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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17 Comments to “Madame du Barry returns to Versailles”

  1. peyrache says:

    j’ai laissé 2 messages non publiés ou j’explique que j’entends par original le tableau qui fût exposé au salon; il est évident que le tableau de Versailles est authentique et reconnu par les experts, cher Fazal Hayat, je dis juste que ce visage ne ressemble pas aux autres, maintenant je ne l’ai vu qu’en photo mais je vais bientôt le voir de près.

  2. peyrache says:

    Au salon de 1769 fut présenté 2 portraits de la comtesse, l’un en flore et l’autre en habit de chasse;
    Dans l’ouvrage des Goncourt:
    Extrait du mémoire des peintures commandées:
    1768:portrait ovale en flore sans les mains envoyé à Toulouse 1200 livres
    1769; copie du portrait en flore sans les mains envoyé en Angleterre 360 livres
    1770:1 copie du portrait de Mme le comtesse dont le tête a été faite en différents temps et de 2 manières différentes et dont l’habillement en flore avec les mains a été entièrement fait d’après nature pour Mr Baujon
    1772 un quatrième portrait en muse entièrement retouché pour satisfaire le commanditaire;
    “le cinquième portrait de Madame la comtesse en flore sur toile de vingt avec les mains
    une copie en flore retouché d’après nature pour Mr de Soubise, les 2 pour 1200 livres
    1774: encore une copie pour Mr le duc d’Aiguillon 600 livres
    une de plus pour Mademoiselle Dubarry 600 livres
    une autre pour Mr le prince des Deux-ponts 600 livres
    une autre , toujours en flore pour Mme de Montrabe 600 livres
    You see that there is yet 10 copies on this mémoire, some without hands, or differents, also it is very difficult to realise une liste chronologique exacte!

    meilleures amitiés à toute et tous

  3. peyrache says:

    Ce portrait a été reconnu de la main de Drouais par les experts, il n’y a aucun doute la dessus. Par original , je veux dire la première toile exposée au salon car plusieurs répliques de ce portraits existent avec des tenues différentes , je trouve seulement que le visage de ce portrait est différent des autres et la première fois que je l’ai vu , j’ai été surpris et me suis demandé qui c’était.

  4. Fazal Hayat says:

    Quote-what is the name of the building in the petit trianon compound that is pink brick,irregular shaped,not the belvedere?

    I hope you do not mean the Grand Trianon.
    It is not pink brick but pink marble.
    There are no other ‘pink’structures, regular or irregular around the Petit Trianon.

  5. Fazal Hayat says:

    Madame la Comtesse du Barry was in the habit, as was the established practise at Court to commission copies of ‘accepted’ portraits to be gifted to friends, members of the family and foreign diplomats etc. These Drouais portraits are also in the same tradition. The preent Versailles portrait comes from her husband’s collection from their Chateau de Reynerie in Toulouse.
    The Washington D.C., portrait is also from the ateliers of Hubert Drouais. Atleast six copies were commissioned by the Comtesse.
    Madame la Comtesse was in the habit of suggesting minor changes to her commissions while they were being worked at. There is historical record how she drove certain masters mad by her consistent desire to suggest and demand changes while work was in progress. She drove Lemoyne, the court sculptor nearly mad at her insistence to change her hairdo in one of her marble bust portraits. She drove Fragonard mad by suggesting and demanding changes be made for her Progress of Love Panels. Thus loosing them in the process.
    The large Hubert Drouais full lenth portrait of the 1772 Salon and it’s subsequent copies are also in the same vein. 2 copies survive; one at the Chamber du Commerce, Versailles; and the other at the Landgrave von Hesse’s Collection in Darmstadt. Germany.
    All these portraits by Drouis have the facial features very very similar to each other. Copies of the ‘accepted’ works were a de rigeuir.
    The Versailles being a later copy or a fake is entirely a personal conjecture.
    Madame du Barry after 1774 was living the life of an exile, a social out-cast from the Court of Versailles in back water Louveciennes. She had become the laid back mistres of Henry Seymour and later the Duc de Cosse-Brissac.
    While she was in Louveciennes for some 17 years. she was enmeshed with financial troubles. She was not commissioning any more portraits.She did not have the surplous money.
    It was rich and artistically inclined Duc de Cosse-Brissac who commissioned a succession of her three portraits by Madame Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun during her period of this self imposed partial exile.
    The XIXth. century had nobody interested in la du Barry enough to commission portraits of her. Definately nobody to duplicate her youthful splendor of her days of glory and presentation at the Court of Louis XV. She was by now, amongst the forgotten minor persons of a vanished age. It would not have been profitable to any artist to copy her portraits for any patron. Nobody was interested in the fallen woman to be duplicated dressed as she was when she was first presented to Louis XV in 1768.
    The Drouais portraits, the Vigee Lebrun portraits all have very common phsyiognomy of Jeanne du Barry.Her dreamy half open eyes and her neat little mouth etc etc. If one sees them in quick succession one can ‘feel’ it is the same person.
    This Versailles portrait also falls in the same genre. It is from the ateliers of Hubert Drouais and is amonst the six commissioned by Jeanne herself after the Salon of September 1769.
    If the coiffure is slightly different, her roses and myrtles entwined in her hair a bit varied, a string of pearls added or deleted; it all is the arist’s whim. While duplicating the atelier pupils and the master were in the habit of making minor changes.
    It would be gross miscalculation to imagine this painting being a fake.There are not that many portarits of la Du Barry to make copies a profitable business. She had only six years of influence at court. Her patron and lover was long dead, nobody but Cosse-Brissac was interested in having her likenesses painted again. Jeanne du Barry was a forgotten soul.
    Credulance for the Versailles portrait can be entertained because she did send a copy of her September 1768 portrait to her husband. Comte Guilliame du Barry had recently done up the new Neo-Classical Pavillon there. Certainly he needed an image of the chatelaine of the house to display. Though Jeanne never went to stay or visit her matrimonial abode historical record does mention her sending a copy of her 1768 Salon Portarit to her husband’s home.
    Baron Rothschild bought another Drouais copy of the same portrait.
    The Versailles portait remained in Toulouse and comes to Versailles from there.

