Who was Jeanne du Barry, this daughter of the people who caused a scandal at the court of Louis XV?

Who was Jeanne du Barry, this daughter of the people who caused a scandal at the court of Louis XV?

Last favorite of an Ancien Régime monarch, the Countess du Barry had a real influence at Versailles, on the arts and politics. An exceptional destiny with a tragic outcome, recounted by the Maïwenn in a film which opens the Cannes Film Festival.

She is the last favorite of an Ancien Régime monarch. “La du Barry”, a daughter of the people with striking beauty, knew how to rise to the equal of a queen by becoming the mistress of Louis XV, from 1768 to 1774. Fallen on the death of the king, she ended up sordidly decapitated. Often caricatured, it is still the subject of fantasies today and has inspired many fictions, the latest being Maïwenn’s film, presented at the opening of the Cannes Film Festival, Tuesday May 16. The reality of this character is nevertheless complex, and his influence on History, important.

She was born Jeanne Bécu in 1743, in Vaucouleurs, in Lorraine, to a seamstress mother and father, probably a Franciscan monk. The young girl, promised to a domestic career, is for a time placed with the widow of a farmer general who holds a salon, but is seen dismissed because of her debauchery – already. She then became a milliner in rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, but, noticed for her beauty, quickly moved into high society, frequenting fashionable salons where she practiced gallantry. His contemporaries bear witness to his gentle and caressing gaze, his blue eyes, and his very white skin, a marker of grace in this Grand Siècle. Still young, she would be an expert in the pleasures of the flesh, sleeping with influential gentlemen and therefore building up a personal fortune. Her lovers teach her the ways of the aristocracy; among these, Viscount Jean-Baptiste du Barry, a depraved libertine and notorious crook of the Parisian demi-monde, plans to make her meet Louis XV so that she becomes his mistress. The ambitious hopes to take advantage of this rapprochement in high places.

On video, Jeanne du Barry, the trailer

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union of convenience

Jeanne made several trips to Versailles in the hope of seducing the monarch there. He noticed her, seized by the breathtaking beauty of this courtesan, and became her lover in the spring of 1768. The popularity of Louis XV, for a time nicknamed “the Beloved”, was at its lowest during this period. . Silent, depressed, the king has been mourning for three years for his son, the Dauphin Louis Ferdinand, who died of tuberculosis, his favorite Madame de Pompadour, who died of pulmonary congestion the following year, and his wife, Queen Marie Leszczynska who died in 1768 probably of depression. He was an elderly man, 58, when Jeanne was only 25 – she made him believe he was 20. official mistress.

It is however necessary, for propriety (it is without nobility), to regularize the situation and to make him marry an aristocrat. Jean-Baptiste du Barry, already married, proposes to his brother Guillaume a sham marriage, a union of convenience contracted against a large sum of money, the purpose of which is to offer Jeanne the title of countess, which earns her entry to Versailles. The union is celebrated on September 1, 1768. The priest who officiates at the ceremony is none other than Jeanne’s supposed father.

“She pleases me, that should be enough”

Louis presents his favorite to the Court, the texts all attest to the very cold reception reserved for the du Barry. His commoner origins and his sulphurous past are the subject of lively gossip. “She is very pretty, I like her, that should be enough”, slices the sovereign. Installed in an apartment renovated for her, she enjoys many privileges, gifts, in particular the domain of Louveciennes. Jeanne acclimatizes to the Court, manages all the same to seduce the courtiers by her charm and good manners learned now from the king, who takes care to lavish his advice on her. The biographers certify the genuine nature of their feelings, Jeanne loves Louis for the man he is, ignoring the age difference. She is also careful not to meddle in public affairs, which is appreciated. It is said that this young beauty full of playfulness introduces Her Majesty to hitherto unknown carnal pleasures, restores her taste for life, the illusion of a rediscovered youth.

Jeanne, who has always wanted a child, is offered as a servant a 7-year-old colored slave, named Zamor. She had him baptized and took him as a godchild, watching over his education and spending large sums on him. History records that at Court, the Countess acted as an enlightened patron. Lover of arts and letters, she became friends with Voltaire, cultivated the neoclassical style at Versailles. With very sure taste, she commissioned many works. Madame du Barry, one of the best-dressed women of her time, introduced naturalness into fashion codes.

Jeanne Bécu, Countess of Barry, by the artist François-Hubert Drouais. Heritage Images

In spite of herself, the countess finds herself involved in the political rivalries of the kingdom. The Duc de Choiseul, the king’s main minister of state, is upset at his arrival, he would have liked to place his sister in the position of favourite. Jeanne cleaves, she is hated by a part of the Court who reproaches her for bragging in garish outfits and finery. Versailles is in fact opposed in two clans, the Choiseulists and the devout party, which finds itself supporting the favorite in turn. According to historians, Monsieur de Choiseul has a very strong resentment towards his enemy, and even against the king against whom he harbors a silent contempt. His camp publishes pornographic pamphlets against the favorite. This same Choiseul, who thought he was untouchable for having sealed the Franco-Austrian union by arranging the marriage of the Dauphin, was finally dismissed in 1771.

