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The Birth of a Neo-classical Architectural Jewel
Nestled a mere 15 minutes away from Versailles, the Château de Louveciennes stands as a testament to King Louis XV’s affection for his last mistress, Jeanne du Barry. This exquisite château, built in the 17th century, was transformed into a haven for Madame du Barry, where she could live throughout her lifetime. However, it was her collaboration with the visionary architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux that truly left an indelible mark, resulting in the creation of an architectural gem known as the Music Pavilion.
(Image Credit: shessobright.com)
Perched overlooking the serene Seine River, the Music Pavilion defies its modest dimensions, exuding a majestic allure that captivates all who behold it. It’s a remarkable embodiment of elegance, refinement, and timelessness, masterfully brought to life by Ledoux’s talent. The neoclassical aesthetic, with its delicate lines, gracefully adorned columns, and meticulously aligned narrow windows overlooking Paris, finds its ultimate expression in this human-scaled masterpiece.
Inaugurated in 1771 in the presence of the king himself, this pavilion became the epicentre of opulent gatherings hosted by Madame du Barry. Under its roof, sumptuous dinners were served, melodies danced through the air, and the night sky was painted with cascading fireworks.
The Music Pavilion’s appeal deepens with Jeanne du Barry’s captivating saga. Amid rises and falls, Madame du Barry embodies power’s allure and complexity. Yet, history’s tides shifted her path toward a tragic culmination—the guillotine’s blade in 1793.
From Humble Beginnings to Paris Prostitution
In the quaint village of Vaucouleurs, on a warm August day in 1743, a child was born: Jeanne Bécu, later known as Madame du Barry.
The circumstances of her birth were far from ordinary. Jeanne was the result of an illicit affair between her mother, Anne, a struggling seamstress, and an unknown father, rumoured to be a monk. Raised solely by her mother, they faced the hardships of a life on the fringes of society. In those times, women like Anne were branded as seductive troublemakers and had no choice but to seek male “protection” for survival.
Anne became involved with a wealthy Parisian financier named Billard-Dumonceaux. Seeeking security and support, Anne left the village, bringing along four-year-old Jeanne, to work as a domestic in Dumonceaux’s grand house. There, she found herself amidst an unusual arrangement, living under the same roof as Dumonceaux’s Italian mistress, Francesca. One could only imagine the complexities of this arrangement and the dynamics between the women, with Anne playing the role of the domestic and Francesca, the mistress. In such a situation, the rich Dumonceaux likely wielded great power, and the women had probably little choice but to comply.
At the tender age of six, Jeanne was sent to a convent that offered education to underprivileged girls. The decision followed Anne’s marriage to Nicolas Rançon, a widower whose union may have been facilitated by Dumonceaux. He offered Rançon a new position as a storekeeper at the army headquarters, which brought increased income.
During her time at the convent, Jeanne received instruction in religious studies, domestic skills, music, and drawing. As the years went by, her heart and mind yearned for a life beyond the convent’s walls.
At the age of 14, she eventually returned to live with her mother in their humble home. But the world outside the convent was not kind to young girls with little means. Jeanne knew she needed to secure an income to escape the looming spectre of destitution. She was aware that, women like her had limited opportunities, and male “protection”, despite the obligations it entailed, was often their only resourse.
Her pursuit for such “protection” led her down various difficult paths from being a street seller, an apprentice in a hairdresser’s shop to working as a lady’s maid and even trying her hand at shopkeeping. However, a chance encounter with the manager of a famous Parisian brothel would lead her, like many young girls in her circumstances, to the world of prostitution.
“To be poor meant having to rely solely on one’s work to survive, which meant that at the first misfortune, the slightest illness, there was no state-provided safety net. To be poor wasn’t to be unable to meet one’s needs, but to constantly be at risk of being unable to do so.“Philonomist.com, In the 18thcentury, poverty was more a risk than a state, Interview with Laurence Fontaine by Nicholas Gastineau.
At this establishment, Jeanne met Jean-Baptiste du Barry, a man who held connections within the French aristocracy. Infamous for his unsavoury reputation, he was driven by financial gain and lacked moral boundaries. He orchestrated the exploitation of young girls, largely profiting from their services. With her mother’s tacit consent (whose life largely improved after her daughter got involved with du Barry), Jeanne, still a minor at only 19, became Jean du Barry’s pawn, subjected to a life of prostitution. Sold repeatedly to various men, her well-being was disregarded in the pursuit of profit. The period she spent under du Barry’s control was marked by unimaginable suffering. His cruelty knew no bounds.
A Calculated Scheme to Meet The King
During this period, France was under the reign of King Louis XV, initially adored but later despised. Louis XV exhibited minimal aptitude for politics, unintentionally sowing the seeds of the looming French Revolution. Battling bouts of depression and frequent boredom, he sought solace in a string of romances with young girls, meticulously handpicked by his advisers. His entourage understood that influencing the King could be exerted through his female companions. Therefore, many within the court tried to introduce women into the king’s inner circle. Jean du Barry followed suit, orchestrating a calculated scheme to present Jeanne to the king, primarily for financial gain.
