Madame du Barry returns to Versailles

Or at least this beautiful portrait of her. The Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon purchased it at auction a few days ago for the equivalent of $140,000. The royal favorite is represented here at the age of 26 by Court painter François-Hubert Drouais. She is dressed as Flora, goddess of flowers. Remember, mythological themes and allegories were all the rage for ladies’ portraits during the reign of Louis XV. A -now lost- pendant painting de Madame du Barry as Diana, goddess of the hunt, was painted at the same time.


Drouais: Madame-du-Barry

Madame du Barry, née Jeanne Bécu, has often been derided or hated, or both, by many of her contemporaries, something that has left its mark on her image to this day. Her lowly origins (she was the natural daughter of a maidservant and an unknown man) did her no favors with the aristocracy.

Yet her father, whoever he was, made sure she received a decent education in a convent. She became a maidservant like her mother, then a shopgirl, before her beauty came to the attention of a nobleman with a shady reputation, Jean-Baptiste du Barry, who made her his mistress en titre. Like many young women of great beauty and little means at the time, Jeanne became a courtesan. One of Jean-Baptiste’s friends, the Maréchal Duc de Richelieu, in turn impressed by her loveliness, had the idea to introduce her to Louis XV.

The King, in his late fifties, was lonesome, saddened by a series of deaths: his wife, Queen Marie Lesczynska, his son and heir, the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand, his daughter-in-law the Dauphine Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, his grandson, his beloved twin daughters, Babette and Henriette, and his best friend (she had long ceased to be his mistress) the Marquise de Pompadour. Louis XV decided to make young Jeanne his companion. Though now a widower, he apparently never contemplated marrying her, as his predecessor Louis XIV had done with Madame de Maintenon. He nevertheless gave her a luxurious apartment at Versailles and intended her to become an official member of the Court.

That was impossible given the young women’s social origins. So a husband of ancient and unimpeachable nobility had to be found for her. Alas, the obvious candidate, her former lover, Jean-Baptiste du Barry, was already married. No matter, his brother, Guillaume, Comte du Barry, was not, and he promptly wed lovely Jeanne before returning post haste to his Southern provinces, his sizeable and pressing debts paid by the King.

The next step was to find a noblewoman willing to present the bride officially at Court. Louis XV was hard pressed to find a lady prepared to assume that part. But he did, eventually. The Comtesse de Béarn, crushed under a mountain of debt, allowed herself to be persuaded, for ample consideration. Even though, she called in sick a few times before going through, with much reluctance, with the ceremony. A rather comical episode, which I may tell here one of these days.

This portrait was painted at that time. I do not intend a full biography of Jeanne here. Suffice to say that Marie-Antoinette, who arrived at Versailles the following year, loathed the favorite, for complex reasons of politics, personal rivalry, morality and religion. It took the insistence of her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, for the young Dauphine to finally agree to address Jeanne, which she did in a single sentence, a rather insulting one at that. “Il y a bien du monde à Versailles aujourd’hui.” There is quite a crowd at Versailles today. Jeanne had to be content with it.

The rivalry between the two ladies could have gone on for decades, for the King was hale and hearty (and very much enamoured of his favorite.) But the scourge of the times, smallpox, finished him in a matter of days in 1774. Following Louis XV’s death, Jeanne was imprisoned in a convent by order of Louis XVI, the new King, a move that had to do both with personal animosity and political reasons. After two years, she was freed and allowed to return to her estate of Louveciennes, where Madame Vigee-Lebrun would later paint three portraits of her, now middle-aged, on the eve of the French Revolution. She never returned to Versailles.

An apocryphal correspondance of Madame du Barry was published the death of Louis XV, to accredit the notion that she had worked in a brothel (she never did), that she was vulgar (she was not.) In fact, whatever her faults, Madame du Barry was a woman of taste, an active and discerning patroness of the arts.

To go back to the painting, no word yet as to where within Versailles the new acquisition is to be displayed. Madame du Barry’s own upper-floor apartment would seem like an obvious choice, but it is not always open to the public.

And many thanks to The Art Tribune for the news.

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