to consider her the “de facto prime minister” of France during Louis XV’s rule.
Madame du Barry
Madame du Barry was Louis XV’s official mistress later on in his rule, from 1769 until his death in 1774. While she did not have the same interest in politics that Madame de Pompadour did, Louis XV allowed her to participate in state councils. Like her predecessor, she was also a great patron of the arts.