Despite a substantial 34-year age gap, the aging Louis XV swiftly took a keen interest in 24-year-old Jeanne. However, official acknowledgment in the French court and residence in Versailles necessitated conforming to appearances, requiring a title. Du Barry’s brother facilitated this by marrying Jeanne in a swift, orchestrated ceremony. With her newly acquired title, Jeanne, now Comtesse du Barry, was formally inducted into Louis XV’s court, beginning a six-year liaison with the monarch, as his official mistress.
Jeanne must have been extremely patient and accommodating to bring joy to Louis XV and maintain his attention. In her company, the king seemed happier and more energetic, leading him to spend a lot of his time with her in her private apartment at Versailles and in Louveciennes château. While she was pleasant and loyal, her influence over the king’s politics remained marginal.
She even took on the role of a godmother to an enslaved child, Zamor, originally from India, brought to the King as a gift. She became attached to Zamor, considering him an exotic accessory. Many years later, Zamor’s testimony, during the French Revolution, would be pivotal in her fatal fate.
Her tenure at Louis XV’s court was far from smooth. As a woman of humble birth in a society dominated by the aristocracy, she encountered social bias and snobbery from the nobles. Her mere presence sparked animosity among those who regarded her as an outsider, including Marie Antoinette, the future Queen of France, who openly disregarded Madame du Barry and derogatorily referred to her as “The Creature”. Furthermore, the court teemed with intrigue and political manoeuvring, areas in which Jeanne lacked the upbringing and education to navigate adeptly.
Jeanne du Barry and Louis XV cherished their companionship until his final days, when he fell ill with smallpox. Recognising the potential for public animosity towards her, he urgently instructed her to leave Versailles. This preemptive departure was aimed at sparing her from the anticipated scorn of the crowds that had gathered outside the palace, awaiting the king’s passing. In 1774, Louis XV died, and his grandson Louis XVI was named the new King, with Marie-Antoinette as his Queen.
The Fate of A Fallen Favourite
With her “protector” no longer by her side, the once-favoured Comtesse du Barry found herself exiled to the Pont aux Dames convent, embarking on a secluded existence. A year into her stay at the convent, Jeanne received permission to relocate to the countryside and maintain a ten-mile distance from Paris and Versailles. Two years later, she was finally granted the long-awaited pardon to return to her cherished domain of Louveciennes.
Within a year of her return, Jeanne, now 35 years old, found herself acquainted with a new neighbour—a married fifty-year-old Englishman named Henry Seymour. An initially amicable relationship formed between the neighbours, gradually evolving into a more intimate connection. Jeanne developed deep feelings for Henry, growing increasingly frustrated with his marital situation. However, the dynamics between them became strained as Henry Seymour’s behaviour fluctuated unpredictably. He oscillated between being a romantic partner and a callous egoist, leaving Jeanne in a perpetual state of turmoil and agitation. Over time, Seymour grew weary of their secret love affair and conveyed his sentiments through a painting he sent to Jeanne. At the bottom of the painting were the words “leave me alone” written in English.
Having moved on from her previous heartache, Jeanne found comfort in the arms of her devoted lover, Duc de Brissac, a prosperous military officer. During this chapter of her life, she embraced tranquillity and enjoyed a flourishing existence, marked by social gatherings, benevolent contributions, and compassion aid towards the less fortunate. However, this tranquil period was abruptly disrupted when De Brissac, devoted to King Louis XVI, fell victim to a brutal assault by revolutionaries in Versailles. The horrific culmination saw his severed head delivered to her apartment before her eyes.
The Swift Verdict and Execution
At nearly 50 years old, one fateful day, Jeanne awoke to the shocking news that thieves had targeted her home in Louveciennes, stealing a substantial portion of her prized jewellery collection—the very essence of her identity, a source of pride, and her future security. In a determined effort to recover her possessions, an exhaustive inventory was published, marking the rise of public animosity towards her. As tensions escalated, the trail of stolen jewellery led to London, where Jeanne made multiple attempts to reclaim her belongings. However, despite persistent efforts, her journeys ended in disappointment, as she never managed to recover her jewellery. Meanwhile, several French refugees in London, escaping prosecution, relied on Jeanne’s financial support, putting her in the crosshairs of revolutionaries.
In September 1793, Jeanne du Barry, now accused of treason, was arrested and transferred to The Conciergerie, in the same cell where Marie-Antoinette had been held before her execution. A sham trial, bolstered by the testimony of Zamor, her former slave, led to her conviction and sentencing to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris. She was accused of treason for aiding French refugees.
On December 8, 1793, Madame du Barry met her fate at the guillotine on the Place de la Révolution. As she was being transported to the guillotine, she collapsed in the tumbrel and cried out, “You are going to hurt me! Why?!” Gripped by fear, she pleaded for mercy and implored the onlooking crowd for assistance. Her final words to the executioner are said to have been: “Please, just a little more time!”
Intriguing and tumultuous, Jeanne du Barry’s life was a captivating blend of ascent and decline. From her modest origins to her involvement in courtly intrigues, she manoeuvred through a realm marked by power, passion, and tragedy. Her narrative serves as a testament to history’s capricious currents. Meanwhile, the Music Pavilion weathered both revolution and the sands of time, standing as an enduring tribute to a woman whose foremost aspiration was to live well in a patriarchal society where the allure of beauty provided a slightly higher chance for success.