Marie-Antoinette as a rival

Jeanne triumphs this time, but finds herself a new rival in the person of Marie-Antoinette. The young dauphine, influenced by the king’s daughters, is disdainful of the countess. She comes to write to her mother, the Empress of Austria, that Madame du Barry is “the most stupid and impertinent creature imaginable”. In this Court of France, the etiquette dictates that one cannot speak directly to a person of higher rank. Madame Du Barry cannot therefore converse with the future queen before she has spoken to her first. What the latter takes pleasure in refusing to do. Childish stubbornness affects Jeanne terribly, but above all risks turning into a diplomatic crisis within the recently forged alliance. Louis XV has his granddaughter by marriage warned that she must be friendly. Marie-Antoinette, also pressed by her mother, capitulated one New Year’s Eve, with these few words addressed to the rival and passed on to posterity: “There are a lot of people today at Versailles”. The Dauphine emerges humiliated from this affair.

In 1774, the king, suffering from “smallpox”, died. Jeanne assists him at his bedside, despite the risk of contagion. Realizing that these are his last hours, the monarch asks his lady to retire to save her the humiliation of being chased away. He died six days later, at the age of 64.

Ascended to the throne, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette exiled the Countess and her followers. Driven out on prescription, she retired to her domain of Louveciennes to lead a peaceful life, receiving the great names of the kingdom, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She is obviously royalist but favorable to liberal ideas and reform. The Countess made herself somewhat forgotten in those years; She who embodies this already distant memory of the reign of Louis XV, forges a romantic relationship with the governor of Paris, the Duke of Brissac.

When the Revolution broke out, she thought she had nothing to fear, not feeling sincerely an aristocrat. In January 1791, his castle was robbed and jewels of immense value were stolen. Part of the loot is found in England but she cannot reclaim them for legal reasons. She makes several trips across the Channel in the hope of recovering her fortune, and thus draws attention to herself in this period of great turmoil.

In video, Marie-Antoinette, the trailer

Expedited trial

Her lover, the Duke of Brissac, was assassinated during the terrible massacres of September 1792. The corpse of the man with whom she had shared fifteen years of her life was mutilated, paraded through the streets of Versailles, and his head thrown at Louveciennes in the living room of his beloved. In these cruel times, it is in fact her condition as the king’s former mistress that makes Jeanne du Barry a prime target. Suspected of incivility and aristocracy, the countess was arrested and imprisoned on September 22, 1793. She was later transferred – ironically in history – to the cell of Marie-Antoinette, her great rival. The inhabitants of Louveciennes decide to help her, sign a petition to save her, attest to her generosity. But Jeanne is betrayed by her godson Zamor, whom she had previously dismissed, who bears false witness against her and takes advantage of her arrest to loot the Louveciennes estate.

Victim of a hasty trial, in which she defends herself very badly, she is accused of having conspired against the Republic. His stays in England are taken as a masked help to the counter-revolutionaries. Awaiting her judgment at the Conciergerie, in an act of sacrifice she misses her last chance of survival. She indeed gives her place for a possible escape which was offered to her to Madame de Mortemart, the daughter of the Duke of Brissac, whose life she thus saves.

Drag to the scaffold

Jeanne is sentenced to the guillotine. The cruelty of fate wants his executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, to be one of his old friends from the time of Parisian gallantry. We can read in his memoirs that the execution of Madame du Barry was the one that caused him the most harm. Believing to the end in a mistake, clinging to life, we must drag it to the scaffold. Jeanne does everything possible to delay the sentence, struggles, screams. She would have said these words: “Another moment, Mr. Executioner!”, but this historical quote is apocryphal, no source attests to its veracity. Still, his tragic character shapes the legend of the character. Jeanne died on December 8, 1793 at the age of 50 on the Place de la Révolution, the current Place de la Concorde. She is buried in the cemetery of the Madeleine, today square Louis XVI.

In his work The Idiot, Dostoyevsky said of her death: “After seeing herself almost sovereign, she was guillotined by the executioner Samson; she was innocent, but that was necessary for the satisfaction of the fishwomen of Paris. Her fright was such that she did not understand what was happening to her. When Samson made her bow her head and kicked her under the ax, she began to shout “one more moment, Mr. Executioner, one more moment!” Well, for this minute, perhaps the Lord will forgive him, because it is impossible for the human soul to imagine a more painful situation”.

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