Although the grandest of the many portraits of Madame de Pompadour, this is also the most naturalistic image of her, which avoids the rigid formality or mythological trappings of much court portraiture. The former mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour had become an international celebrity by the end of her life, when this portrait was painted. However, she is presented here in her apartment at Versailles as an almost matronly figure embodying bourgeois virtue and industry as she works at a tapestry accompanied by one of her dogs.
She was an important patron of the fine, applied and performing arts and a leader of taste in matters of fashion and style, particularly the Rococo style. The objects around her testify to her interest in the arts and literature. Close examination reveals that the portrait is in fact made up of two canvases. A smaller canvas – including the head, shoulders and right forearm – has been incorporated into the larger full-length portrait.
Many portraits were painted of Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764), the mistress of Louis XV and one of the most famous figures of her time. Although the grandest, this portrait by Drouais is also the most naturalistic image of her, which avoids the rigid formality or mythological trappings of much court portraiture. Instead, we encounter Madame de Pompadour as a homely woman accompanied by one of her dogs, a black King Charles spaniel, in her salon (a living or drawing room) at her apartment in Versailles as she works at a tapestry (tambour) frame. Rather than the international celebrity she had become by the end of her life, when this portrait was painted, she is presented as an almost matronly figure embodying bourgeois virtue and industry.
Madame de Pompadour was born plain Mademoiselle Poisson. In 1741 she married Charles-Guillaume Le Normant des Etioles, the nephew of her mother’s rich lover. She began to entertain artists and intellectuals at her salon, where she attracted the attention of Louis XV. After separating from her husband, she was ennobled to marquise and moved into Versailles. Although regarded as an upstart Parisian bourgeois by her rivals and enemies, she retained the king’s favour, and continued to live at Versailles even after she had ceased to be his mistress by 1751.
The marquise was an important patron of the fine, applied and performing arts. She particularly supported the artist Boucher and protected the porcelain factory at Vincennes, transferring it to Sèvres, near one of her houses, where it flourished. Visitors to her salon in Paris had included the writer Voltaire, the most famous of the liberal philosophes (intellectuals). She remained sympathetic to Enlightenment thinking and maintained an extensive library. A leader of taste in matters of fashion and style, particularly Rococo style, the marquise also had some influence in government and public affairs, and supported the king’s extensive building projects. She was the subject of numerous biographies, and remains one of the most well-known historical figures of the eighteenth century.
Close examination reveals that the portrait, which was begun in April 1763 but not completed until May 1764 (a month after the marquise’s death aged 43), is in fact made up of two canvases. A smaller canvas – including the head, shoulders and right forearm – has been incorporated into the larger full-length portrait. It was not unusual, particularly with important sitters, for artists to work on a smaller portrait from life and to complete the rest in the studio with a model using the sitter’s clothes and accessories. It is not a court dress with unwieldy wide hoops, but a gown worn over small side hoops with a train gathered behind consisting of an overdress, petticoat and stomacher. The sumptuous fabric is possibly painted silk but is more likely a hand-painted floral pattern chintz garnished with French needle lace. The choice of material was itself a patriotic statement of support for the thriving industry in France of printing on cotton cloth, sourced from the French West Indies, which by the 1760s rivalled England’s production. Patriotic sentiment – and self-interest – may also have prompted the commissioning of the portrait to mark the ending of the Seven Years War (1756–43). Madame de Pompadour had helped promote the Franco-Austrian alliance, which had proved disastrous for France. Drouais’s portrait may have been intended to project an apolitical image of the marquise as a benign and respectable lady of arts and letters in order to downplay her implication in French military defeat and her identity as the king’s former mistress.
To the right in the picture, there is an elaborate worktable (with Sèvres plaques), which has a folio of drawings or engravings and a mandolin resting against it. These objects, and the books in the bookcase, testify to the marquise’s interest in the arts. However, it is the tapestry frame that, with the dress, is the most distinctive object on view. In his memoirs, one courtier later noted that in 1756 the marquise stopped receiving visitors in her dressing room but instead received them while at her tapestry-frame: ‘she went from make-up to making.’ Embroidery was regarded as a virtuous activity for women and it was not uncommon for them to be portrayed engaged in it. Most tambour frames were circular – the word comes from the French tambour (drum) – but wider rectangular frames, such as this one, allowed for larger pieces that could be stretched and wound on a roller as the work progressed.
Placing Madame de Pompadour at her tambour holding a hooked needle as she works on her embroidery creates a domesticated, even homely, image of respectability and relative informality. Although no longer a young woman, and stoically enduring deteriorating health, the marquise looks up from her embroidery to calmly acknowledge us with, as one admirer described, her ‘wonderful complexion … and those eyes not so very big, but the brightest, wittiest and most sparkling.’ But the tambour frame also creates a series of horizontals and verticals that provide a solid base supporting the triangle of her upper torso and head, which we see from slightly below. Almost exactly a century later, Ingres was to use a similar elevated pyramidal structure to create a powerful but discreet effect of social status in his portrait of Madame Moitessier, a picture also filled with the display of a luxurious dress and objects.
The portrait was well-received. One commentator who saw it in Paris at the Palais de Tuileries in August 1764 noted: ‘The resemblance is most striking, and the picture’s composition is as opulent as it is well understood.’ For another, Drouais was ‘the only man who knows how to paint women … I am persuaded that all our women will henceforth wish to be painted by Drouais.’
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