The Mistress & The Consort – Paying the Wages of Beauty


Portrait of Marie-Louis O’Murphy by Francois Boucher, 1752, courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

In 1755 at Versailles in France the ‘parc aux cerfs’ (stags park) came into existence. It was for enjoying the pleasures of hunting, although in more ways than one. Deep in the woods a small house in a secluded spot became a temporary home for the many gorgeous girls who passed through it destined to provide for the King’s pleasure.

Louis XV, the ‘well beloved’

Its most famous occupant was Marie-Louise O’Murphy, who after serving as a casual mistress to the king for just over two years,  made the same mistake common among courtesans. She tried to replace the official mistress and failed.

All the courtesans that passed through the house were given dowries, married off or sent off to remote parts of the French provinces when their services were no longer required.

The house was closed down in 1765 because Louis XV(1710-1774) had been plunged into total despair.

On the 15th April, 1764 his friend and former mistress, the gentle and very lovely Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise du Pompadour (1721-1764) had died following a long illness.


Detail of the bracelet given to Mme Pompadour by Louis XV

She died as her curate went to leave crying out to him… ‘one moment M. le Cure – we’ll go together’.

More than anyone else the Marquise had been adept at understanding the complex and demanding personality of King Louis XV.

The year following her death his much loved heir to the throne the Dauphin and his wife succumbed to smallpox and two of his daughters also died.

Fan depicting Louis XV dining in style

Fan depicting Louis XV dining in style

Louis was inconsolable wanting to indulge his sorrows in silence and by putting away all forms of personal comfort. However it was not too long before Jeanne Becu formerly known as Mademoiselle L’Ange gained his attention.

Born illegitimate Jeanne had survived her growing years because of her beauty.

Madame du Barry by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Tall and elegant, with a face that formed a perfect oval Jeanne Becu (1743-1793) had a dazzling complexion with big blue eyes framed by long dark lashes.

She worked in a fashion shop in the Palais Royal handling rich stuffs, gold brocade, muslins, lace and ribbons.

With other young ladies she frequented the establishment of the Marquise du Quesnay and it was there she met Jean du Barry a nobleman from Languedoc.

He declared her a ‘morsel fit for a king’.

Jeanne had learned at a very young age that giving favours to those who would help her quest to accumulate riches and enter society was, for her, the only way forward.

When the King was introduced to her in her memoirs first published in London in 1775, it reveals that he found her ‘secret charms superior even to her external beauties’.

After he had spent his first night with her he revealed to his confidant and friend the all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu just how delighted he was with his Jeanne.

Madame-du-Barry-webIt was reported that Jeanne Becu was the only woman in France who had managed to make Louis XV forget his sorrows and, the fact that he was sixty.

Together with her talents and accomplishments, as a courtesan she succeeded in rousing the King from the depths of his despair. By all accounts Jeanne had a natural sweetness of disposition.

She displayed genuine compassion and affection for the melancholy old man so haunted by death.

Even the discovery she was not married did not dissuade the King arranging with Cardinal Richeleiu to conduct a fraudulent marriage for her. This would make her the very infamous Comtesse du Barry.

Madame du Barry Commode

At court rules of etiquette, for what was seen as polite, correct and/or acceptable social behavior, were firmly established and well recognized. Many of the rules had been established under Louis XIV, although dignity alone was said to be wanting.

Together with the importance placed on wit, all these influences helped to strengthen and widen the gap between those in political power and those who were not.

At this time it was not considered correct etiquette for a prince of the blood to deflower a virgin. A King’s mistress was required to be married and experienced. It seemingly did not matter to the King if he cuckolded another man by stealing his wife. It was meant to be an ‘honour’ and a practice that has amazingly continued up to our contemporary age.

This dressing table is filled with Mennecy porcelain, and fittings of lacquered boxes (vernis martin) silver and glass. It came from a marchand mercier who had brought the fittings for it c1744-50.

This dressing table is filled with Mennecy porcelain, and fittings of lacquered boxes (vernis martin) silver and glass. It came from a marchand mercier who had brought the fittings for it c1744-50.

During the remainder of Louis life the Comtesse du Barry made Louis XV smile. She acquired massive wealth particularly in the jewellery that he gave her.

Much consideration was given over to the decoration of boudoirs, the personal room of a woman. It carried with it an implication that it was a setting for dalliance and erotic pursuit.

Mme du Barry patronised the marchand-merciers Simon -Phillippe Poirier and Dominique Daguerre. They supplied her with Sevres, Chantilly and Meissen porcelain set with exquisite gilt bronzes.

Surprise by Jean Honoré Fragonard, Frick Collection, NYC

The practice of decorating furniture with porcelain plaques was developed chiefly by a marchand mercier (merchant in luxury goods). From the late 1750’s Poirier and Daguerre virtually monopolised the purchase of these plaques and production of this sort of furniture.

