Vaucouleurs, France. The Lorraine region. On 19 August 1743, Jeanne Bécu came into the world. History remembers her as Madame du Barry, the last Maîtresse-en-titre of Louis XV of France.
Jeanne was the illegitimate daughter of Anne Bécu, a seamstress, and possibly Jean Jacques Godard. Jeanne’s mother worked for Monsieur Billiard-Dumonceaux and his Italian mistress, Francesca. Now in Paris, Francesca spoiled the three-year-old girl, giving her the first taste of luxury.
Dumonceaux paid for Jeanne’s education at Couvent de Saint-Aure. At fifteen, she left the convent since mother was let go so the money stopped. Jeanne returned to her mother’s home.
To earn money, Jeanne sold trinkets on the streets of Paris. That wasn’t her only job. She was an assistant hairdresser to Lametz. A companion (dame de compagnie) to an elderly widow even worked as a milliner’s assistant (called a grisette).
Jeanne was described as a “remarkable attractive blonde.” She had thick golden curls and almond-shaped blue eyes. In 1763, the beautiful Jeanne caught the eye of the man who changed her life.
His name was Jean-Baptiste du Barry, the brother to the Comte Guillaume du Barry. Jean-Baptiste was considered a high class pimp nicknamed Le Roué.
Du Barry took her from the brothel/casino establishment where she toiled and installed her in his household. So began the life as a courtesan in Parisian society. The blonde, blue eyed beauty stirred a sensation among the aristocrats and the King’s ministers.
In 1768 at the Palace of Versailles, Jeanne caught the attention of Louis XV. The king’s personal valet escorted her to the royal boudoir and all knew this woman replaced the deceased Madame Pompadour.
Unfortunately, Jeanne couldn’t be maitresse-en-titre since she lacked a title. King Louis would change that by marrying her to a man of a strong lineage so she could take the official position as according to protocol.
On September 1, 1768, Jeanne married Comte Guillaume du Barry, becaming Comtesse Du Barry as well as three years younger thanks to her false birth certificate to go along with her concocted noble descent.
Even with the new noble lineage, she still wasn’t able to be seen with the king since a formal presentation hadn’t taken place. She held the powerful position but few nobles befriended her.
Time to find powerful sponsor. Maréchal de Richelieu helped her by getting the insolvent Madame de Béarn to be her official sponsor. On 22 April 1769, Du Barry was presented.
As a maitresse-en-déclarée, Du Barry wasn’t popular. Marie Antoinette disliked her (the scene in Marie Antoinette did happen). People were bribed into befriending her. But the mistress life fit her perfectly. The day started with a cup of chocolate then she dressed in her fine gowns and jewels. Berline dressed her hair for every day styles whereas Noelle did for special occasions in powder and curls. Then she received friends, jewelers and artists, her shopping time.
Du Barry was described as extravagant but good-natured and not spoiled. She even save three people lives by getting the king to pardon them. Though, she had no interest in politics unlike Madame de Pompadour. She grew unpopular because of the king’s extravagance toward her.
In 1772, Louis started displaying symptoms of smallpox. Du Barry cared for him. On 4 May 1774, the King sent her away to protect her from becoming sick. She remained close to Versailles. The King died and Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI had her exiled to Abbey du Pont-aux-Dames, where she spent two years.
After her release, she moved to Château de Louveciennes. It was said that her time at the château was the happiest time of her life. She lived quietly, have a few lovers, and helped the poor in the area.
Then the French Revolution erupted. Her servant testified that she financially assisted émigrés who fled France. She tried to save herself by handing over the gems she had hid. It didn’t work. She was arrested in 1793. She was found guilty of treason and condemned to death.
On 8 December 1793, she was brought to the Place de la Révolution (now Place de la Concorde) to be guillotined. She collapsed on the tumbrel (cart used to transport the condemned) and cried “You are going to hurt me! Why?!” She begged the crowd for mercy and even said, “One more moment, Mr. Executioner, I beg you.”
She is buried at Madeleine Cemetery.
Smile: A Lady Artist
In 1781, Louise-Elisabette Vigée-Lebrun painted the portrait of Madame du Barry. Vigée was born in Paris on 16 April 1755. The French portrait artist was the daughter of a hairdresser and a portraitist and member of Académie de Saint-Luc who was also her first teacher. She was educated in a convent until 1766. Her father died when she was twelve and her mother remarried a man Louise hated.
By her early teens, she was painting portraits professionally and her studio was seized because she practice without a license so she applied to Saint-Luc. In 1774, Louise became a member.
Two years later, she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, a painter and art dealer. On 12 February 1780, she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Lucie Louise. The next year, she toured Flanders and Netherlands.
On May 1783, she became member of Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, the first woman to be granted membership between 1648 and 1793.
In 1787, Louise exhibited Self-Portrait with her daughter, Julie. This portrait caused a scandal because she was smiling and open-mouthed which went against custom. But she earned the patronage of Marie Antoinette, who she painted more than thirty portraits of the queen and her family.
At the start of the French Revolution, she fled with her family to Italy, claiming instruct and improvement. Twelve years later, she returned to France.
She purchased a home in Louvenciennes, Ile de France. She died on 30 March 1842 at the age of 86. Her tombstone reads “Ici, elfin, je repose” which translates to “Here at last I rest.”
Ease and Beauty: A Chemise Gown
Madame du Barry is the chemise gown. This French fashion became popular during the 1780s. The Chemise gown (or Robe en Chemise in French) became popular when Marie Antoinette donned it so it was also called chemise á la Reine.
This casual, informal style was worn over undergarments that included a short corset underneath. This gown was constructed out of expensive Indian muslin with a silk sash in a contrasting color. Madame du Barry has a blue silk sash.
The design was influenced by little girls who worn a chemise with pantaloons. Since the garments influence was the chemise, it was natural that many of the gowns details featured the same as a chemise did. It had a drawstring neckline (which du Barry trimmed with two layers of fine lace). Unlike the chemise, the Chemise gown had a waistline and a soft, full skirt that was gathered with a sash or drawstring.
Madame du Barry finishes her look with soft curls and a straw hat with a jaunty feather in the hat.