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The artful lineage of the French mistress

The mistress, particularly the First Mistress, the official kept woman of the king or the emperor – for whom the French have a dignified name, maîtresse-en-titre – is hugely important in France's cultural history. It is fitting that the current French President's alleged mistress is an actress (just as his predecessor's beautiful consort was): The role of the mistress is to be artistic. French kings' mistresses have also been portrayed by great painters, transformed into religious and nationalistic icons, and they have been the subjects of verse and prose. The leader's mistress is often the unofficial representation of beauty in France, not unlike Marianne, and as such is seen as a kind of national muse.

Consider the beautiful and troubling painting from 1450 by Jean Fouquet, Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels. It depicts a bare- and pneumatic-breasted Virgin Mary, crowned and enthroned. The angels around her are eerily red, more devilish than cherubic. The model for this painting was Agnès Sorel, official mistress of King Charles VII. Imagine how revered this beauty was if she was thought fit to represent the divine, the mother of God herself. She was also given her own castle – a particularly massive one, the Château de Loches. She figured in works of literature as well, notably the long satirical poem The Maid of Orleans, by Voltaire.

Sorel became the model for the next few hundred years of kings' mistresses. She was not just a sexual plaything; she was an adviser and a hostess, actively involved in court decisions and even geopolitics. This was the role played by several other famous maîtresse-en-titre, especially Diane de Poitiers. The king, Henri II, trusted this educated noblewoman so well he allowed her to co-sign some of his official letters. She was portrayed by the sculptor Goujon as the goddess Diana; the sculpture is in the Louvre.

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All of these women were immortalized by portraitists. Many were patrons of the arts. The refined and cultivated Madame de Pompadour, for example, one of Louis XV's mistresses, was a symbol of French glory for this reason. She, too, was an actress.

And they have managed, throughout history, to find themselves at the centre of stories that are a delight to novelists. Diane de Poitiers would only dress in black and white – for the dark and bright sides of the moon. When her king was mortally wounded while jousting, he was wearing her "favour" (ribbon) rather than the queen's. Is there a more romantic story than that? Perhaps not for the queen.

Madame du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV, was sentenced to public execution during The Terror. Standing before the guillotine, she is said to have pleaded for "Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau" (One more minute, Mr. Executioner), a statement that has ever since enthralled novelists as a kind of summary of life itself.

One of my favourite French novels is about the existential questions that trouble a powerful Parisian man and his mistress. La Modification by Michel Butor, published in 1957 (translated in English as Second Thoughts), is about a corporate executive who lives in the Place du Panthéon, now an address only available to the very rich and to important politicians. The married man is taking an overnight train to visit his mistress in Rome. He goes through a tortured night of indecision, finally deciding, as he arrives in Italy, to leave her and stay with his wife. In the narrative, the wife comes to represent Paris and Christianity, while the mistress is Rome and paganism. And of course art: Rome is mystery, beauty, secrets, the feminine, and it's filled with sculpture.

You see why the French don't like to criticize leading men and their mistresses too much. They think there are big ideas at stake. Mistresses, in French artistic history, are evidence not of boorishness and sexism, but of sensitivity and cultivation. In the higher realms of power, it is not unusual to see art as essentially feminine. Yes, these are rather conservative ideas.

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