Madame du Barry: From Prostitute to King Louis XV’s Last Mistress, and Died as Famous Victim of the French Revolution

The life of Jeanne Bécu Du Barry (1743-1793) was a cautionary tale full of twists and turns. Popularly known as the last mistress of Louis XV of France (1710-1774), Madame du Barry rose from modest origins to become one of the most powerful women in France. But the glory didn’t last long as she later fell victim to the brutality of the French Revolution. Let’s go through various roles that Jeanne Bécu Du Barry played throughout her life.

Portrait of Madame Du Barry by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. 1781

The illegitimate daughter of a seamstress and (possibly) a monk

Jeanne Bécu Du Barry was born out of wedlock into the servant class of Vaucouleurs, a town located in the Lorraine region of France. Her mother, Anne Bécu, was a seamstress, while her father is usually presumed to be a monk called Jean Jacques Gomard de Vaubernier.

Anne Bécu moved to Paris with her young daughter in the company of Monsieur Billiard-Dumonceaux, a financier and supplier to the royal army. Dumonceaux funded Jeanne’s education in a convent school for indigent or wayward girls run by the nuns of Sainte-Aure.

Jeanne left the convent at the age of fifteen. She later served as a companion to an elderly widow, Madame de Delley de La Garde, but was soon dismissed when her youth and beauty meddled in the marital affairs of La Garde's two sons. For a time, Jeanne made her living by working in a haberdashery shop named 'À la Toilette'.

Portrait of Madame Du Barry by François-Hubert Drouais. 1770

The Mistress of Jean-Baptiste Du Barry, a high-class pimp

In around 1763, she caught the attention of comte Jean Baptiste du Barry, a high-class pimp who owned a casino and made Jeanne his mistress. He helped establish Jeanne’s career as a courtesan in Paris and gave her the appellation of ‘Mademoiselle Lange’. Du Barry introduced her to numerous aristocratic men, including the duc de Richelieu and the Treasurer of the royal navy, Maximilien Radix de Sainte-Foix.

Sculpture of Madame du Barry by Augustin Pajou

Comtesse du Barry
Jean Baptiste du Barry saw the huge potential of influencing Louis XV by installing Jeanne at court. In order to make Jeanne maitresse-en-titre (the chief mistress of king of France), Du Barry had to give Jeanne a title. He solved the problem by arranging a marriage between Jeanne and his brother, Comte Guillaume du Barry. He even created a fake birth certificate that made Jeanne a noble descent and listed her three years younger than she really was.

Madame du Barry by Auguste de Creuse

Official mistress of Louis XV

Until this time, Louis’s official mistresses had been either of the highest aristocracy or, in the case of Madame de Pompadour, of the highest ranks of the moneyed class. Madame de Pompadour, the official chief mistress of Louis XV from 1745-1751, died at the age of 43 of physical exhaustion and tuberculosis in 1764.

By the time Louis XV met Madame du Barry, he was an old man in his late fifties. Jeanne was formally presented at Court on 22 April 1769. She was assigned luxuriously appointed apartments in Versailles and other royal residences.

Louis XV and Dubarry by Gyula Benczúr. 1874. Collection of Hungarian National Gallery

Rival of Marie Antoinette
Despite winning the heart of the king, Jeanne had great difficulty to gain recognition from many other nobilities due to her scandalous past. One of her most famous rivals was Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. She became Dauphine of France in May 1770 at age 14 upon her marriage to Louis-Auguste (1754-1793).

Du Barry and Antoinette first met each other in a family supper on the day before the great wedding. Many thought Jeanne would not be included in the guest list given her low origin but they were wrong. Jeanne was invited to the exclusive event and stood out from the rest of the crowd with her attractive extravagant appearance. After learning that Jeanne’s role was to give pleasure to the king, Antoinette was disgusted by the fact and refused to speak to her.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette (at her thirteen) by Joseph Ducreux, 1769

Marie Antoinette did not speak to du Barry for a long time. After Maria Theresa of Austria learnt about the tension between the two, she knew it couldn’t go on forever because Antoinette’s marriage was still unconsummated, which means it could be annulled anytime and jeopardise Austria's interests at the French court. Therefore, Maria Theresa pressured her daughter to gain support from the King by acknowledging Madame Du Barry.

