Born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Reinette, as she was known to her friends (translated as little queen) was born on 29 December 1721 in Paris, France. Her mother Madeleine de La Motte and her father Francois Poisson, although it is suspected that he was not her biological father. Reinette had a brother, Abel-Francois, who later became the Marquis de Marigny. Her parents were not exactly “haves” nor “have nots.” I suppose we would have called them Yuppies in the 80’s – they were financial speculators, or at least, her father was. The class system in France was still very strong in those days, and it was very much a make-it or break-it world for people like her father.
Reinette spent her early life being educated at the Ursuline Convent in Poissy, and returned to Paris when she was aged nine. Her mother took her to see a fortune teller who told her that Reinette would become the mistress of Louis XV. Whether that became a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, I can’t say, but Reinette’s mother decided that her daughter was destined for great things and started to ensure that she was prepared for it. She was taught to sing, dance, paint, play musical instruments and she went on to become an actress. Sadly, her mother died before she could see her dreams for her daughter come to fruition.
Reinette’s father was forced to flee France in 1725 as a result of claims that he had been involved in a black market scandal and had unpaid debts, an offence punishable by death in those days.
Charles Lenormand de Tournehem became Reinette’s legal guardian, and it was he who paid for her expensive education, an education preparing her to be the wife of a rich man. Reinette was a quick study, she made friends with the likes of the philosopher and writer Voltaire. At the age of 19, Jeanne Antoinette married her guardian’s nephew, Charles. It was a lucrative match at the time, but even better a few months later when Charles was made sole heir, which improved the couple’s financial standing.
Reinette gave birth to two children by her husband – a boy who died at just a year old, and a girl born three years later. One of the beauties of the day, Jeanne Antoinette became the toast of society and founded her own salon that was frequented by philosophers of the day, including her renowned friend, Voltaire.
As her mother had hoped, the king heard about Jeanne Antoinette. As chance would have it, one of the king’s mistresses, the Duchess de Chateaurux died unexpectedly, and for a while, the king was broken-hearted. However, he met Reinette at a masked ball at Versailles. She made quite an impression on the king and within a month, she had become his mistress, and had moved to an apartment in the Palace of Versailles. She was a commoner, and in order for her to be presented at court, Reinette had have a title, hence she became the Marquise de Pompadour. She also obtained a legal separation from her husband.
It didn’t take long for her to become the king’s chief mistress. Reinette set about if not becoming the queen’s friend, at least not her enemy, which was unusual. The king’s previous mistresses had ignored the queen, and she said of Reinette,
“If there must be a mistress, better her than any other.”
Her attitude towards the queen, who was not well-suited to Louis, made life much easier for Louis, no wonder they remained friends for the rest of their lives. Louis was shy, and not a great communicator. Reinette became his private secretary almost, and conveyed his instructions to others.
She was only his regular mistress for about five years, even though she remained at court and was still his official mistress until her death. In fact, it was then that she moved into more lavish apartments at Versailles, and became better established than ever before. Whether this was due to Louis’ roving eye or Reinette’s desire for self-preservation. She had two miscarriages while at court and must have known that further pregnancies were putting her life at risk so she arranged for lesser mistresses to replace her in the king’s bed.
Madame de Pompadour also arranged for her brother to be appointed the director of the king’s buildings. He became Marquis de Marigny. With his sister, they planned and built the Ecole Militaire and what is now known as La Place de La Concorde (then the Place Louis XV), most of the palace of Compiegne, and more besides.
Reinette had many enemies at court, initially because she was a commoner, but later because of the power she had over Louis. She became one of his most trusted advisors; including military matters and affairs of state, although these matters were nowhere near as successful as the artistic and architectural ones, quite probably because most of the French politicians and senior army personnel were not particularly talented. Unfortunately, her protégé, the duc de Choisel, was brought in to deal with the Reversal of Alliances, which had allied France with Austria, and which eventually led to the Seven Years War. The war was a disaster for France, and led to Madame de Pompadour taking the blame.
Her spirits fell, and she became ill in 1764. Some say it was TB, others cancer. The king nursed her throughout her illness until her death. She was 42.
© Susan Shirley 2017