The painting shows the one-time mistress of Louis XV in the last year of her life. Born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson in 1721, she married in 1741 and became royal mistress and Marquise de Pompadour four years later. She was a patron of the arts and letters and a leader of fashion who exercised considerable influence on the public policy of France.
The canvas is signed and dated on the work-table as begun in April 1763. The head, painted on a rectangle of canvas inserted into the painting, was presumably taken from life, and the rest of the picture completed in May 1764, the month after the death of Madame de Pompadour. Drouais's painting is the last of numerous portraits of the sitter by some of the best-known painters of the day, including Boucher and Carle van Loo.
Louise Govier: Well, we’re shown this very nice, matronly looking lady, quite strong, looking out directly towards the viewer, but she looks absolutely as if she is someone who is very cultured, but very happy to stay at home and engage herself in womanly work. She’s surrounded by things that tell us that she is learned – she’s got a bookcase with a whole set of beautifully bound books, she’s got her beautiful piece of furniture that holds all of her different embroidery threads, we’ve got a portfolio of prints – she’s an art-collector – and a mandolin – she enjoys music too – and also, of course, this lovely little dog, one of her pet dogs – an ideal way for her to show that she is still faithful to the king.
She looks though, as if she hasn’t got a thought in the world and that’s not the whole story with Madame de Pompadour. Rather than have everyone thinking she’s still involved in foreign politics, she shows herself as a nice matronly lady who likes to stay home and do the sewing. It isn’t the reality though, because actually she used her embroidery sessions as a way to then meet with important people who wanted to get to the king – she actually brokered those kinds of arrangements at her tambour frame. So when we look at this woman, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, and she’s just happily embroidering, we have to imagine perhaps that we’re actually a French courtier who’s desperate for the king’s ear – we have to get through this lady first.
Miranda Hinkley: So she was obviously a very adept political manoeuvrer and someone who was used to using her image to convey different ideas about herself. How has she used her image in other ways?
Louise Govier: This woman is used to using portraiture as a way to reinvent her image. She literally makes herself over every couple of years according to the needs of the day. To start off with when she’s having a sexual relationship with the king she’s portrayed as Diana, the virgin huntress, although everyone knows she’s not a virgin and the only thing she’s hunting is the king. Then at different points she shows herself as an intellectual, actually looking as if she’s written part of the ‘Encyclopaedie’, the big encyclopaedia project. She shows herself as a nice lady, who’s involved in gardening – that’s at one of the times when she needs to take herself back a little bit from the public stage.
One of the points where she’s arranging for the king to have other lovers, other than herself, she actually has a portrait made of herself as a Turkish sultana, the woman in charge of the harem. She has this put over the bedroom door so the king must have had to look at her every time he went in with the latest young thing she’d chosen for him. There’s a particularly wonderful example where she actually makes her self image over into a virgin. She has herself portrayed as a vestal virgin at the age of 40, which is quite something – I mean everyone knew she wasn’t a virgin - but it was a way of showing her ongoing devotion and fidelity to her king.
And one of the things I love about this painting is that Madame de Pompadour is in charge of the whole process. She is a woman who is incredibly proactive, not just about her own self-image, but about her life overall. She always takes charge. She always looks where she’s going and moves onto the next step, and I just think that’s a great inspiration for us all.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Fifteen, January 2008