Inside Mme Du Barry’s pavilion services were placed at the most convenient points so the whole house could run as smoothly as possible. It was the French genius for the design of this type of arrangement, based on practicality and needs, that was very much admired and copied throughout Europe and in England.

Her rejection of four paintings commissioned from French painter and printmaker Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) has always sparked debate. Now in the Frick collection in New York some sources say it was because the figures were to like Louis and Herself and constituted a breach of etiquette.

Marie Antoinette painted by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun – Private Collection of Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg, Germany

After 1751 all French Furniture was required to be marked unless it was made for the exclusive use of the Royal family.

Following the death of the King in 1774 Mme du Barry built a large country house at Louveciennes and retained a Villa on the Avenue de Paris. It was filled with pictures and furniture, which had once been part of the royal collections.

A grateful Louis had given them to her. They included the chair he always sat in, the silver urn she used for brewing his coffee. Fine French 18th century silver is particularly rare today.

Those that survived melting down and the revolution are mainly in collections of other royal houses in Europe and England.

For a long while after the death of Louis XV Mme du Barry remained faithful to his memory.

Wedding King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

Wedding King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

Louis XVI (1754-1793) and his Austrian wife Marie Antoinette (1755- 1793) succeeded to the throne in 1774. By now it was well established that the King and Queen of France were expected to show a lead in the arts. It was their role to set the tone, to encourage artists and writers and to offer financial assistance to those they genuinely liked.

‘…but never have I found , in any class or age, a woman of so fascinating a character as Marie Antoinette; one who, notwithstanding the dazzling splendour of royalty, retained such tenderness of heart; who, under the pressure of her own misfortunes, shewed more sensibility to the woes of others. *

VigÈe Le Brun Louise-Elisabeth  (1755-1842) (d'aprËs). Versailles, ch‚teaux de Versailles et de Trianon

VigÈe Le Brun Louise-Elisabeth (1755-1842) (d’aprËs). Versailles, ch‚teaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Marie Antoinette as wife and consort of Louis XVI was painted several times by the artist Marie Élisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842).

Antoinette offered LeBrun kindness, using her influence to have her paintings hung at the Academy of Painting.

Vigee Le Brun was one of the first lady members admitted. She chose to hang an unusual portrait of the Queen. Not in royal finery, silks, satins or brocades but in a simple Creole style white gauze dress.

As often happened with ladies in high places, Marie Antoinette’s kindness was used against her.

She was criticised bitterly for popularising inexpensive fabrics and trying to ruin the livelihood of Lyon silk manufacturers.

Le Brun recorded Marie Antoinette’s beauty, which was one of youth and high spirits. She was by no means a Titian Madonna with her unruly reddish blonde hair that was inclined to frizziness.

Her health was not robust, and by temperament she was highly strung. She is said to have felt things very deeply and all her portraits reveal she was a lady with a style the public preferred -simple and completely unadorned.

Queen Marie Antoinette sought her people’s good will by keeping open the gates at Versailles so that they could walk freely in the park. As soon as she became mistress in her own house, she relaxed table etiquette.

It was forbidden for her as either Dauphine or Queen to eat at the same table as any man, save a member of the royal family. She petitioned Louis to relax the rule, which he at first resisted although eventually capitulating.

Her liking for naturalness and simplicity coincided with current Parisian taste and she mixed freely with ordinary Parisians. Her life and style was a complete break with custom and it caused one Paris Bookseller named Hardy to record it as a ‘revolution’.

Golden Gates of VersaillesLouis XV had grown up at Versailles where economies were always having to be made to accommodate the mistresses and salaries of servants and tutors. This meant the royal plate was constantly melted down for coinage.

He requested that the French Controller-General of Finances Etienne de Silhouette make economies.

So he launched an austerity program – trousers without pockets, dresses without flounces. And, from that time forward just mere outline of vacant black became known as a Silhouette because they were inexpensive and quickly produced. They became the fashion and rage for some fifty years.

Antoinette eagerly wanted to take the lead wherever she believed she could be useful. The first opportunity to present itself was the opera.

Arriving from Vienna the most advanced musical city in Europe, she was completely appalled at the stiff works and bad productions at the French Court.

She brought her teacher Christoph Willibald Gluck to Paris. He had taught her to play the spinet and she championed him, improving standards of production and changing the course of French Opera.

She also encouraged the ballet, particularly Mademoiselle Heinel who was the first ballet dancer to pirouette.

This new movement meant dispensing with the heavy trappings of the ballet inherited from the Sun King’s reign and designing lighter, and much more graceful costumes.

This did not involve increased expenditure. By wearing clothes that were a simpler style and single colour with very little jewellery she saved money.


