Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Elise Goodman The Portraits of Madame de Pompadour: Celebrating the Femme Savante Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 185 pp.; many b/w ills. Cloth (0520217942)

Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour, was one of the most persistently pictured women of her time. During her career as official mistress of Louis XV of France (1745-64), artists such as François Boucher, François-Hubert Drouais, and Maurice-Quentin de La Tour represented her in a variety of contexts, from elegantly decorated interiors to lush garden bowers, and accompanied by a variety of objects, including books, prints, and musical instruments. In this book, Elise Goodman argues that a significant number of these portraits—five of a corpus of fifteen—were designed to portray Pompadour as a “femme savante,” or “a woman of learning and accomplishment” (4). Focusing on these images, Goodman seeks to place them in a double context: an early modern pictorial tradition of depicting talented women, and a uniquely Enlightenment conception of female erudition.

The five-chapter study begins with a survey of all Pompadour’s portraits, then provides a short overview of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century debates about the intellectual capacities and education of women. Its centerpiece is two chapters that compare the images of Pompadour as a “femme savante” with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century representations of female accomplishment. These include fashion plates depicting previous royal mistresses with books, engraved portraits of female writers and scholars, and a wide range of painted portraits of women equipped with books, music, and other signs of intellectual or artistic interests. Goodman suggests that Pompadour’s imagery engaged all these traditions. It cast her as a new version of Louis XIV’s mistresses Madame de Montespan and Madame de Maintenon, and also as a woman whose erudition rivaled that of France’s most famous female authors. At the same time, it participated in a gendered pictorial tradition that represented women’s achievement as more passive and subjective than men’s and placed particular emphasis on physical beauty. The final chapter examines what Goodman contends is the most complete formulation of the “femme savante” persona: La Tour’s extraordinary large pastel of 1755, in which Pompadour fingers a sheaf of music beside a table stocked with Enlightenment masterworks, including Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Lois and a volume of Diderot’s Encyclopédie.

Pompadour’s portraits are widely known, and some aspects of her personal imagery have been examined by art historians such as Katherine Gordon and Perrin Stein. But this is the first study to bring all the portraits together and identify erudition as a sustained representational concern. It is also the first study to juxtapose the portraits with other images of cultivated women, some of them previously unpublished. The combination is provocative, and Goodman’s visual analyses encourage close, comparative scrutiny. She approaches the material with passion and conviction, and makes her points clearly and concisely. The book provides a useful pictorial resource for scholars of early modern portraiture, and will likely appeal to a more general audience as well.

Some specialized readers, however, may be troubled by certain aspects of the argument. To begin with, the very term “femme savante” poses difficulties. Goodman notes that it was not a standard eighteenth-century phrase (3), yet employs it quite elastically and applies it to Pompadour in a way that is more assumed than argued. She defines it initially as “a woman of beauty, intelligence, learning, and sophistication,” (2) and “by no means equivalent to the widely and deeply learned savante or philosophe of the Enlightenment” (4). But she ends by declaring that La Tour’s portrait depicts Pompadour as “the consummate salonnière and arbiter of French arts and letters, as well as…a veritable philosophe, an equal to the Enlightenment intellectuals she patronized” (118).

This is a remarkable claim, given the limited nature of Pompadour’s formal education and participation in salon culture, not to mention the extraordinary intellectual abilities of Enlightenment thinkers, their often uneasy relationships with elite patrons, and the profound challenges their activity posed to royal ideologies and practices. It is difficult to recognize, in the account of Pompadour’s involvement with the republic of letters (122-3), the project of the salonnière delineated by historians such as Dena Goodman. Indeed, the book’s representation of the Enlightenment itself—as a vigorous yet oddly benign cultural ferment devoted to joyfully celebrating knowledge—seems far from the complex, contested cultural terrain mapped by historians as diverse as Joan Landes and Robert Darnton. The books in La Tour’s 1755 pastel may have signaled Pompadour’s sympathy with their authors’ advocacy of women’s education (43). But many contemporaries considered her a contributor to the corrupt despotism described by Montesquieu, and the Encyclopédie’s threat to the established world view was causing considerable royal concern by 1755. (Its publication permission would be revoked in 1757.) These were dangerous books, and their pictorial presence begs further explanation.