At the New Years’ reception on 1 January 1772, Marie Antoinette finally surrendered. She casually turned to Jeanne and merely commented, ‘There are a lot of people at Versailles today.’ It was enough for Madame du Barry, who was satisfied with this recognition.

Nine émigrés are executed by guillotine, 1793

Victim of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution

The four years of her tenure as official mistress of the king were the highpoint of Madame Du Barry’s life. After Louis XV died of smallpox in 1774, Jeanne Du Barry was disgraced and banished from Court. After a period of confinement in a convent, she lived in retirement at Luciennes, where she was visited by new lovers, most prominent among them Hyacinthe Hugues Timoléon de Cossé, duc de Brissac (1734-1792), the Governor of Paris.

In the early September of 1792, Brissac was appointed the commander of Louis XVI’s Swiss Guards and he was arrested for "treason" and imprisoned at Orléans on June 10. He was killed by a mob as he and other prisoners were crossing through Versailles.

"Execution of Louis XVI" – German copperplate engraving, 1793, by Georg Heinrich Sieveking

As the political situation in France deteriorated, Louis XVI was executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793 on the Place de la Révolution. The widowed former queen Marie Antoinette was on trial in mid-October. She was convicted by the Revolutionary Tribunal of high treason and executed by guillotine on 16 October 1793.

Denounced for crimes of aristocracy and treason, du Barry was arrested on September 22, 1793. At first incarcerated in the prison of Sainte-Pélagie; she was later transferred to the Conciergerie. On 8 December 1793, Jeanne Du Barry and her Flemish bankers, the Vandenyvers, father and two sons, were executed. She became a famous victim of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.

Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (Paris 1755-1842). Portrait of Madame du Barry (1743-1793), three-quarter-length, seated in a landscape

Size: 130.4 x 97.8 cm

  • The sitter, by whom commissioned at the old Château de Louveciennes in summer 1789, but left unfinished and presumably entrusted to
  • Louis Hercule Timoléon de Cossé (1734-1792), Duc de Brissac, and perhaps retrieved at his residence with other portraits of Madame Du Barry in September 1793 by
  • Louis Antoine Auguste de Rohan-Chabot (1733-1807), later 6th Duc de Rohan
  • Louis Marie Jacques Amalric, comte de Narbonne-Lara (1755-1813), by whom restored after 1802 to
  • Madame Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), Hôtel Le Brun, rue du Gros-Chenet, Paris, later completed by her and after her death, described in the estate inventory drafted in her Paris residence in the Château du Coq on the rue Saint-Lazare as 'Un Portrait de Mad. Dubarri a mi jambe en costume de fete & tenant une fleur assise au milieu d'un Parterre dans son cadre de Bois doré', and by inheritance to her niece
  • Caroline Vigée (1791-1864) and her husband Jean-Nicolas-Louis de Rivière (1778-1861), Paris and Versailles, and by whom presumably sold circa 1845 to
  • Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), Prince de Bénévent (1754-1838), Paris and Château de Valençay, Valençay; (†) his sale, Hôtel des Ventes Mobilières, Paris, 9-10 March 1847, lot 69, where presumably acquired by
  • Justin Tripier Le Franc (1805-1883) and his wife Françoise-Élisabeth ('Eugénie') Le Brun (1797-1872), Paris and Passy; (†) his estate sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 5-7 June 1883, lot 5.
  • A Prince of Hohenlohe, possibly Chlodwig Carl Viktor (1819-1901), Prince of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, Prince of Ratibor and Corvey.
  • with Eugène Kraemer, Paris, from whom acquired for 150,000 francs on 18 January 1911 by
  • Eugène-Charles-Joachim Fould (1876-1929), Baron Fould-Springer and his wife Maria Cécilia von Springer (1886-1978), Paris, and by descent to their daughter
  • Baroness Élie de Rothschild, née Liliane Fould-Springer (1916-2003), Paris, and by descent to the present owners.

Estimate: US$1,000,000-2,000,000
Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Old Masters
Sale date: 1 May 2019