Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Madame de Pompadour

Mistress of France

by Christine Pevitt Algrant

“A story of lust, greed, and calculation. Historical drama related with great flair and knowing affection for the colorful characters’ all too-human foibles.” –Kirkus Reviews

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date September 24, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4035-7
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

This compelling new biography of the legendary mistress of King Louis XV of France offers a dramatic insight into the life of one of the most enchanting, powerful, and feared women to grace the world’s stage. The critically acclaimed author of Philippe, duc d”Orl”ans, Christine Pevitt Algrant presents a new biography of the most famous of Louis XV’s mistresses. From her modest beginnings in early-eighteenth-century Paris, to her reign as the undisputed mistress of Versailles, Madame de Pompadour traces the life of a truly remarkable, self-made woman whose astonishing rise confounded the most experienced and the most sophisticated of her contemporaries.

Algrant weaves her richly textured manuscript with tremendous authority, setting the dramatic events that marked Madame de Pompadour’s life against the defining moments of the times. Groomed from an early age to assume the role of a rich man’s mistress, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson underwent a number of transformations–from a halfhearted marriage to a Parisian tax collector to a lifelong involvement with the financial elite of France–before she captivated the king himself and was officially recognized as his ma”tresse d”clar”e. 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, quickly establishing herself as the king’s sole confidante and, ultimately, his indispensable partner in affairs of state.

Algrant takes the reader into the farthest and most exclusive chambers at Versailles, allowing us to glimpse the resourcefulness and the determination with which the king’s favorite deftly manipulated the factions at the court. She also illuminates Madame de Pompadour’s influence across the artistic and political spectrum of the day, including her relationships with the leaders of the French Enlightenment: Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot. Evocative and insightful, Madame de Pompadour is a seductive portrait of one of the most fascinating and influential women of the age.

Tags Royalty


“Mordantly witty. . . . Impressively researched and generally admiring . . . The attractions of the king’s bed had less to do with sex, love or even fame than the possibility of social advancement and a chance to wield real power. In a society where class differences were rigorously observed and opportunities for ambitious women virtually nonexistent, a career as royal mistress, for all its liabilities, was one of the few worth pursuing.” –Emily Eakin, The New York Times Book Review

“Engaging. . . . A gorgeously illustrated volume in which an era and one of its brightest stars come to life. . . . [Algrant balances] the pomp, drama, color, intrigue and excesses of the early-19th century French court with blunt clarity. Her resolve provides graceful counterpoint to what was a highly charged period of French history. . . . [Madame de Pompadour is] graced by abundant dignity and charm and will not soon be forgotten.” –Carol Herman, The Washington Times

“No royal mistress in the minutely calibrated hierarchy of the ancien regime could ever be the Queen’s equal, but this one made herself the King’s master. . . . When a subject is ineffably delicious and none too wholesome, lappetit vient en mangeant, and my appetite for the Marguise increased the more I read. [Madame de Pompadour gives a] compact, sympathetic life aimed at an intelligent popular readership. [Algrant writes] engagingly.” –Judith Thurman, The New Yorker

“More than just a fine portrait, Algrant’s Madame de Pompadour makes you hear the rattle of the tumbrils, just thirty years down the road.” –Alistair Horne

“[A] candid portrait. . . . [Algrant] draws the reader in to a chatty intimacy with her subject.” –Lisa Levy, Vogue

“It is fact even more fascinating than fiction. . . . Algrant’s comprehensive and cogent portrait of the woman who would, indeed, become the most potent force in the court of Louis XV is a welcome addition to the annals of history, as it includes a telling picture of a troubled France. . . . Incisive and thoroughly researched, Madame de Pompadour bursts with color and intrigue.” –Denton Record-Chronicle

“A story of lust, greed, and calculation. Historical drama related with great flair and knowing affection for the colorful characters’ all too-human foibles.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A well-researched volume. . . . written in an . . . accessible, storytelling manner. . . . Algrant brings [Madame de Pompadour] to life in an engaging study that will appeal to the general reader as well as the specialist.” –Library Journal

“Algrant does a terrific job portraying a woman driven by a potent combination of ambition, insecurity and a dogged determination to fulfill the destiny set forth for her at age nine, when a fortune teller predicted she would become the mistress of the king of France.” –Publishers Weekly

“Algrant’s riveting new biography makes it clear that sexual adventure was not really what interested [Madame de Pompadour].” –Antonia Fraser, Mail on Sunday (UK)


Chapter 1

“She charms everyone who sees her . . .

Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was born in Paris on December 29, 1721, the first child of Louise-Madeleine de La Motte, wife of Fran”ois Poisson. Her birth went largely unremarked; the Poissons, living in modest but comfortable circumstances in the rue de Cl”ry, 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 “lan. Fran”ois Poisson was in his forties, recently widowed. A procurement agent for the army, he was not a glamorous prize, a suitable, if not exciting, match.

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 Philippe d’Orl”ans, regent for the five-year-old King Louis XV. D’Orl”ans 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 f”tes galantes of Antoine Watteau. The Regent d’Orl”ans 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’Orl”ans 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 and violence.

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’Orl”ans 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; Fran”ois 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 ventures.

These men were the four P”ris 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 prot”g’s. 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. Fran”ois Poisson worked directly for the third brother, Joseph, known as P”ris-Duverney, whose field of activity was the original family business of supplying the armies. He was also close to the youngest brother, known as P”ris 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, Fran”ois 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 Fran”ois Poisson could have fathered Madame de Pompadour. It is of course perfectly possible that he did.

One of the most reasonable alternatives to Poisson as the father of Jeanne-Antoinette is P”ris 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 “lite, 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 conclusions.

And so, when the baby girl was baptized at Saint-Eustache on December 31, 1721, Fran”ois Poisson held her proudly in his arms, P”ris de Montmartel stood as godfather, his wife (and cousin) Antoinette-Justine P”ris 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.

Fran”ois Poisson was doing well. The family lived in comfortable circumstances in the rue de Cl”ry, with servants and a carriage. In 1725 a baby boy, Abel-Fran”ois, was born. But Poisson, one of P”ris-Duverney’s most 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 investments.

This settled way of life ended abruptly in 1726 when Fran”ois 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; P”ris-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 Fran”ois Poisson, Duverney’s loyal employee, remained in exile for almost ten years. Here was a mystery: the P”ris 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 Fran”ois 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 perilous world.

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. Fran”ois 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 nuns.

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. No sooner was her daughter returned to Paris than she was taken off with her mother to see the famous fortune teller, Madame Lebon. Madame Poisson clearly had more faith in the crystal ball than in divine providence. Mother and daughter were no doubt quite struck by Madame Lebon’s prediction, for, in the future Madame de Pompadour’s will, we find an entry: “Six hundred livres to Madame Lebon for having told her at the age of nine that she would one day be the mistress of Louis XV.” This prediction, she later told Voltaire, struck her with the force of a thunderbolt. From now on “Reinette,” and particularly Reinette’s mother, would refer regularly to the prophecy, and not altogether in playful fashion. Madame Poisson had had an epiphany; her daughter was destined for greatness, and she must provide the means and opportunities to help her achieve it.

Louis XV, the subject of the fortune teller’s prophecy, was a distant and glamorous figure to most Parisians. In 1730 he was twenty years old, married to a Polish princess, Marie Leczinska, and already the father of five children. He spent his time at Versailles, rarely visiting the capital, and allowed his former tutor, the Cardinal de Fleury, to govern France in his name. He was reputed to be the handsomest man in France, faithful to his wife (his senior by seven years), a devoted father, a good and dutiful king. Under these circumstances, the idea of little Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson joining her destiny to that of this august being was absurd. But Madame Poisson was not to be deflected from her grand project.

In an age when girls were married as soon as they reached puberty, nine-year-old Jeanne-Antoinette was quite old enough to commence her education in the ways of the world. All that was needed was the money to finance the enterprise. And for that, all that was needed was Charles Lenormand de Tournehem.

Tournehem was no doubt as captivated by the charms of little Jeanne-Antoinette as the nuns had been. Perhaps, as a childless widower, he warmed to the delightful little girl; perhaps, as her unacknowledged father, he was determined to provide the very best for her. Her mother encouraged his generous instincts. What a great future lies before her, breathed Madame Poisson, she needs only the best that money can buy in the way of education and polish and she will indeed be a morceau de roi. Tournehem turned his attention, and his wallet, to the perfection of their dream. It is difficult not to conclude that Tournehem’s interest in the young girl was that of a father. All his future actions pointed to this fact.

