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.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.