This is Mme. Du Barry–one of the most famous courtesans and royal mistresses of all time! Du Barry was the last of Louis XV’s official mistresses. Louis (it seems) adored her because she was so beautiful that she revived his flagging sex life. She ended her life on the guillotine, but here she is long before, dressed in the 18th century’s version of ‘casual Friday’: a simple gingham dress and straw hat–a style favored by Marie Antoinette, who famously loathed Mme. Du Barry and the racy side of French court life that she represented.
She was born Marie-Jeanne Bécu, the illegitimate daughter of lower-class parents. After a convent education, she was a shop assistant, under the name Jeanne Vaubernier, in a fashion house in Paris. While there she became the mistress of Jean du Barry, a Gascon nobleman who had made a fortune as a war contractor. He introduced her into Parisian high society, and her beauty captivated a succession of nobly born lovers before she attracted Louis XV’s attention in 1768. She could not qualify as official royal mistress (maîtresse en titre), a position vacant since the death of Madame de Pompadour in 1764, unless she was married to a noble. Hence, du Barry arranged a nominal marriage between Jeanne and his brother, Guillaume du Barry; in April 1769 she joined Louis XV’s court.
In 1772, the infatuated Louis XV requested that Parisian jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge create an elaborate and spectacular jeweled necklace for du Barry, one that would surpass all known others in grandeur, at an estimated cost of two million livres.The necklace, still not completed nor paid for when Louis XV died, would eventually trigger a scandal involving Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, in which Queen Marie Antoinette would be wrongly accused of bribing the Cardinal de Rohan, Archbishop of Strasbourg in the Alsace, to purchase it for her, accusations which would figure prominently in the onset of the French Revolution.
Some interesting pop cultural facts about Mme. Du Barry
– Her famous last words (“Encore un moment!”) serve as a symbol of existential angst when they are raised as a topic of conversation on at least two separate occasions in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel, The Idiot.
– She inspired a wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s in London, called The Sleeping Beauty, which is the oldest existing figure on display.
– A short two-page comic strip La Rue perdue (“The lost street”) was published in 1978, featuring Gil Jourdan, a detective series created by Maurice Tillieux. Set in 1953 it has Jourdan trying to find out why a fake guillotine blade is hanging outside the door of a black African friend. The one responsible turns out to be a man obsessed with du Barry and taking his anger at her death out on Jourdan’s friend who looks like Zamor, the man whose actions led to her execution. The action is set in Rue Maître Albert (Maître Albert Street).
– She is a major character in Alexandre Dumas’s (pere) novel Joseph Balsamo.
Discover the back stories of courtesans and royal mistresses like Du Barry and more on our women’s history tours Shady Ladies Tour of the Metropolitan Museum, in New York City! Learn more about our tours and our new tour Scandalous Seductions .