The Marquise De Pompadour Visits London

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

The Marquise De Pompadour Visits London

Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review

The National Gallery's exhibition, Mme de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress, is a thinner and not only thinner but shallower version of last Spring's Exhibition at Versailles, more pertinently called Mine de Pompadour et les Arts. The rustic pleasantry of the National Gallery's subtitle befits the stance of both its exhibition and its accompanying picture-book which, unlike the serious and substantial French catalogue, is a popularist and contentious account of the marquise's life and times. One would suppose that people visiting an exhibition are acquainted with its subject. The National Gallery has curtailed the visual display at Versailles. All that it has added, or abetted, in the presentation of the pictures and the drift of the handbook, is a seepage of deconstruction from literary studies, where that procedure has done so much harm, to the visual arts. The marquise de Pompadour is denigrated as a self-publicist mostly concerned with a craven Blairite manipulation of public approval.

Images of a Mistress implies, as the more subtle exhibition at Versailles did not, that the marquise was anxious to win public acclaim as an intelligent, well-read woman and a patroness of the arts, which was a laughable notion during the period of Bourbon absolutism in which she lived. If she pleased the King, that was enough, but she did more. She raised his dull mind to something which approached her own level of understanding. One hopes that the author of the handbook would readily concede that Voltaire's insight was acuter than his. After her death Voltaire, who had known her since her childhood, observed that her prime characteristic was sincerity. She appeared erudite because she was erudite. Her private library contained three thousand volumes: a large and enterprising collection for a woman at that time, it included novels by Defoe, Fielding and Smollett. As will be seen throughout this review, she patronised the arts for no worse reason than that she loved the arts.

The Versailles exhibition had the disadvantage that several of the marquise's best surviving pictures, notably those by Francois Boucher, are in the Louvre, which lends pictures only sparingly, and in the Wallace Collection, which is not allowed to lend pictures at all. London has the advantage, in accessibility if not judgement, on this occasion, since the Wallace Collection has mounted a small parallel exhibition marred only by the silly wordplay of its title, The Art of Love: Madame de Pompadour.

The Wallace Collection provides the grandest introduction to Mine la marquise de Pompadour: the pair of huge pictures by her chosen painter, Boucher, The Rising of the Sun and The Setting of the Sun. They were Boucher's own favourites among his works. The Goncourts, nineteenth-century experts on the period whose discernment it would be foolhardy to contest, considered the two pictures to be Boucher's masterpieces. Unusually meticulous designs for the Gobelins Tapestry Manufactory, they were bought for the marquise's Chateau de Bellevue in 1753, the year they were completed. Later, preferring the originals, she refused the tapestries, perhaps because between the first sketches for the designs in c. 1750 and the final weaving of the tapestries in 1754 her role had changed.

As the sea-goddess Thetis the marquise holds the horses' reins while Phoebus (a much enhanced Louis XV) mounts his chariot to begin the day; late, since Aurora is already scattering her flowers in the sky. When the day closes he descends again into Thetis's outstretched arms, which he had so reluctantly left that morning, and into her bosom scantily clad in sea-green, a colour the marquise delighted in. She embraces him as avidly as the Ocean engulfs her. Both King and marquise are awash with a flood of nereids more girlish than herself, who mingle their blithe limbs, their rose-plump derrieres and their undulous shoulders with the swelling tide. At dawn a suave-hipped sea-nymph presents him with his lyre.

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