Throughout this inaugural year, the Rienzi and Bayou Bend book club has covered an array of topics—gardening, poetry, textiles, and more—inspired by the collections of the two house museums. July’s book takes us back to 18th-century France, for a peek into the life of one of Rienzi’s most famous “residents.” Madame du Barry: The Wages of Beauty is a short biography written by Joan Haslip, chronicling the life of Louis XV’s last maîtress en titre (favorite mistress).
Born of humble origins, Marie-Jeanne Bécu, later known as Madame du Barry, took Paris by storm after the death of Madame de Pompadour. As the primary maîtress en titre, Madame du Barry, a proponent of the Rococo style, was in a position to influence the taste of the French court. She was a patron of the arts, aiding in the acquisition and development of the porcelain factory that would eventually become the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory. Upon Louis XV’s death, du Barry was exiled from Versailles by France’s new queen, Marie Antoinette. During the French Revolution, du Barry was suspected of aiding French émigrés in England, which earned her a charge of treason and a trip to the guillotine.
Bust of Madame du Barry (Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, c. 1771–73), a graceful, dignified aristocrat, resides in Rienzi’s Drawing Room. The portrait bust is made from biscuit porcelain, a clay that is fired but unglazed. As a medium for busts, biscuit porcelain was ideal: It had a marble-like appearance and could be poured into a mold, making reproductions possible, albeit in small quantities. There are seven known examples of du Barry busts, all commissioned by the maitress for use as gifts.
The design was taken from a terra-cotta sculpture made by Augustin Pajou in 1771. Rienzi’s version emphasizes the beauty of Madame du Barry through a delicate rendering of her face and hair. The graceful folds of the fabric evoke the classical dress of antiquity. The bust renders the figure of a courtesan, a symbol of a flamboyant and frivolous era, in the form that traditionally had been reserved for kings and popes.
Pick up a copy of Madame du Barry: The Wages of Beauty from The Shop at Bayou Bend to learn more about this fascinating figure. Join us for a free discussion on Wednesday, July 11, at 1 p.m. or 7 p.m.