Kings and Courtesans: A Study of the Pictorial Representation of French Royal Mistresses
By Shandy April Lemperlé
Master’s Thesis, University of Montana (2008)
Abstract: This thesis explores the development in the pictorial representation of four important French royal mistresses. It looks at works depicting Agnès Sorel, mistress to Charles VII; Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henri II; Gabrielle d’Estrées, mistress to Henri IV; and Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV. By placing the portrayals of these women within a historical context, it becomes apparent that there are links between the strength of the crown and the depictions of the mistresses. This thesis traces the development of the imagery associated with these women and demonstrates that as the crown became more and more powerful, the portraits of the kings’ mistresses became bolder and less disguised.
In today’s society the idea of royalty seems quite foreign. Much of the world has shifted from rule by one to government by many. Yet many countries used monarchies as their form of government for centuries. France used a monarchical system from the time of Clovis, who, during his reign at the end of the sixth century, united the different Frankish tribes and created the beginnings of modern-day France. This system was followed until the late eighteenth century, when the Revolution broke out in France and King Louis XVI was guillotined.
Prior to Louis XVI’s demise, the French crown enjoyed a great deal of power. The Sun King, Louis XIV, was known for exercising absolute power in his kingdom. However, this had not always been the case in the history of the French monarchy. France endured centuries of change before emerging as a major European nation. Dukes, counts, and princes all vied for power as the monarchy tried, initially in vain, to unite the Frankish people. Although the tribes had been united under Clovis, the Franks were nonetheless separated by regional dialects and customs. There was a real threat of powerful dukes competing for the French throne or breaking away as autonomous nations.