Thomas Carlyle called Madame de Pompadour a “high-rouged unfortunate female of whom it is not proper to speak without necessity.” This gentlemanly reticence contains a broadside of slurs: misfortune, rouge, improper and unmentionable are all high Victorian code for a tart. Carlyle depicted her as so obsessed with rouge that she applied it one last time after the last rites had been pronounced over her dying body. That is merely caricature. La Pompadour was indeed the mistress of Louis XV. In Boucher’s portrait (now in the Fogg Art Museum in Harvard), the rouge is the tool of her trade, as generals carried telescopes.
But Boucher and many others also painted her as surrounded by the works of culture which she loved to patronise. A beneficiary of that, and to a spectacular degree, was Boucher himself. It was not merely that Boucher was commissioned to paint by the Pompadour, nor even by others influenced by her. She was (quite literally) a patron on the industrial scale. The Gobelins tapestry firm made with her encouragement such things as upholstery covers for furniture based on Boucher, and the Sèvres porcelain factory used his designs, too. Both of those took the title of royal manufactory under the patronage of the Marquise de Pompadour, in exactly the same way as the Royal Warrant is still accorded to British royal suppliers today. She was a knowledgeable and (to say the least) enthusiastic patron of cabinet-makers: the great museums of the world are filled with furniture commissioned directly by her from the likes of Jean-Francois Oeben (grandfather of Delacroix). She bought and decorated houses with tremendous gusto. In literature, sculpture, architecture, the theatre, she knew everyone and cultivated the best. She received Mozart at home a few weeks before she died in 1764. If she had done nothing else she would be prodigious in art history for her role as a patron. But she somehow retained a role as the king’s adviser and confidante long after she had relinquished the practical chores of a mistress and her influence in the later years of her life was by no means only confined to design and decoration.
La Pompadour continues to fascinate today: fashion in its witless way pays her homage every so often. I seem to recall a Versace collection a dozen years ago or so made in her honour, and there may well have been others since. A hairstyle is named after her. Legend has it (it must be legend, but it’s a very pretty compliment, too) that the champagne coupe was modelled on the shape of her breast. It is even said that keeping goldfish first became fashionable when she was sent some from China.
Only a Victorian Englishman could dismiss a person of such manifold talents as improper to be spoken of. Nancy Mitford – a woman, of course, and one conspicuously enthusiastic in her appreciation both of aristocratic goings-on and of the French way of doing things – wrote an entertaining biography of her which makes Carlyle seem no more than curmudgeonly.
There has been for a long time now a tribute to this remarkable person and one which I have never seen alluded to anywhere. When Cindy Sherman made her History Portraits at the end of the 1980s, she followed her usual custom and made no specific reference to their sources. Each is called Untitled #n. It would be a pleasant parlour game to seek to identify the models of each; perhaps a scholarly crib already exists. For Sherman to base herself on a particular painting is a compliment. It is also an invitation to think of that painting again, perhaps to dive into the sociology or the economics which brought it into being. Sherman’s prices are high, though: very high. Rightly so, in my opinion. Few artists have so resisted the license we (collectively) offer artists to do any old thing. There are individual pictures of Cindy Sherman’s which leave me cold. There are whole series that I like much less than others. But I come back again and again to her greater series with a feeling of relief that here at least is an artist who passionately believes that finding something big to say and the means to say it matters.
I’ve often wondered about mattering. It’s an odd verb. It doesn’t conjugate at all regularly. It translates awkwardly. Yet that fugitive meaning it conveys is absolutely key to a certain conception of art. Fiddle about, play at your art, and you miss the point. But make art in the conviction that it matters, and everything else follows. Haydn matters: the sublime Haydn of the fourteen great masses or of the Seven Last Words. Haydn was profoundly anchored in traditional religious belief in spite of his status as a glorified jingle-writer to the Eszterházy. Music for Haydn was capable of carrying truth itself, to the greater glory of his God. It is because Haydn knew very well how his art could matter that he could get away with jokey or programme music, too. I don’t think it too strong to say the same of Cindy Sherman, or even, come to that, of the Marquise de Pompadour. Lightness, even rococo lightness, need not be trivial.
Some years ago, about the same time as she was making the History Portraits, Cindy Sherman paid her tribute to the Marquise de Pompadour. It is light; but it’s not trivial. She made one of her self-portraits, as she does, but she gave it a name. She openly put herself into the persona of the Pompadour as seen by Boucher. She then caused it to be repeated on actual Sèvres dinner services.
The lovely layers of tribute and irony in this are to be savoured. Madame de Pompadour used disguise herself. It’s not just that brush of rouge that she has in common with Cindy Sherman: the layers of dressing and hair-dressing and make-up that it took to be a woman of the court (courtier as well as courtesan; the Marquise was both) in eighteenth century France are closely parallel to the layers of wigs and prostheses and dressing-up costumes that Cindy Sherman uses as her regular working tools. Beyond that, it is possible to discern that even in her role as a tart, Madame de Pompadour was in disguise. She was no more of a tart than Victoria Beckham was a singer. You just do what it takes to get to where you want to be.
What an extraordinary object, as rococo in its conception as it is in substance – a Sèvres dinner service with a portrait of Cindy Sherman as Madame de Pompadour ! It sounds beyond whimsy . It’s a poissonade in porcelain ! (Poissonades were the witty fishy gossip – often slanderous – about Madame de Pompadour, from her original name of Poisson). But you know what? It’s available, still, for sale, and it’s incredibly cheap. For $7000, you can get a twenty-one piece tea service or for $8,500 you can get a thirty piece dinner service. Thirty Cindy Shermans for less than $10,000 ! I know, I know… but all the same. They were made in an edition limited to 75 sets in each of four absolutely classic Sèvres colours, the colours so loved and promoted by Madame de Pompadour. The pink was really her one. There’s a fancy tureen, as well, for those who want to splurge.
Have a look HERE. That should lead you to the website of Artes Magnus. It’s a poorly designed website: you have to look for Cindy Sherman’s name under Artists, and then scroll sideways along. But you’ll get there all right. Given current prices for Sherman, and given the delightful complex levity of the piece, it’s an absolute steal.
In the light of all that (for me) unusual enthusiasm, I ought to add, as I sometimes do in these pages, that I have no connection of any kind with Artes Magnus. I have not bought one of these services myself, and I have not seen one in fact other than online. So Caveat Emptor. But still…if you do decide to buy one of the services, please let the company know you heard of them here. If enough of my readers suddenly turn up waving credit cards, and asking for dinner services by Cindy Sherman, they might give me one as a tip. I’d like that. Oddly, I think this jokey little piece of decorative art… matters.