Moreover, as perceived similarities accrue between Pompadour’s portraits and those of a variety of women—from bourgeois ladies to one of the king’s daughters, from the widely esteemed novelist Madeleine de Scudéry to the marquise du Châtelet, a renowned physicist—it becomes increasingly unclear how (or even whether) the “femme savante” was different from either the broadly cultivated, elite amateur, or the erudite, publishing scholar, or how (or even whether) Pompadour’s documented abilities and mode of cultural engagement differed from those of other accomplished women. Yet Pompadour is termed a “femme savante” from the first sentence of the introduction, and the label is never questioned. This makes the portraits seem like homogenous expressions of a stable, pre-existing identity, and precludes the possibility of exploring them as strategic constructions that negotiated, and perhaps even contradicted, the complexities of social reality. Ultimately, we are left with a tautology: the trappings of literature, music, and art in Pompadour’s portraits transparently denote erudition, and she was a “femme savante;” the images thus depict her as this cultural type.

Picturing Pompadour was surely not so simple, for almost everything about her was problematic. Unlike Louis XV’s previous mistresses, she came from the world of non-noble or recently ennobled financiers and tax collectors, a social group whose wealth and privilege were tremendously threatening to the traditional nobility. When her relationship with the king began in 1745, his sexual conduct had already precipitated a political crisis, and her presumed power of the royal body and mind soon became a major source of both official and popular anxiety. Even after their sexual involvement ceased around 1750, the scope of her perceived influence inspired widespread unease. Slander was a leitmotif of her career; its principal themes were her low birth, probable illegitimacy, physical appearance, health, vast expenditures, emasculating effect on the king, and ambition to rule France herself.

Goodman mentions Pompadour’s social origins, and even suggests that the first “femme savante” portrait was partly a response to the slander (16-17). But her confidence that Pompadour’s status was “unassailable” by 1756 (22) underestimates the zeal of her detractors and the complexity of her position. It also prevents Goodman from considering one of the most striking things about the “femme savante” persona. Three of the five images in this category were produced during the politically volatile years 1755-8. One wonders whether the images could be understood in relation to events such as the 1756 outbreak of the Seven Years War, in which Pompadour seems to have played an unofficial diplomatic role, or the 1757 assassination attempt on the king, which exposed the vulnerability of a ruler already considered prey to Pompadour’s will. At the very least, the portraits somehow must have engaged the unstable social and political position of the woman regarded by many as the king’s corrupt, dangerous “whore.”

Goodman’s Pompadour is a marvelous heroine, an “amalgam of learning and glamour” (36) living in an enlightened world with an “ardent interest in picturing its accomplished women” (3). But it is hard to believe in her. A painted book does not make a “femme savante,” any more than a critical comment makes a philosophe. This study is in part a response to Donald Posner’s “Mme. de Pompadour as a Patron of the Visual Arts” [The Art Bulletin 72 (March 1990)], which argues—against the grain of virtually all other studies—that Pompadour’s patronage activity was not as extensive or innovative as previously thought. Goodman’s Pompadour is, in a sense, an inversion of Posner’s: while he qualified her longstanding reputation for creative initiative, Goodman credits her with virtually unrivaled capacities.

The challenge for future scholarship will be to move beyond the measurement of ability, towards a more nuanced understanding of how ability itself was construed. Erudition and self-assertion were considered highly problematic by eighteenth-century elites, and we need to explore how this shaped the cultivation and display of knowledge by men and women alike. We also need to better understand how female patronage was regarded, and how those who “loved” and “protected” the arts conceived their endeavor in relation to those who made careers of literary or artistic production. This book, while leaving many questions unposed, proffers images and ideas that should inspire interesting responses.

Mimi Hellman
Princeton University