Saturday, November 10, 2007

Miss Fish

It was Amanda, of course, who suggested that I get to know that great patroness of Rococo, Mme de Pompadour. Amanda believed that if anything ever bothered you, the only solution was to go straight to the source and talk to those who started it. While she collected gossip from Reagan’s court in Washington, I infiltrated the court of Louis XV. Dead celebrities are far more approachable than living ones. One may view their escapades with more equanimity. I don’t care who was blamed for starting the Seven Years War. I still fume about the Iran/Contra scandal.

Mme de Pompadour’s patronage secured the place of Francois Boucher in art history. While he painted daydreams, domestic idylls and mythological fantasias, she lived them or at least acted her part so impeccably that she appeared to be living them. I will tell you parts of her story, which, if you become interested, you may continue in any one of a number of good biographies. More have been written since the late 1970’s, when the only good book was still Nancy Mitford’s 1954 biography Madame de Pompadour. It’s still a good one. Mitford’s book, like Madame’s life, had the kind of dreamlike quality that made it easy to read and even easier to imagine oneself in. It solved my problems of what people did in the frivolous 18th century. Indeed, as I got to know her, Mme de Pompadour became rather like the rock I meditate with, a single person who holds within her singularity a great deal of universal, even archetypal depth. I talked about her that way when I did my public lectures. I suppose it was to add human interest, to try and convey the excitement of her life through her eyes, but now I realize that it was something more. Homo sum, wrote the Roman playwright Terence, et humani nihil me alienum puto. I am human and I think that nothing human is foreign to me. It’s a saying I’ve loved since college. I realize that I stand or fall with my species. The more I am able to love others, the more I can finally forgive myself.

The future Mme de Pompadour, was born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson in Paris on December 29, 1721. Her last name means Fish. Born into the society of high finance, her mother a known beauty, her paternity uncertain, she could not have picked a better situation into which to have become the catch of the century. Financiers are always in demand after a century of war. With royal treasuries exhausted, monarchs need what we today call venture capital and will happily step out of their social class to obtain it. Capitalism was to be the great innovation of the Enlightenment. Two years after Jeanne Antoinette, Adam Smith would be born in Scotland. Each in her and his own way would contribute to a heady world of laissez faire and cash values.

According to family lore, when Jeanne Antoinette was about nine years old, a fortune teller predicted that she would become the beloved of the king. This earned her the sobriquet “Reinette,” which, loosely translated, means “Queenie.” If the story came true in her case, you can be sure that many other little girls were receiving the same kind of news from the seers who were the rage at the time. Too much reason, too much heady philosophizing always leads to a resurgence of superstition in the parlor, table rapping, cards and the like. Some have said that the mystic and supposedly ancient Tarot deck was in fact an 18th century French innovation. Be that as it may, in the world of fortune tellers and dream speakers, royalty is the symbol of individuation. In the psychic realm, we are all kings and queens. Religious teaching abounds with kings and queens even when the teachers themselves are ascetics. The kingdom of heaven is a bejeweled realm. At some deep spiritual level, you cannot go wrong as a fortune teller if you inform a little girl that she is the beloved of the King.

After receiving the education that was now the right of girls of good birth, Jean Antoinette was married at nineteen to Charles-Guillaume Le Normant d'Étiolles, also a financier. Charles-Guillaume appeared to have loved her madly. Since her claim to fame was as a lover, this should not surprise us. Nor should we be surprised that he never forgave her leaving him, even if it was for the king. But the truth goes deeper. It was Charles-Guillaume’s own father, always the broker, who introduced his pretty daughter-in-law to court circles and helped to get her into the masked ball held at Versailles in 1745 to celebrate the marriage of Louis XV’s son to a Spanish princess. If d’Etiolles père was making loans to the king, what could be a better guarantee on his investment than the ivory arms of a beautiful woman, a brilliant hostess, a patron of the arts? Had he lived today, Charles Guillaume might have written a vindictive novel about his father’s sexual brokerage, but this was an age of sparkling women, and this was France, and Charles Guillaume only sulked.


It is hard to see what is going on in this engraving of “The Yew Tree Ball” by Charles-Nicolas Cochin (French, 1715–1790). It shows the grand soiree in which all the dreams of our beautiful Reinette at last came true. The king, present at first to greet his guests, then mysteriously disappeared, causing trepidation and alarm. Later, he returned with seven friends, all dressed up as identical clipped yew trees. You can see them over on the left. It must have been dreamlike to have been that night in the Hall of Mirrors, thousands of candles blazing everywhere, layer upon layer of tromp d’oeil and sparking reflection, everybody pretending to be somebody else: dominoes, harlequins, creatures whose heads lay in their chests, Persians, Indians, magicians, anything was possible on that breathless, stifling night, heady with sweat, desire and perfume.

