Monday, December 8, 2008

Death of Madame du Barry

Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry, the notorious mistress of Louis XV, was guillotined on December 8, 1793. Madame du Barry was the successor of Madame de Pompadour in Louis XV's affections. At the court of Versailles she belonged to the party opposing the Choiseul-Pompadour clique which had arranged the marriage of the Dauphin Louis-Auguste to Marie-Antoinette of Lorraine-Austria. Madame du Barry was allied with the royal family, who were against the Austrian marriage. The daughters of Louis XV, although she was more or less on their side, would have disliked anyone who shared their father's bed, on moral grounds. It was they who encouraged the teenage Marie-Antoinette not to speak to Madame du Barry. The young princess shunned the courtesan, causing a diplomatic crisis. The aunts were not always prudent in the guidance of their nephew's bride, whom they ultimately damaged through their own pettiness and gossip.

Much has been made of Marie-Antoinette's refusal to speak to the royal mistress, but it was the kind of power play that happened in courts all over Europe. I sometimes wonder that if Marie-Antoinette had lived to be an old lady and had died peacefully in her bed, if anyone in posterity would have given the incident between her and Madame du Barry a second thought. Because Marie-Antoinette died stripped of all human dignity, after being destroyed in practically every way a woman can be destroyed, with her reputation in shreds, people are always looking for reasons that led to such a dreadful fate. Hence the focus on the early rift with Du Barry, which but for the debacles that followed, would have been forgotten.

It is said that Madame du Barry became hysterical on her way to execution, begging them not to hurt her. Her last words to the executioner: "Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment." ("One moment more, executioner, one little moment.") Unfortunately for her, the moment had passed.



Lee Hamilton said...

I liked Asia Argento's performance as du Barry in Sophie Coppola's recent film. I'm not sure how accurate it was, but given that it was a fairly small part in the film, it was a colourful & memorable portrayal.

Ashley Marie said...


As a lover of history and a newcomer to this chapter in history, I wonder if you might be able to tell me why the Comtesse was guillotined? Even though she was Louis XV's mistress, how did she fit into the anger of the revolutionaries?

elena maria vidal said...

Hi, Lee, thanks for your input. I thought Asia indeed made the most of the part. The resemblance to the real Madame du Barry is a bit questionable though, since La Barry would probably have known better than to belch loudly in public.

Good question, Marie. At that point, just about anyone associated with the Old Regime was being put to death. Even the Duke of Orleans, who had conspired with the revolutionaries and voted for the death of Louis XVI, his own cousin, was guillotined.

Unknown said...

I thought Asia Argento's portrayal as Du Barry was horrible. First, physically she looks nothing like her. Du Barry epitomized the standards of French beauty in the 18 century: a curvy round figure, rosy cheeks, white porcelain skin, blue eyes and blond hair. Argento is too skinny and dark for the role.
Personality wise, in the film they get out of their way to show Du Barry as a vulgar woman with no class. By the time Antoinette became Dauphine, Du Barry was an expert in Court etiquette. She had been "polished" and her manners were comparable to the manners of any Court lady.
By the way I also hated Polignac's portrayal in that film. But that belongs to another topic.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree with you on all points, dianainvasion! Completely!

Unknown said...

Thanks Elena!
I am actually surprised at the amount of errors and misinterpretations you can find in that movie. Supposedly Antonia Fraser participated in the script as a help with historical references.
I haven't read her book (I heard it was biased and she didn't cite sources all the time).
I have read Zweig and Lever's biographies, both very good. I read Jean Chalon's too and it was terrible. It's still very criticized today.

elena maria vidal said...

Oh, I would have to disagree with you about Zweig and Lever, which I do not care for at all. Zweig dwells too much on an outdated Freudian analysis and Lever is too romantic. Both gloss over the mistreatment of the Dauphin in the Temple. Fraser's would be good except that she insists upon the Fersen myth without giving any proof at all, as does Lever. I think that Bertiere's is one of the best if not the best biography. Delorme's is excellent, too.

Unknown said...

I think, after carefull study, that Mdme. du Barry was 'cut' from the same cloth as the Countess de Polignac, in that they could both be characterized as having the down-cast eye look, so prevalent among the 'decadent' women of the courts of the christian kings of france's ancien regime. it would be very diffficult for the hollywood camera to give an accurate portrayal, in that scripts from what norman mailer termed 'factoid manor' require so much eye expression, like w/gary cooper or barbra stanwyck.