In 1736 Fran”ois Poisson returned to Paris to rediscover his daughter, now fifteen. The French authorities had guaranteed that his original sentence would not be imposed and that no further prosecutions would ensue. (Poisson had performed some useful services for French diplomats in Germany and managed to have his case taken up at court.) On his return, the family moved to the rue Neuve des Petits-Champs, the busy street which ran between the place des Victoires and the place Vend’me. Poisson continued to fight for his good name and, finally, in 1741, his sentence was revoked. Meanwhile, he continued to work for P”ris-Duverney, as he had done while in exile, and was often sent back to Germany on business.

One may assume that Poisson was delighted with his promising young daughter, but one wonders how she herself felt. Her memories of him must have been dim; for many years “oncle” Tournehem had been the real father of the family. Poisson arrived in Paris trailing an air of disgrace; much less polished than Tournehem, not at home in the sophisticated world to which his wife aspired; he appeared a rather vulgar, if cheerful, presence. He might have been an embarrassment to an ambitious young woman. And yet Jeanne-Antoinette seems to have welcomed him into the bosom of the family with little difficulty. She would always, and unequivocally, refer to him as her dear father, and she would in later years do her best to ensure him a distinguished way of life. But his presence and influence in her future would never match that of Tournehem.

The family fortunes began to improve. On her parents’ deaths, and that of her sister, Madame Deblois, in January 1738, Madame Poisson was able to buy a house at 50, rue de Richelieu, with a view on the gardens of the Palais-Royal.

The rue de Richelieu was not far from the bustle of the city’s main east-west thoroughfare, the rue Saint-Honor”, not far either from the place Vend’me, home to the wealthiest financiers, the Biblioth”que du Roi, the Opera. Moli’re had lived close by; Voltaire still did. Round the corner were the offices of the Compagnie des Indes, where Tournehem worked, and the rue Colbert, where he lived. The streets were narrow, noisy, and no doubt smelly, but all around were gardens, not only those of the Palais-Royal, but of the monasteries and convents which were a feature of the neighborhood, the Filles de Saint-Thomas, the Capucins, the Dames de l’Assomption, the Petits P’res. And, just at the northern end of the rue de Richelieu, were the wide, tree-lined boulevards, beyond them the fields and orchards and vineyards of the countryside. The cries of street vendors, the pealing of church bells, carriage wheels on paving stones, perhaps the sound of rehearsals from the Opera filled the air. The grand old church of Saint-Eustache, the church where Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was baptized and would be married, seemed to stand guard over the parish.

The children of Madame Poisson were being carefully brought up. While Abel was with the Jesuits at the exclusive college of Louis-le-Grand, his sister continued to receive the best education money could buy. The great singer Jelyotte came to give her lessons, the actor Jean-Baptiste Lanoue taught her declamation, she became skilled at the harpsichord and at all the other arts a young woman needed to shine in society; she read widely, embroidered, developed the art of conversation and the talent for entertaining. She leaned to ride and to drive her own carriage. She excelled in everything. She was designed for society. Endowed with great natural gifts, she also learned the importance of discretion, discipline, and self-control.

Jeanne-Antoinette was also exposed to the way of life of some of the richest and most cultivated members of Parisian society. Although her own circumstances were modest, those of her godfather, P”ris de Montmartel, and his brother P”ris-Duverney, were opulent. Montmartel lived in the Marais, in the former h”tel de La Force, his house a masterpiece of elegance and comfort, his garden famous for its rare shrubs, his library full of rare books. Montmartel, whose official posts included Guardian of the Royal Treasury and banker to the court, also had an extensive country estate at Brunoy, to the southeast of Paris, where he indulged his passion for horticulture and botany. P”ris-Duverney grew bananas and pineapples in the hothouses of his estate at Plaisance nearby. And oncle Tournehem himself was the owner of a country house at Etioles, on the Seine, which he was constantly embellishing.