  6. peyrache says:

    Dear friends
    I’m born near Louveciennes, and i heard about Mme Du Barry since 55 years , and i have very much worked sur sa vie , je pense que ce tableau n’est pas un original, le visage ne ressemble pas du tout à celui de la comtesse, les fleurs sur la coiffure ne correspondent pas à l’harmonie du tapé(coiffure féminine de cette époque), comparez avec le fabuleux portrait du National Gallery of Art de Washington: là il s’agit bien de la comtesse.

  7. Shannon Kirtley says:

    what is the name of the building in the petit trianon compound that is pink brick,irregular shaped,not the belvedere?

  8. Fazal Hayat says:

    Yes, it was Betsi, the Marquise de Boisseson who is assumed to be Jeanne de Vaubernier-Gomard-du Barry’s natural daughter. She was the natural daughter off the torrid love affair when Jeanne was barely a child working at the establishment of Lametz, the hairdresser. This was just when she was out of the Convent od St. Aure.

    The poor man was chased out of his business and town by the constant threats of the Police. Jeanne was underage and a minor still. The Police action was brought on after Lamitz’s mother foolishly proclaimed her son was being seduced by this young chit of a girl barely 14 years old. To the chagrin of Jeanne’s mother, the charges were reversed and poor hapless Lamitz had to leave town. An underage girl was made pregnant, the offender had to make himself leave town.

    We all know unwed motherhood was never a problem with Anne Becu-Madame Montrabe; she had after all 2 children born out of wedlock of her own!!!

    Betsi was always praded around as a ‘cousin’; actually she was the cause of the family row when Madame de Montrabe, Jeanne’s mother died in 1788 and left all her possesions and property to Betsi as her sole heiress. Not even a sou to her husdand or her other relatives was left by the dear departing woman. Madame du Barry had to settle on her step father an income he went on recieving till he died.

    It must be recalled, while Louis XV was alive, Betsi was allowed to be enrolled at the expensive and up-market Convent of Sainte Elisabeth, where most well heeled ladies and royal ladies of the Society took refuge. Madame de Montrabe, Jeanne du Barry’s mother was also allowed to be ensconced there after a special dispensation was obtained by the Pope. Madame du Barry would go and visit both her mother and child-daughter often at the Convent.

    Betsi resembled Madame du Barry a lot. All contemporary chronicles mention so unashamedly. Also Betsi was settled upon a very very handsome dowry by Madame du Barry on her marriage. The duc de Cosse-Brissac, the ultra rich lover of Madame du Barry stood as godfather to both of Betsi’s children and more so, the children were allowed the family names of the ducal Cosse-Brissac family. Not an off-hand favour for the off-spring of a vague ‘cousin’s children’. Not bad for a family of domestiques.

