Madame de Pompadour — eighteenth-century fashion and twenty-first-century fads

Review: This collection of essays on the portraits of Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher fails to answer pertinent questions and instead conjures debates from thin air.

Portrait of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764) by Francois Boucher, oil on canvas, 1750. Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo.
Portrait of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764) by Francois Boucher, oil on canvas, 1750. Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo.

Madame de Pompadour, Painted Pink edited by A. Cassandra Albinson, Yale University Press, 2022, 88 pages, paperback $25

Look at her. Isn’t she pretty? Her name is Madame de Pompadour. In a portrait painted in the early 1750s by François Boucher, the official mistress of Louis XV is at the apex of her beauty and power. In her early thirties, she wears the name and title the French king gave her with allure. ‘Calling her Pompadour, we insist on her singularity: there was no Madame de Pompadour before her elevation in 1745, and there would not be another after her death nineteen years later,’ writes A. Cassandra Albinson, Head of the Division of European and American Art at Harvard Art Museums, and the editor of Madame de Pompadour, Painted Pink (Yale University Press, 2022), a collection of four very short academic essays on Boucher’s painting and the colour pink.

The connection between the eighteenth-century painter and Harvard is a gift made by Charles E. Dunlap, an alumnus and art collector of eighteenth-century French painting, to his former alma mater in 1966. Four years later, François Boucher’s Madame Pompadour at her toilette was hung in the first female director of the Fogg Museum at Harvard.

According to A. Cassandra Albinson, ‘the work is unique in that it is the first painting of the period in France to portray La Pompadour gazing directly at the viewer while applying make-up.’ It is true that the subject’s posture is striking. ‘Appearing alone and in perfect self-possession, she meets the viewer’s gaze (…) There is a mirror to her left on the table, and the position of Pompadour’s head and hands suggests that she has momentarily looked away from it, as if distracted by the presence of the artist/viewer. We catch her not at the beginning of her ritual but in the process of putting on the final touches: cheeks are already heavily coloured with several tones of pink.’

Pink is the word, and what this elegantly designed, and very short book says it is about. ‘François Boucher did not invent pink, but he is perhaps the artist most associated with the colour,’ explains Albinson in her introduction. She then asserts: ‘This is the first study of this portrait to focus on colour,’ perhaps because ‘new currents in scholarship and in the world at large made the time ripe for a fresh look.’

Albinson begins with her own essay, ‘The Colour of Love — Pink and sensibility’. This painting is all about ‘touches of pink’, she says, and they are everywhere. Albinson describes them: ‘on her cheeks and lips (and even inside her nose), on the ribbon that encircles her neck, on the brush hovering to the right of that ribbon (…) Her bodice is held in tension by more pink ribbons, and her arms appear almost bound to her sides by similar decorations at each elbow. Separated from these ribbons by only the thinnest strip of gold paint is the pink powder in Pompadour’s rouge palette. Likewise, delicate rows of and diamonds demarcate the pink surface of the cameo of Louis XV from the pink silk that surrounds it.’ So what should we make of all this pink? Albinson does not really answer. Instead, she writes about ‘the idea of the sitter as an artist of her own image,’ of Pompadour’s ‘agency.’ Was she a creator, a consumer, an influencer? Albinson asks. We learn that only two major portraits of Pompadour were exhibited publicly during her lifetime and that in total, about eleven painted portraits of Pompadour from her lifetime survive today. We are reminded that Pompadour did not belong to the French court and that she was the daughter of a wealthy bourgeois who married into aristocracy. Well educated, she had already been acquainted with writers and artists such as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Boucher, before her encounter with the king.

The second essay, by Mark Ledbury is called ‘Many Truths of Nature and a Rich Flowing Brush — Boucher, Pink, and Culture of Natural History’. Ledbury is on a quest to rehabilitate Boucher. Intriguing. We had no idea the great French painter needed his reputation to be salvaged:

‘An artist nearly as defamed as his subject, Boucher was a man of constantly fertile pictorial intelligence who, 250 years after his death, we finally understand as one of the universal painters of his century: the most versatile, gifted, and fluent French history painter to work in a mythological mode, an able and inexhaustible designer, decorator, and creator of worlds and genres.’

