Madame de Pompadour was the greatest of Louis XV's mistresses. She began life in rather humble circumstances. Born on 29 December 1721, she was the illegitimate daughter of Luisa Maddalena, the wife of a butcher called Francesco De La Motte. Her real father was apparently a rich banker named Le Normant de Tournehem.
She grew up as Jeanne Antoinette Poisson. 'Poisson' means fish in French and this earned her considerable malicious drubbing in later life. Madame Poisson, the butcher's wife, was a very beautiful, strong-willed, and ambitious character.
Aware of the extraordinary beauty and intelligence of her young daughter and living in a time when many career choices were not open to women, she decided that the best and easiest course to riches for Jeanne would be to become the King's Mistress.
Instead of slaving around the butcher shop, Jeanne received an excellent education and then, by the conniving of her mother, was married off at twenty to Guglielmo Le Normant d'Etoiles, the grand-son of her mother's elderly lover. It was an arranged marriage, but her young husband soon fell in love with her. A daughter, Alexandrine, was born from this union.
Gaining Royal Favor
Four years later, on a stormy night in true romantic fashion, the King and his hunting companions sought shelter at their house. However, he was very pleasant to the pretty Madame d'Etoiles, he showed no amatory interest in her. That came later, after much conniving on her part, with the help of his valet, to repeatedly bring herself to His Majesty's notice.
By 1745, after charming him at a Royal Ball, Madame d'Etoiles had become the acknowledged Royal Mistress and suddenly the toast of all Paris. She was painted by the great French painter Boucher and given the title 'La Marquise de Pompadour', along with the estate that went with the name.
Some of the honors seeped down to her family. Her ambitious mother had died by this time, but her brother, with whom she always remained on close, affectionate terms, was made the Marquis de Vandiere. Her official father, the butcher, was considered too coarse for genteel court life and received nothing and was sidelined and soon forgotten.
Her husband, no longer useful to her and having displayed an inordinate amount of jealousy regarding her new royal attachment, was conveniently divorced and sent off into exile.
The King's Mistress
However, it was not a rosy path from here forth. Being a Royal Mistress was not easy. The King was notoriously fickle and temperamental. She had to employ all her sexual and intellectual skills to keep him interested, even organize debauched orgies that earned her much notoriety and public opprobrium.
In return, she received the Chateau d'Belle Vue and an apartment in Versailles, right below his. She was also made a Lady of the Bed-chamber to the Queen, much to the annoyance and indignation of the latter.
The Queen, Marie Leczinski of Poland, and King Louis XV had been married when she was twenty-one and he fifteen. They had fallen in love later and remained happy for a decade - until he tired of her constant, unflinching devotion got in the habit of taking one Mistress after another.
Madame de Pompadour, with her intelligence, was by far the most powerful of all of them. The King called her his 'Immaculate Wonder' and did her the honor of actually listening to her opinions.
Dabbling in Politics
Madame de Pompadour became politically quite powerful. Her favorites - Abbé Bernis, Maurepas, Choiseul - were elevated to important positions as State Ministers and she also played patroness to the leading intellectuals of the day like Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and others.
She corresponded with Queen Maria Theresa of Austria, who flattered her by addressing her as 'Ma chère cousine'. However, Frederick The Great of Prussia failed to appreciate her. "I do not know her," he said crushingly, when Voltaire tried to bring about a meeting, and that was the end of it.
No doubt the Seven Years War that followed soon after, had its origins in this public snub. Madame de Pompadour also had a falling out with Maurepas and had him removed from office. In revenge, he took to writing vulgar poems about her and entertaining the populace with public recitations. She responded by getting him exiled for twenty years.
Then came the fall from grace. It was nothing dramatic, but rather subtle. The King, never reliable, began to find other attractive women. Madame de Pompadour's fragile health did not help her, nor did her public grief over the death of her young daughter Alexandrine. The King apparently considered an outpouring of such emotion as ungenteel.
Then came his attempted assassination where she didn't consider his horrific vengeance - public drawing and quartering of the would-be assassin Damiens - as genteel. Perhaps Madame de Pompadour too had finally got tired of continually trying to amuse a man she had never particularly loved in the first place.
The King found new mistresses, notably Madame Du Barry, and, although he still liked to drop in on Madame de Pompadour occasionally, his emotions were no longer involved. He showed scanty grief at her passing on 15 April 1764, callously commenting, "Madame has bad weather for her last journey." She was forty-two.