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This biography of the legendary mistress of King Louis XV offers dramatic insight into the life of one of the most enchanting, powerful, and feared women to grace the world's stage. Groomed from an early age to assume the role of a rich man's mistress, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson underwent several transformations before she caught the heart of the king himself. Although accustomed to the king's extramarital relationships, the court was shocked at the sudden ascension of the low-born Mademoiselle Poisson. The ...
This biography of the legendary mistress of King Louis XV offers dramatic insight into the life of one of the most enchanting, powerful, and feared women to grace the world's stage. Groomed from an early age to assume the role of a rich man's mistress, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson underwent several transformations before she caught the heart of the king himself. Although accustomed to the king's extramarital relationships, the court was shocked at the sudden ascension of the low-born Mademoiselle Poisson. The newcomer, however, wasted no time in establishing herself as the king's sole confidante and, ultimately, his indispensable partner in affairs of state. The critically acclaimed author of Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, Christine Pevitt Algrant traces Madame de Pompadour from her modest beginnings in early-eighteenth-century Paris to her reign as the undisputed mistress of Versailles. Filled with photographs, and evocative and insightful in its telling, Madame de Pompadour is a seductive portrait of one of the most fascinating and influential women of the age.
Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was born in Paris on December 29,
1721, the first child of Louise-Madeleine de La Motte, wife of
François Poisson. Her birth went largely unremarked; the
Poissons, living in modest but comfortable circumstances in the
rue de Cléry, were simply a middle-class family lost in the
anonymity of the great city. And yet, there were powerful forces
taking an interest in this child. Things were not quite as they
seemed in the Poisson household.
The couple had married in October 1718. The bride was
the daughter of Jean de La Motte, an official of the War Ministry
responsible for supplying the Invalides with meat and other
provisions. The La Mottes lived at the Invalides and were a very
respectable family; one of Louise-Madeleine's sisters was a nun,
another married to the fruiterer to the royal household. But
Louise-Madeleine herself, not yet twenty when she married, was
already remarked in Paris not only for her beauty (she was a
handsome brunette with dazzling white skin, 'one of the most
beautiful women in Paris,' according to a contemporary), but
also for her high spirits ('she was as clever as four devils'). The
capricious young woman had found a husband of similar social
standing, but considerably less élan. François Poisson was in
his forties, recently widowed. A procurement agent for the
army, he was not a glamorous prize, a suitable, if not exciting,
As the couple settled into married life, the city around them was
experiencing a social and economic upheaval. Since 1715, and
on the death of the great King Louis XIV, France had been ruled
by Philipped d'Orléans, regent for the five-year-old King Louis
XV. D'Orléans had immediately moved the court from Versailles
to Paris, installing the little king at the Tuileries, and beginning
the transformation of the capital. An application of money and
energy stimulated the development of an entire new district of
the city, the faubourg Saint-Germain, where the nobility, freed
from the constraints of life at Versailles, began to build elegant
new town houses; Parisian society turned to the pursuit of
pleasure, buying beautiful clothes and objets de luxe,
discovering the delights of fine cuisine and lavish entertaining,
and all the joys of la vie mondaine. Restaurants and coffee-houses
began to appear, art and antique dealers thrived, makers
of fine furniture could not keep up with demand. Life took on a
joyous, if often riotous, tone.
Regency society was at once licentious and refined; it was
characterized not only by an undeniable grossness of morals,
but also by the seductive fêtes galantes of Antoine Watteau.
The Regent d'Orléans himself exemplified the dichotomy; he
was a very intelligent, creative man, but dissolute and coarse in
his private affairs. Despite his buffoonery and philandering,
however, he kept France peaceful and increasingly prosperous.
Until, that is, he entrusted the finances of the country to a
Scottish adventurer called John Law, in part responsible for the
great financial crash known as the 'Mississippi,' which ruined
everything for which d'Orléans had worked.
In 1720 a dizzying series of events threw Paris into uproar. John
Law, with the approval of the regent, had started a commercial
bank, which became so successful at promoting the idea of the
use of credit and paper money-ideas which were revolutionary
in France at the time-that the regent made it the 'royal' (that is,
officially approved) bank. At the same time, Law took over
several moribund French trading companies, amalgamated them
into the giant Compagnie des Indes, and embarked on a
campaign to encourage the public to bring their gold and silver
to his bank in exchange for banknotes, and then invest their
notes in the soon-to-be-discovered wealth of the faraway and
mysterious land of Louisiana, hence the 'Mississippi.' Share
prices rose, an open-air stock market was set up in the rue
Quincampoix in the center of Paris, and frenzied scenes of
buying and selling took place against a backdrop of petty crime
Then, inevitably, at the end of 1720, the whole fragile edifice
collapsed. John Law fled the country. Those who had invested
in the 'Mississippi' saw their savings gone, their security
vanished, their hopes destroyed. Philippe d'Orléans had failed in
his great attempt to modernize the financial system of France.