  9. Madam Du Barry went to her death screaming and pleading the day she died by the blade.
    It was said of her that had previous denounced royals etc protested there may not had been so many killed, as the blood thirsty mob heard her pleas and screams, silence fell over the crowd. The Duc De Oreleans had cream suade boots on which they wanted, he said all in good time my friends, he was the very person who denounced the King and Queen
    revolution always eats its young. The son of the man handling the blade slipped on the
    bloodied ground under the platform, hit his head and died. The rabble, what else could one call them burned Madam De pompadors chateau to the ground, and in fact the 2 mistresses
    bought the industries of lace and porcelain and other crafts into France which in turn
    gave work to the people. I rest my case, without the very rich and ingenious of the world
    where would we be. Viva La Royal.

  10. Violet says:

    What a lovely portrait! She deserve more love, everybody hate her because of her rivality with MA, and forget her positive sides.
    I have heard rumors that she may have a daughter before she became a favourite, do you know more about it?

  11. Fazal Hayat says:

    Yes, this is the Drouais 1768-69 portrait of the Madame la Comtesse du Barry..
    It was done by the Court Portraitist for the Salon of 1769. Copies were made by the artist for the Comtesse dui barry and her friends. Now, as she had “arrived” at Versailles, the epitome of French Culture, she had to have the fact proclaimed.
    Madame la Comtesse du Barry had this particular copy sent immediately after the display at the 1769 Salon to her husband at his abode-conveniently away from Versailles-his Chateau de Reynerie, in Toulouse. This portrait remained there till most recently, it came up for auction in the Paris Art market June 2011 and was bought by the Les Amis de Versailles for the attic appartements of the favourite.

    There is another copy of the same painting, by the same artist now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Donation by the Timken Collection.

    The Timken portrait is nearly identical, but for the fact that the wreath of roses in her hair is missing and the hairstyle is slightly more old fashioned – a la Pompadour!.
    Possibly, the Washington portrait-comparatively a simpler version, was kept by the artist for himself or was favoured by the gift showering Countess for a less fashion conscious friend of hers. Whatever the reason both are lovely paintings of the the Divine Countess.

    Drouais did another full length portarit of the Favourite in 1771-71; as the Muse of Arts. It was the cause of great discontent amongst the artistic elite of Paris in the 1771-1772 art circles. It was ordered to be taken off the walls of the Salon, as the nudity offended the Members of l’Academie de Paris. Madame du barry was depicted in scanty mode a la grecque flowing chemise, with her lovely gifts of Nature being shown in full splendour.

    The Countess was furious at the treatment met out to her portrait, heads had to roll. Who else but the Minister of Arts, the Marquis de Marigny, the younger brother of the deceased Madame la Marquise de Pompadour. His sister was not there to defend him anymore, as she already had died in 1764. The hapless man-the brother of the old favourite was given the marching orders by the new favourite. Marquis de Marigny was made to resign explictly because of the l’Affaire Scandeleuse de Portrait de Madame du Barry after 20 years of being the Arts Minister.
    a sad sequel, the divine Countess did not have long to enjoy her victory, come May 1774 and she too was banished from the Court of Versailles by the prudish Louis XVI.

  12. Mauricio, the private apartments of Versailles are closed most of the time. They are often open on summer week-ends, but the trade-off is the extra crowd. Not to worry, though, there’s plenty to see otherwise at Versailles (Grands Appartements, gardens, Petit and Grand Trianons.) Make sure you reserve at least one full day to see the place!

  13. Maurício says:

    Bonjour Catherine! Great post as always!

    You said that Madame du Barry’s upper-floor apartment at Versailles is not always open to the public. I’m curious about that ’cause I’ve always thought every apartment there was open to visitors. Is that not the case so? As visitors, can we see and walk through the majority of the apartments and ballrooms? I ask that because I intend to make a trip to Paris next year and Versailles is obviously a spot I want to visit.

    Best Wishes!

    Au revoir!


  14. Thank you, Elizabeth! I am sure by now Marie-Antoinette and Madame du Barry, who both died on the guillotine, have reconciled beyond the grave.

  15. She was extraordinarily beautiful. What a lovely even-handed portrait of her. I’m glad that at least a part of her will be gracing Versailles, although I’m sure the ghost of Marie Antoinette would not be pleased!

  16. I wouldn’t call it ignorance, Penny. MA had many reasons, some quite understandable, to dislike Madame du Barry. MA objected to her on moral grounds, political too (the Austrian alliance, sealed by MA’s marriage, had been promoted by the Choiseul party, opposed to Mme du Barry.) And of course they were rivals: the Dauphine was in theory the highest ranking lady in Versailles, but Mme du Barry, as the King’s favorite, eclipsed everyone.

  17. Penny says:

    thank you for this description of Madame du barry. I had not known anything about her until you wrote so I had all of Marie Antoinette’s prejudices against her due to ignorance.

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