DROUAIS, François-Hubert
(b. 1727, Paris, d. 1775, Paris)

Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry

1770-74
Oil on canvas, 71 x 59 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Jeanne Bécu, comtesse du Barry (1743-1793), was the mistress of Louis XV. She was the natural daughter of a poor woman of Vaucouleurs. Placed in a convent in Paris at an early age, she received a very slight education, learning little but the catechism and drawing; and at the age of sixteen entered a milliner's shop in the rue St Honoré. Subsequently she lived as a courtesan under the name of Mlle Lange. Her great personal charms led the adventurer Jean, comte du Barry, to take her into his house in order to make it more attractive to the dupes whose money he won by gambling. Her success surpassing his expectations, his hopes took a higher flight, and through Lebel, valet de chambre of Louis XV, and the duc de Richelieu, he succeeded in installing her as mistress of the king. In order to present her at court it was necessary to find a title for her, and as Count Jean du Barry was married, his brother Guillaume offered himself as nominal husband. The comtesse du Barry was presented at court on the 22nd of April 1769, and became official mistress of the king.

Her influence over the monarch was absolute until his death in 1774 when an order of his successor banished her to the abbey of Pont-aux-Dames, near Meaux, but, the queen interceding for her, the king in the following year gave her permission to reside at Luciennes with a pension. Here she led a retired life with the comte de Cosse-Brissac, and was visited there by Benjamin Franklin and the emperor Joseph II, among many other distinguished men.

Having gone to England in 1792 to endeavour to raise money on her jewels, she was on her return accused before the Revolutionary Tribunal of having dissipated the treasures of the state, conspired against the republic, and worn, in London, "mourning for the tyrant." She was condemned to death by guillotine on the 8th of December 1793, and beheaded the same evening.

By the time the comtesse du Barry had arrived at Versailles, Drouais had completed posthumously the last portrait of Madame de Pompadour, a sumptuous affair that surely qualifies as his masterpiece. It was fitting that the new royal paramour would choose as her official portraitist an artist who could immortalize her predecessor with such refinement and elegance. She commissioned him to paint for both the château and the pavilion of Luciennes a series of delightful pictures. During the comtesse du Barry's years at court, Drouais created five distinct portraits of her, as well as additional copies of the five images.