The failure had a devastating effect on the regent. He retreated
from new policy initiatives and, in 1722, he retreated from Paris,
taking the court back to Versailles, and choosing to focus his
time and energy on the education of the eleven-year-old King
Louis XV. The unfortunate separation of king and capital would
have heavy consequences for the future. The regent himself
would die suddenly at the end of 1723, at the age of forty-nine,
worn out by his excesses and by the failure of his cherished
scheme to make France prosperous.
While all this was taking place, the Poissons must have
observed the frantic atmosphere in the city, the crowds of
provincials and foreigners possessed with the desire for riches,
the violence in the nearby rue Quincampoix. But they did not
join the hysteria. They had better advice; François Poisson was
employed by some very grand and important people, men who
were John Law's most bitter foes, men who would certainly not
have advised their employee any participation in his outlandish
These men were the four Pâris brothers, bankers to the
government and much more besides. They were originally from
Grenoble, and had made their fortune during the constant wars
of Louis XIV by supplying the French armies with food, water,
forage, and munitions. This fortune put them at the center of the
French financial system, a network of financiers, bankers, and
businessmen who lent money to the government, farmed the
taxes, and made vast profits along the way. Their power and
influence became paramount.
But the brothers were never ministers; they preferred to stay in
the background and control events through their protégés. They
have been called 'black holes in the history of the eighteenth
century,' because their dealings, personalities, and modus
operandi were mysterious at the time and are still so today. But
even if one cannot pinpoint exactly how and where they
exercised their power, one cannot dispute the fact that it was
theirs to exercise.
The two elder brothers died before the events of this book took
place. It was the younger brothers, Joseph and Jean, who in
1722 were successfully established in the Parisian financial
world. François Poisson worked directly for the third brother,
Joseph, known as Pâris-Duverney, whose field of activity was
the original family business of supplying the armies. He was also
close to the youngest brother, known as Pâris de Montmartel, a
banker and financier. It was the protection and advice of these
two men which saved the Poissons from the ruin that awaited
many of their friends in the turbulence of the Mississippi.
When Jeanne-Antoinette was born in December 1721, the family
lived in a modest neighborhood close to the church of Saint-Eustache.
From the first days of the marriage, François Poisson
was often away on business; when a brief war broke out
between France and Spain in 1719, he was sent south to start to
amass the necessary mules, wagons, foodstuffs, and other
vivres. His job was made difficult, and his stay extended,
because of a disastrous outbreak of bubonic plague which
spread across southern France.
His wife was not one to stay uncomforted. In the corrupt world
of regency Paris, where it was not uncommon for rich men to
purchase the virginity of young girls, and where every man kept
a mistress if he could, Madame Poisson's looks and
temperament guaranteed her success. The gossip of the day
attributed many lovers to her, and this gossip became more
widespread and more prurient in later attempts to blacken her
daughter's name. Dozens of men were linked to her, with little or
no evidence; suffice it to say that both her contemporaries and
later historians have mostly refused to accept the fact that a low-born
functionary like François Poisson could have fathered
Madame de Pompadour. It is of course perfectly possible that
One of the most reasonable alternatives to Poisson as the father
of Jeanne-Antoinette is Pâris de Montmartel, who stood as her
godfather at her baptism, and who had known Madame Poisson
very well at the Invalides before her marriage. The most
reasonable, however, is a man called Charles Lenormand de
Tournehem, a tax farmer, a director of the Compagnie des
Indes, and a member of the financial élite, although he was by
no means as wealthy as Montmartel. Tournehem was in his mid-thirties
in 1721, a widower with no children. The ties between
Tournehem and Madame Poisson seem to have gone back a
long way. In April 1720 he had attempted to rent a house in the
rue Vivienne from one of her relatives. But it is impossible to
reconstruct the course of their relationship, or to confirm his
paternity. Only from subsequent events can one draw
And so, when the baby girl was baptized at Saint-Eustache on
December 31, 1721, François Poisson held her proudly in his
arms, Pâris de Montmartel stood as godfather, his wife (and
cousin) Antoinette-Justine Pâris as godmother, and Tournehem
mingled with the congregation. Whatever was in doubt that day,
one thing was clear: Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson came into the
world with powerful connections.
François Poisson was doing well. The family lived in
comfortable circumstances in the rue de Cléry, with servants
and a carriage. In 1725 a baby boy, Abel-François, was born.