Marie Antoinette’s private apartments in Chateau Versailles

In fact Marie Antoinette’s economies reduced budgets throughout the arts as well as in fashion. She rejected fussy brocades and satins, which were made into complicated patterns adorned with fringes laces and ribbons, in favour of simpler plainer fabrics and styles.

Antoinette as a daughter of Austria attracted envy and hatred as a young girl betrothed to the Dauphin before she arrived in France. There’s was to be a marriage of convenience to aid political causes.

No one had believed that they would become great friends and be happy in their marriage. But they were, and they did.

Antoinette made fashionable a new shade of purplish brown (puce) to which a couturier gave the affected name of “Honest Compromise”.

Louis XVI laughingly said it was the colour of a flea, and various sub shades called fleas belly, fleas back and fleas thigh became the rage.

Fleas during her life time were a big problem. A fashion to help saw ladies wearing fur around their necks. They were meant to attract the fleas to jump onto the fur so they could be easily destroyed.

The exquisite silk hangings of Marie Antoinette’s Official State Bedroom

The most important thing in Marie Antoinette’s life was friendship, a word that constantly re-occurs in all her correspondence. The older courtiers rejected her. Nicknamed the “centuries” she likened them to sealed envelopes she could not open.

She brought a sense of fun and frivolity to the court that they all openly disliked. In the splendour of her state bedroom each morning she would greet the people petitioning her for favours. Once the ceremonies were complete she could escape to the petite apartments through a jib door covered to match the wall.

Completed in 1781 they were a small intimate suite of rooms.

Le Liaisons Dangereuses was a novel among Antoinette’s favourites. It was housed in her tiny green library hung with silk.

Doors from the library accessed two lovely salons, one for musical entertainment with her harp.

Louis XVI would have far rather have been a cabinetmaker and she a dairy maid, but time, events, social and political mores meant that they were pawns in a game they really did not want to play.

Marie Antoinette did not ever say “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” translated as ‘let them eat cake’.

They appear in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions – first six books written in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was nine years of age, and published in 1782.

Marie Antoinette painted by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun at Chateau Versailles, France

Marie Antoinette was in her day accused of all sorts of unspeakable crimes, as well as those terrible words, which she did not ever utter. Words which would have been inconceivable in the more humanitarian late eighteenth century and by a lady of her innate sensibilities.

As novelist Lady Antonia Fraser observed in 2002 ‘It was a callous and ignorant statement and she, Marie Antoinette, was neither’. Her letters to her family in Austria reveal her thoughtfulness. “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness. The King seems to understand this truth.”

One can’t help feeling the dreadful suffering she and her son and daughter endured, the details of which are far too painful to recall, were far removed from the rights as individuals the revolutionaries were demanding for themselves.

The memoirs of her private life are ‘piquant without the aid of scandal, and in which the simple truth excites our deepest sympathy’. They were written by Madame Campan, first lady of the bed-chamber to the Queen and caused a ‘confusion of disappointed malevolence’ when printed shortly after her death.

Mme Campan said “I shall relate what I have seen. I shall make known the character of Marie Antoinette…both in the happiest and the most sorrowful years of her life”.

She also noted I never saw one so heroic in danger or, so eloquent when occasion required.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun Self Portrait 1790, National Portrait Gallery London

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun triumphed over long entrenched prejudices to enjoy a career made possible from being Marie Antoinette’s favourite portraitist.

Over a period of six years she painted more than thirty portraits of the queen and her family.

She became painter confidante of many of the royal personages of Europe but her connections with the royal family and in Parisian high society made the revolution dangerous for her.

Following the fall of the Bastille she fled France so that she could go on painting beautiful women and powerful men, including England’s Naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson whose liaison with Emma, Lady Hamilton had made them the most famous Briton’s in the world.

Emma Hamilton as Ariadne painted by Vigée le Brun

Her portraits of Emma, Lady Hamilton the infamous lover of England’s great hero Admiral Horatio Nelson gained for Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun some notoriety. Jeanne Becu, Madame du Barry followed Marie Antoinette to the guillotine, sacrificing the secret of where she had buried her jewels on a promise to save herself by revealing there whereabouts.

She was ultimately betrayed and dragged screaming to a dreadful death.

Woman of complexity and contradictions, Queen Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry lived during a time of society scandal and political turmoil.

As a mistress and the consort of a King of France they paid a very high price, some would think far more than ‘the wages of beauty’.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2017

Memoirs of the Private Life of Marie Antoinette Queen of France and Navarre to which are added, recollections, sketches and anecdotes, illustrative of the Reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI by Madame Campan, First Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen (2nd edition in two volumes) London: Printed for Henry Colburn and Co and M. Bossange and Co 1823

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