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Biography 24.3 (2001) 644-649

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Elise Goodman. The Portraits of Madame de Pompadour: Celebrating the Femme Savante. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. 188 pp. 8 color, 75 b/w illus. ISBN 0-520-21794-2, $45.00.

Elise Goodman and the University of California Press have produced a valuable volume. Goodman's account of what she calls "the Enlightenment's penchant for picturing genius" (2) is generally both readable and thoroughly documented. With notes, a large but selective bibliography, and a well-designed index, the book is both a comprehensive study of a particular cultural phenomenon and a rich source of possibilities for future research and reflection. The focus on Madame de Pompadour provides a substantial central body of material from which a number of complementary subjects arises. Goodman persuasively places Pompadour in the tradition of strong, intelligent women going back to Mesdames de Montespan and de Maintenon and shows that Pompadour was herself determined to take a place in that line. Goodman argues that Pompadour's self-representations are based on prototypes "imaging Mme de Montespan and Mme de Maintenon, on whom Pompadour fashioned herself as royal mistress in the 1750s" (3). [End Page 644]

Goodman's thesis is that Pompadour sought to accomplish the creation of an identity as a major savante through the systematic use of the visual arts, and in particular the portrait. Appropriately, and effectively, Goodman has provided many reproductions of portraits and other visual representations. There are eight color plates--all portraits of individual savantes--and seventy-five black-and-white reproductions. Taken together, the visual materials permit a comprehensive and nuanced reading of the iconic constitution of what David Le Breton has called la civilisation savante (183). Goodman's readings of these representations are clear and persuasive, and her accounts of their contexts and their origins are interesting. There are portraits of Madame du Châtelet, Madame de la Pouplinière, Madame de Mondonville, the Princesse de Rohan, Madame de Lambert, and others. Goodman also provides portraits of well-known savants, such as Abbé Huber, Charles-Simon Favart, Gabriel-Bernard de Rieux, and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The painters whose work is represented include Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, François Boucher, A. C. G. Lemonnier, Jean-François de Troy, and Jean-Marc Nattier. There are reproductions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fashion plates and engravings. Goodman places Pompadour's portraits in the context of the vogue of "intellectual portraits" produced by major French painters between 1740 and 1760 (3).

Goodman is aware that these works are "collections of signs," as she puts it (2), and she gives some attention to the querelle des femmes and to the differences between the representations of male and of female intellectuals. As she points out, and as the reproductions show, savants tend to be represented as more self-absorbed and dynamic, while the female figures are usually pictured as more open to the viewer. One might also say that the males seem to have a "firmer grip" on their books and on the other accoutrements of knowledge and reflection. The women, and Pompadour in particular, are icons of beauty and sociability, as well as of knowledge and reflective intelligence. Some of the images reproduced by Goodman represent women as the social superiors of men from whom they are learning, and to whom they are thus, in a sense, subservient. Some representations of the eighteenth-century salons are composed so as to give greater visual importance to a male literary figure who is holding forth than to the salonnière, who is merely included among the female audience.

Goodman's concluding chapter is on the salonnières, and its account of their importance in the making of literary and other artistic reputations and fortunes helps us understand the ambivalence with which artists represented their sponsors. In my view, this concluding chapter is by far Goodman's best. It is here that she comes closest to saying what I believe is most important [End Page 645] about the civilisation savante phenomenon: it is a...


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