But Poissson, one of Pâris-Duverney'smost trusted agents, was
rarely at home; he was usually out on the French frontier or in
the provinces, scouting supplies and establishing contacts. In
his absence, Madame Poisson maintained a close relationship
with Tournehem and, with a sound head for business, benefited
from his advice to help improve the family finances by shrewd
This settled way of life ended abruptly in 1726 when François
Poisson fled the country. He was accused of speculating in
wheat and bearing some responsibility for a grievous famine in
Paris that year. His employers were also accused of
malfeasance; Pâris-Duverney was sent to the Bastille on charges
of corruption and embezzlement. After a trial, Duverney was
cleared of all charges and soon rose again to become
commissioner-general of supplies. And yet François Poisson,
Duverney's loyal employee, remained in exile for almost ten
years. Here was a mystery: the Pâris brothers could easily have
rescued their employee once they themselves regained favor, but
they did nothing. Poisson languished in Germany all that time,
and arranged his return to France only through his own
resources. For whatever reasons, it was deemed prudent that
François Poisson not rejoin his wife and children.
At her husband's flight, Madame Poisson was at first left in
some embarrassment. She and her two children were forced to
move to modest rooms in the rue des Bons-Enfants, near the
Palais-Royal. But she was a brave woman with good
connections. She kept her head and kept afloat. She might not
have had the ton du monde, as a contemporary observed, but
she had wit and charm, ambition, and courage. She would not
be easily defeated, and she would teach her daughter the
necessity for ambition and resilience in an unpredictable and
Her first concern, however, was to find the five-year-old girl a
haven from the uncertainties of the times. Jeanne-Antoinette was
a good-natured and amiable child, already known as
'Reinette' ('little queen') to her family. Madame Poisson's way of
life did not easily accommodate the presence of children; it
would be better for all concerned if her daughter were sent to
more salubrious surroundings. François Poisson, although far
away, was also anxious to see Jeanne-Antoinette safely settled.
He made it clear that he wished to play a part in the decisions
affecting the girl's future; it was mainly at his prompting that she
was sent to the Ursuline convent at Poissy, some miles out of
Paris, where she could be supervised by her father's cousin,
Sister Elisabeth, and by Sister Perpetua, her mother's sister. She
was there for almost three years, spending those impressionable
years, from the ages of five to eight, under the benevolent eye of
The Ursulines had as their mission the education of the
daughters of the bourgeoisie, and brought up their charges to be
good and gentle wives and mothers, to respect God, their
family, and the king. Theirs was an ordered, secure world for a
little girl caught up in a family crisis, and Jeanne-Antoinette
seems to have flourished within it. The nuns were the first of
many who knew her to find her charming. They also made it a
point to keep the distant father, no doubt at his request,
informed of his daughter's activities. A letter from the convent to
Poisson in Germany paints a pleasing picture of the girl in
August 1729: 'Your amiable daughter, monsieur, is well and
pretty, and feeling altogether at her ease. Monsieur de La Motte
sends someone every market day for her news, and has her
taken out from time to time with her cousin Deblois to have
dinner with him.... She is not at all bored with us, quite the
contrary.... On August 25 there was a fair at Poissy; we sent
her there with her cousin and one of our nuns, who showed
them all the interesting things; she also took them to the abbey,
where they were very well treated and found to be very amiable.
... On the day of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin, they sang
Vespers in their classes, they were the principal soloists ... '
But she was not a robust child. The nuns were often writing of
her delicate health and describing the nourishing food they gave
her, the hot soup, fresh eggs, rice, and country butter. In
November 1729 she suffered from a cold and was in bed for six
weeks. This illness marked the end of her time at Poissy; on her
recovery, in January 1730, her mother reclaimed her. The nuns
were sad to see her go: 'They have told us that she no longer has
a fever, that she is better, that she is very pleased to be with her
mother. It seems likely that she is going to stay there. And so,
monsieur, we no longer have news of her for sure; we leave it to
you to keep in touch about her as we take a great deal of interest
in her and love her tenderly. She is always very amiable and so
pleasing that she charms everyone who sees her.'
Madame Poisson's views on child-rearing were rather different
from those of the nuns.
Excerpted from Madame de Pompadour
by Christine Pevitt Algrant
Copyright © 2002 by Christine Pevitt Algrant.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted January 24, 2004
This is an informative, elegantly written book, containing much more detail than I had expected. This is one of the most thoughtful books I have read relating to French history and its participants.
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Posted February 6, 2010
I loved this book and couldn't wait to get back to it each time I left off. While I am no historical expert, I purchased this book after hearing her name mentioned on TV and wanted to find out more about the actual person and time period. I was very satisfied with the amount of facts and insight presented by this author and the way it was written made it very personal. I will definitely be looking at other historical accounts written by this author. Very well done!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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