In the Corridors of Power
Born in a debtors’ jail in 1635, Françoise d’Aubigné would later become the secret wife of Louis XIV, and the most powerful woman at court. For this exhibition, some 60 objects relating to her life can be seen in her rooms at Versailles, which have been decked out with the original silk draperies. Find out more from the Château de Versailles’ website.
Preview the exhibition below | View Apollo’s Art Diary here
Françoise d’Aubigné was born into a noble family from Niort, in the west of France, that had fallen on hard times. The death of her mother made her an orphan at the age of 16, but shortly after she was introduced in Paris to the poet and society wit Paul Scarron, whom she married in 1652.
Some years after the death of her husband in 1660, Françoise Scarron met Madame de Montespan, the mistress of Louis XIV, who entrusted Scarron with the care of the children – illegitimate and secret – she had borne the king. Scarron became the official royal governess in 1673, after the king officially recognised his children with Montespan; this portrait depicts the governess the following year, with her young charges Louis-Auguste and Louis-César.
In 1674, the king rewarded Scarron with 200,000 livres, enabling her to purchase the Chateau de Maintenon, a medieval castle near Versailles, which was extensively rebuilt to function as her private residence. She was given her title, the Marquise of Maintenon, the following year; these favours, along with the king’s frequent visits to Maintenon, excited the suspicion and jealousy of Madame de Montespan, who eventually left court in 1680.
After the death of Queen Marie-Thérèse in 1683, Maintenon was married to the king in a private ceremony, becoming his morganatic wife. A pious woman, whose positive influence on the king was widely acknowledged, in 1684 she established the Maison Royale de Saint-Louis at Saint-Cyr – a school for poor girls from noble families. In this painting, the king gestures toward the plans for the school.
The king died in 1715, and Maintenon retired for the final years of her life to Saint-Cyr. In 1717, Peter the Great visited this small town, a few miles west of Versailles, to seek out the ageing widow. One version of the story records that the tsar announced his arrival with the words: ‘I have come to see everything worthy of remark that France contains.’