Is this the real Mme de Pompadour?
Well, no, actually. But the mysterious Ducreux pastel plays a role in the new biography of Mme de Pompadour by the French historian Robert Muchembled. The story is far too complicated even to summarise in a blog, so you’ll have to read my essay on the pastel, a previous version of which may have inadvertently contributed to the latest whimsy. The biography appeared two weeks ago, and so can’t be dismissed as a Poisson d’avril.
Muchembled’s theory (if I have understood him correctly) is that the Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson who was born in December 1721 was the offspring of an incestuous union between the famous financier Jean Pâris de Montmartel and his niece, Antoinette-Justine Pâris, whom he married just a few months before the child’s birth with papal dispensation (for which a payment of 200,000 livres was made). This Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was registered as the daughter of François Poisson and his wife. So far so good: such arrangements were no doubt often made to cover up accidents, and could explain why Montmartel supported the future marquise so generously.
Apart from her brother, the marquis de Marigny, Mme de Pompadour had two twin sisters, one of whom died in infancy shortly after their birth in 1724, while the other remains shrouded in obscurity. (History provides very little information about the childhood of those born outside the highest levels of the aristocracy, so our ignorance of Mme de Pompadour’s early years hardly proves a conspiracy of Elvisian proportions.)
Muchembled believes that twin, born in 1724, to be the future Mme de Pompadour. The “real” Jeanne-Antoinette would then be the Mlle Poisson who married Charles-François de Flahault de La Billarderie, and Muchembled suggests she is the mysterious visitor whom Dufort de Cheverny noted Marigny treating with great respect. The theory needs some elaboration to explain why Montmartel would take such pains to support the wrong sister, but perhaps I have lost the gist at some point.
To return to the pastel – one of those works that acquired much celebrity at the beginning of the twentieth century, with a provenance that linked it to the château de Ménars, where Marigny lived. Inevitably it was attributed first to La Tour, then to Labille-Guiard before finally being identified as by Ducreux. But the sitter’s identity has proved more intractable: Mme de Pompadour herself, then her mother, and now – absurdly – the sister (although I’ve already lost track of who is the imposter). Muchembled, citing an earlier version of my essay, ignores a crucial question mark I attach to an entry in Marigny’s posthumous inventory (1781), argues that that oval pastel hanging in an important room (where it wasn’t) must be of someone close to his heart, and deduces it is the mystery sister…
My view is that this Woman in White just might be the lost portrait of the opera singer Marie Fel (which Ducreux exhibited in 1783), but with so much confusion already I am almost embarrassed to put that forward. In any case Muchembled already has a “sensation novel” worthy of Wilkie Collins: come to think of it, isn’t the plot the same too…?