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

Madame de Pompadour

Oil on canvas, 217 x 157 cm
National Gallery, London

The son of a painter, Hubert Drouais, François-Hubert became a successful portraitist at the French court. He was especially fashionable for his likenesses of aristocratic children dressed as gardeners or Savoyard beggars to emphasise their 'natural' or 'filial' characters (little Savoyard hurdy-gurdy players brought their earnings back every year to their mothers in the Haute Savoie). This sumptuous portrait of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress, similarly employs the imagery of bourgeois virtue and industry to flatter a great lady.

In this case, however, the fiction is less pronounced: the Marquise de Pompadour had been born plain Mademoiselle Poisson. Pretty, charming, good-natured and well-educated, at the age of nine she had been told by a fortune-teller that she would reign over the heart of a king - after which her family called her Reinette, 'little Queen' (twenty years later she was to reward the woman with the gift of an enormous sum, six hundred livres). Married to the nephew of her mother's rich lover, she began to entertain Parisian intellectuals at her salon; Voltaire is the best-known of the 'philosophes' whom she captivated and supported. She soon attracted the eye of the king, Louis XV, and by 1745, separated from her husband, she was installed at Versailles and ennobled. To her enemies she remained always a Parisian bourgeoise, member of a class which was enriching itself, as they saw it, at their expense. She kept the friendship and interest of the king, however, even after their sexual relationship had ended in 1751-2, by her affection, her charm, and above all through her interest in music and the arts.

Drouais's painting faithfully records her pursuits, surrounding her with books, a mandolin, an artist's folio, her beloved pet dog, and dressing her in a lavishly embroidered silk dress edged with yards of superb lace. Her embroidery - more accurately, tambouring - wools are kept in an elaborate work-table in the latest fashion, with Sèvres plaques (Madame de Pompadour had earlier taken the porcelain factory of Vincennes under her protection and transferred it to Sèvres, near one of her houses). She looks up at the viewer as she might have done at the king when he came into her apartment through their private staircase; a woman no longer young, yet still with that 'wonderful complexion' and 'those eyes not so very big, but the brightest, wittiest and most sparkling', as praised by a contemporary. Yet there is more here than we can see at first sight. As his signature tells us, Drouais painted the Marquise's face from the life in April 1763 on a separate rectangle which was then joined to the rest of the canvas. She must have approved of the likeness for other, half-length portraits were commissioned from Drouais. But this picture was finished in May 1764, some weeks after her death on 5 April at the age of 43. All her life she had suffered from ill-health, and even in her last illness stoically wore rouge and smiled at everybody. Drouais's suave and grand yet somehow intimate portrait installs her in our memory as she would have wished to be remembered.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 12 minutes):
Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto in G major for two mandolins and orchestra, RV 532