On the topic of Boucher’s pink, we begin to get answers. According to Ledbury, probably inspired by Venetian predecessors, all of Boucher’s peers were in fact at it. Pink was simply dominant at the time. However, what Boucher tried to do is to deploy ‘the colour as part of a broader, long endeavour to develop a distinctive palette and brushwork that would mark him out from his rivals.’  For Ledbury it is conchology, the study of shells, that informed Boucher’s pink palette. Boucher ’employed shell pink in brilliant counterpoint to both pastel blues and more pronounced violets across his oeuvre.’

The third and penultimate essay, Pompadour, Porcelain, and Pink by Gabriella Szalay, is in fact only very loosely connected to the subject. Picking up on the rose as seen in the painting, Szalay wonders whether it might not in fact be a porcelain rose as porcelain flowers were all the rage at the time. Pompadour had a vast collection of them and she was a champion of French soft-paste porcelain which was ‘generally considered inferior in quality to wares made in China or Germany, but did enjoy one distinct advantage: the lower firing temperatures allowed for decoration with a much broader range of colours.’ Szalay tries to offer ‘a subtle commentary on the state of French porcelain, in the years before the invention of pink overglaze enamel at Sèvres in the later 1750s’ but it seems lost on the readers who thought they were reading a book about the colour pink in Boucher’s oeuvre.

Finally, the fourth and final essay introduces twenty-first century American critical race theory to eighteenth century painting exegesis. ‘With Making Up Race — Whiteness, pinkness, and Pompadour’, Oliver Wunsch is leading the charge by asking ‘what might it mean to oneself in the act of constructing that pinkness, at a time when Europeans were enslaving millions of African people to support their overseas colonies.’ Wunsch wants to examine ‘how Pompadour’s distinctive identity as a bourgeoise with intimate knowledge of the French slave trade — suggests what skin color might have meant to her in particular.’ And then Wunsch embarks on describing a series of other paintings, precisely not the one chosen for this study, showing portraits of European women with enslaved people. ‘With Europeans expanding their geographic horizons and imperial ambitions, they judge their complexion in relation to people on distant continents’ In other words, they ‘use art to play with the status and privilege afforded by a complexion.’ Pink is served to highlight the whiteness of the surrounding skin by way of contrast. Wunsch must soon admit that ‘Boucher’s painting of Pompadour does not belong to this overtly racist genre.’ And yet. ‘Just as a portrait of a solitary man can say something about masculinity, a portrait of a white person alone can deliver a message about race.’ Here we are. Boucher’s painting and subject are not overtly perhaps but necessarily racist. It has to do with the cosmetic market and rouge in particular, a product both locally and internationally sourced. For Wunsch, international commerce means the slave trade. And Pompidour’s upbringing and personal fortunes means that she is guilty of ‘colonial exploitation’. In a brief moment of lucidity, Wunsch has to acknowledge that ‘these injustices might seem far removed from the world of Pompadour’s toilette’ but he soldiers on: ‘in a colonial economy in which skin colorants traveled to Europe aboard the same ships that transported enslaved people across the Atlantic, the two domains were intimately intertwined.’

If this collection of essays had been assembled in the 1930s, we would have probably been treated with Marxist-Leninist and Fascist views on Boucher’s pink. It is society that gives colours their meanings, ones that are constantly changing. Such views are inevitable, however, not necessarily enlightening.

For all those familiar with the ground-breaking work of art historian Michel Pastoureau who wrote six richly illustrated monographs on the colours white, red, black, blue, green and yellow, this Yale University Press book is not even remotely related. Despite what it states in the title and its preface, it probably never was its intention to emulate Pastoureau’s work. In fact, the initial project was an exhibition looking at the colour pink in eighteenth and nineteenth century European art. This too quickly put together short book is just an assemblage of heteroclite articles which are at great pain to cover the given subject.

A recent survey in France shows that the most loved colour is blue, and the most hated is pink. I don’t know what American Critical Race Theory has to say about it. I’d rather not know.


Agnès Poirier