For the young girl, visiting these splendid houses and glimpsing this leisured way of life, there were no doubt, on the return to the rue de Richelieu, moments of envy, of melancholy. Perhaps it was then that she became determined to rise to a position in society equal and superior to that of her wealthy acquaintances. Perhaps, remembering the fortune teller, she dreamed of the king . . .

As she turned eighteen, she had fulfilled all her early promise. She was of above average height, with soft brown hair and flawless skin. Her face was a perfect oval, her features regular and charming; her eyes, of an indeterminate color between green, blue, and gray, were noted for their depth and brilliance. And she had very fine teeth (rare in those days) with the most dazzling smile. Svelte, poised, and elegant, she was also well-read, cultivated, and amusing. She was indeed a “morsel fit for a king.”

Louis XV being, however, unavailable, the young woman had to find a husband. With all her fine qualities, she should have been a prime candidate for a brilliant match, if it were not for her rather disreputable father and mother and her somewhat ambivalent social position. And crucially, she lacked a dowry substantial enough to remove the other problems. As a great heiress, Mademoiselle Poisson could have attracted a duke. As the daughter of Fran”ois Poisson she was, however gifted and beautiful, of interest to none of the parties to whom she and her mother wished to aspire.

But she must marry. She could not take her place in society until she had done so. Fortunately, oncle Tournehem had the perfect husband for her. Doting as he was, Tournehem was no doubt reluctant to be parted from her. And under the circumstances, he could hardly marry her himself. His only nephew, Charles-Guillaume Lenormand, son of Tournehem’s unsuccessful brother, was the designated husband. (If we accept the notion that Tournehem was indeed her father, she would be marrying her cousin, a not uncommon occurrence at the time.)

There is evidence that Tournehem had long contemplated this union. He had already seen to his nephew’s financial future, making him a junior partner in tax-collecting farms, and supplying the necessary funds to do so. On December 15, 1740, Tournehem made his nephew his sole heir, disinheriting all his other nephews and nieces, the children of his brother, Herv”-Guillaume, and his sister, the comtesse d’Estrades. Perhaps he thought that this handsome treatment would incline the young man’s father to view the match with a friendly eye; if so, he was mistaken. Herv”-Guillaume Lenormand regarded Mademoiselle Poisson as an intruder; perhaps he was only too well aware of the implications of the match. Jeanne-Antoinette was not the bride he had hoped for, despite her qualities. He sensed that his son was being used. When the wedding contract was signed on March 4, 1741 at the rue de Richelieu, he refused to attend, and a rift opened between the Lenormand brothers. As for the groom himself, he seems to have been a shy, obliging young man who fell in love with his wife but who was never a match for her in drive, ambition, or strength of will.

The Parisian lawyer, Edmond Barbier, saw the whole affair in its proper perspective. “Madame Poisson got to know Monsieur Le Normand, fermier g”n”ral, with whom she had always been friendly, even up to this day,” he wrote in 1745. “It was during this relationship that her daughter was born, whom Monsieur Le Normand regards as his daughter, and to whom he has given an excellent education. Monsieur Le Normand, having no children, forced his nephew to marry Mademoiselle Poisson, aged eighteen and a beautiful woman, and gave them as a wedding present the estate of Etioles. They lodged with the uncle, defrayed of everything and enjoying an income of more than forty thousand livres a year, with the hope of an opulent succession. She was adored by the uncle, absolute mistress of the household.”

Thus, on March 9, 1741, at Saint-Eustache, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson married Charles-Guillaume Lenormand, who now took the name of “d’Etioles” after his uncle’s estate. The couple moved in with Tournehem, then all three moved to the rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs, across the gardens of the Palais-Royal from the Poissons in the rue de Richelieu. They started married life on a handsome footing: Tournehem’s financial support enabled the young couple to live in style, with servants, a carriage, and horses; and Madame Poisson managed to provide her daughter with thirty thousand livres worth of trousseau.

At about this time, Tournehem commissioned the society painter Jean-Marc Nattier to paint the portrait of his new daughter-in-law; she regards us coolly, in all the freshness of her youth and beauty, graceful and self-possessed, a smile of gentle confidence on her lips.

Excerpted from Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France

©2002 by Christine Pevitt Algrant. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.