This was, after all, the age of fairy tale, and this many years later, the masked ball at Versailles has the distinct feel of a Cinderella story, the ball, the disguise, the love struck prince, in this case a king hot for a mistress. The story of a hidden girl who becomes a princess is known the world round. She is a heroine with a thousand faces who makes her first appearance in the ancient world. Her Greco-Egyptian name is Rhodopsis, retold by Strabo in the first century B.C. In China, she is Ye Xian, who appears in a collection published around A.D. 860. She turns up in Africa as Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughter, and in North America, as the Algonquin Rough Face Girl. The story we know best, however, is French, Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, published in 1697. Madame is sure to have read it, and it certainly gives us a taste of her tale, for she, too, saw her dreams come true at a ball.

Jeanne Antoinette came to the ball dressed as Diana the huntress. It is incongruous to think of such a sexual conquest being made by a virgin goddess whose dislike of men was legendary, and it may be a subtle warning that this age was not quite as it seemed. At the literal level, of course, to be Diana is to give in to the thrill of the chase, a century of female woodland fantasy, culminating in the shepherd-excess of Marie Antoinette, but the metaphorical implications are far darker. If thousands of sweet, mythological hunting scenes would be painted over the next quarter century: nymphs and Maenads, Diana, Pomona, resting and singing in field and forest and garden, Diana herself was little disposed toward love. In one of her most famous stories, she turns a man who ogled her into a stag who was devoured by his own hounds. This is not exactly a love story. But the Diana who came to Versailles was of a different sort of huntress who gladly yielded to being ogled by her prey. And this, too, may have been prescient. Playing god is always serious, no matter which gods you choose, and even if your intent is nothing more than fun.


Mme de Pompadour played many. After she moved in with the king, she was more appropriately depicted as Venus. Above is Boucher’s famous “Toilette of Venus,” a portrait of Mme de Pompadour that hung in her salle de bain. Mme was also the model for Pomona in at least two versions of Boucher’s paintings of the scene. To your left is a sculpted version by Lemoyne which you may find at the Louvre.


The story of Vertumnus and Pomona may be found tucked away in an obscure corner of Ovid’s monumental poem The Metamorphoses. The Metamorphoses was written during the reign of Caesar Augustus. It is an epic series of transformation stories, beginning with primal chaos and ending with the deification of the emperor Augustus. It moves from gods to godlike men, from mythic time into the time of history. Vertumnus and Pomona not only have the distinction of being the only Italian gods in this tale, they also appear as semi-historical figures, their romance having taken place not during the once upon a time of the age of heroes, but during the completely datable reign of the kings of Alba Longa. Alba Longa would later be overthrown by Rome during Rome’s relentless rise to power. Pomona was the goddess of apples and fruit trees. Like Diana, Pomona cared for trees and did not care for men. Vertumnus, the god of seasons, change and plant growth, and as a result, a crafty shape shifter, was the only one able to enter her closed orchards. Sometimes he came disguised as a rustic reaper bearing gifts of grain, at others an old soldier. Finally, he came as an old woman who plied her with kisses. He wove the metaphor of the elm tree and the grapevine, how, without the vine, the elm would only be admired for its leaves and without the elm, the vine would be forced to creep along the ground. Next he told Pomona a sad tale of a young man who committed suicide because his beloved would not have him, and when she saw his bier pass beneath her window, a vengeful Venus turned her to stone. At this, Vertumnus shed his disguise and taking Pomona into his arms, would have had her by force had she not capitulated in delight.

The courtship of Pomona by Vertumnus became a popular subject in art by the late seventeenth century, and may have been one of the reasons why it evolved into one of the symbols of Mme de Pompadour’s seduction by the king. It was the subject of a ballet performed at Versailles in January 1749. Boucher was probably the designer of the sets, and Madame de Pompadour played the role of Pomona. The painting by Boucher at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor was a cartoon for a Gobelins tapestry probably inspired by the production. All of which to say that the story was mythic on many levels: a pagan myth of Imperial Rome, a myth of Enlightenment France, a myth of seduction in the garden.

If the erotic delights of pagan Rome had been crushed by the ascetic weight of Christians, what better way to put the Church in its place than to recreate pagan Rome in Paris? Although renewed persecutions of the Church still lay a half century in the future, the court of Louis XV had already turned away from the counsel of the cardinals who had been so powerful during the reign of his predecessor. And with this, new images came to replace the old ones. Instead of wicked Eve and virtuous Mary, now came Pomona, the goddess, not the eater, of apples.

It is likely that the myth’s sly allusions to the Garden of Eden was one of the things that made it so attractive. The same intellectual awareness that the Bible warned would lead to sin was the Enlightenment’s glory. No serpent was needed. Vertumnus, the man, deceived the woman all by himself. It proved a perfect foil to the dreary Christian legend of the Fall.

It is also a perfect example of a disconnect, a shift, a dislocation. But since this is myth, there is, of course, nothing random about it. Nothing at all.

Mme de Pompadour was neither prim maiden to be given as prize to a hardworking citizen, nor the beneficiary of hereditary duties and privilege. She was a boundary person. France had refused Protestantism and its domesticated church. Paris was full of women whose learning, wit and style were legendary, who were creating a culture of luxury and manners for any who could afford it. Jeanne Antoinette’s infiltration of the court helped make possible the bourgeois aspirations to power that followed. She also, like Eve, aroused a great deal of male rage.

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