Sunday, November 1, 2015

Rococo Beauty: Mme. de Pompadour at her Dressing Table, 1750

Sunday, November 1, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764), is best remembered as the chief mistress of King Louis XV. This portrait of her - painted by one of her favorite artists, François Boucher - shows her as the epitome of the doll-like beauty so popular in the mid-18thc. French court.

Obviously the goal wasn't a "natural" look. The very fact that the marquise chose to be captured in the intimate act of painting her face shows that artifice was expected, even prized.

As she sits at her looking glass, a lace-edged cape around her shoulders to protect her gown from powder, her gaze is both frank and serene. Her table has not only an oversized swan's-down puff for powder, but also an assortment of silk flowers (more artifice)  that she will be tucking into her hair. On her wrist is a bracelet featuring a cameo of the king, making it clear where her heart - or at least her best interests - lies.

What caught my eye first when I saw this painting, however, was the gold box and brush in her hands. Holding rouge for reddening the cheeks, the box and brush are very similar to one that I'd seen several years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; my blog post about that box is here. While the Met's box dates to several decades after Mme. de Pompadour's death, it's still tantalizing to imagine another lady sitting at her glass in much the same pose - art and an artifact combining to bring a lost world back to life.

This portrait is on display in the newly refurbished Harvard Art Museums on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, MA, well worth a visit if you're in Boston. More imagining: picture the pious Puritan worthies of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who established the college in the 17thc., coming face to face with the lovely, wanton French marquise holding court in their midst....

Above: Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour by François Boucher, c1750. Harvard Art Museums. Photograph by Lydia Scott.
Lower detail copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College.


Christine Riedl said...

What struck me about her rouge box and brush was how like it is of the plastic set ups we use today. I also know my mother had one that had been in her family for a long time. Not identical obviously and no powdered rouge in it, but very similar. Thanks for sharing.

Kate Dolan said...

Great details! I find it interesting that she does not have Big Hair, which was popular at so many points during the century. In fact, with all the flounces, ruffles and lace, she almost needs a big wig to look balanced. I wonder if she's powdered her natural hair or is wearing a realistic looking wig? And how long would powder last?

pdxknitterati/MicheleLB said...

Interesting that her hair is not in the style that is named after her! (I had to google to make sure it was.) Also interesting: The way she's wearing the cameo makes it perfect for a portrait, but if she were to turn her wrist to look at it, Louis would be upside down to her. Last point: That's a lot of rouge she's wearing! Time to put down the brush...

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Christine, Not much changes in make-up, does it? Different new looks every season, but it's really pretty much the same - except, as you note, it no longer comes in gold boxes.

Kate, The Big Hair that's such a trademark of the 18thc. doesn't really come into fashion until the 1770s onward. Midcentury ladies had small, neat "heads" with tight curls, much like the marquise in this portrait. They do look kind of pin-headed, since that's also the era of the widest skirts. Her hair is most likely powdered. Even with the most extreme styles later in the century, most women wore their own hair - though they could also included lots of false hair and little hair cushions to help fill things out. Powder lasted until you brushed it out at the end of the day. If you're curious, I've posted about hair powder here:

Michele, Yes, I thought it was interesting that she was wearing the king's face outward. I guess it was more important that others knew her relationship to him than for her to be able to gaze down adoringly at his image. *g* And yes, she's wearing a LOT of red paint on those cheeks! All the women in Boucher paintings go for that super blush look, but I don't know if that was his taste, or theirs.

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