In the court of the Sun King’s son

An Irishman’s Diary: The fall and rise of a Franco-Irish beauty

François Boucher’s  A Female Nude Reclining on a Chaise-Longue (Graphite, red and white chalk on paper). ‘As the name implies, Marie-Louise O’Murphy (the model  above)  was of Irish extraction, albeit French birth . . . It was through Casanova that news of her  beauty reached the highest circles in France, Versailles.’ Photograph copyright National Gallery of Ireland

François Boucher’s A Female Nude Reclining on a Chaise-Longue (Graphite, red and white chalk on paper). ‘As the name implies, Marie-Louise O’Murphy (the model above) was of Irish extraction, albeit French birth . . . It was through Casanova that news of her beauty reached the highest circles in France, Versailles.’ Photograph copyright National Gallery of Ireland

Sat, Apr 13, 2013, 06:00

Among the more interesting pictures in a new exhibition at the National Gallery is a female nude by the 18th-century French painter François Boucher. Like many of his works, it might now be considered of questionable taste, being slightly more titillating than was strictly necessary in the service of art.

It is nevertheless in keeping with the Rococo style he helped make fashionable, and which was characterised by idealised, voluptuous lines. Unlike the later impressionists (although he was a big influence on Renoir’s nudes), Boucher didn’t always try to paint what he saw. In a famous phrase, he once described nature as “too green and badly lit”.

There was nothing green about his model for the aforementioned nude, except perhaps her ancestral origins. As the name implies, Marie-Louise O’Murphy was of Irish extraction, albeit French birth. A former army officer, her father had left his native Cork for Rouen, where he worked as a shoe-maker and where Marie-Louise was born in 1737.

After his death, when the family moved to Paris in the early 1750s, they must have been rather poor. But in her physical features, the young Mlle O’Murphy had a talent that would make her rich and at least somewhat famous. One of the first to spot it was that connoisseur of the genre, Giacomo Casanova, who would later mention the encounter in his diaries.

And it was through Casanova that news of her beauty reached the highest circles in France, Versailles. As a result, aged only 14, she was hired as a mistress of King Louis XV. Not the official mistress, mind you. That role was filled by the famous Madame de Pompadour. Marie-Louise was only one of the supporting cast, but it was enough to set her up for life.

In Duncan Sprott’s fictionalised account of that life, Our Lady of the Potatoes (1995), (“Madame Pomme de Terre” was said to be her court nickname), the event is portrayed a stroke of great fortune for the O’Murphy family.

A court representative signs her up in a straightforward business transaction, amid some excitement, much as the manager of Paris St Germain might sign a teenage apprentice. After that, her and her family’s fortunes were simultaneously on the rise.

She quickly became one of the king’s favourites, bearing him a son. Then she made the classic if understandable mistake of overreaching. The king’s chief mistress was 16 years her senior and, to return to the football analogy, O’Murphy must have thought she could replace her in the midfield role.

But she reckoned without Louis’s devotion to Madame de Pompadour, who saw off the young rival’s challenge and, in the process, ended her short career at court.

Like many public servants who have blotted a copybook, O’Murphy was given a sideways transfer to the provinces, where she was married off to a suitable nobleman. When he died in battle, she quickly found another husband. And aged almost 60, she eventually married a third time, to a man half her age. She was doing well financially, too, by then; although unlike the money, apparently, the third marriage didn’t last.

During the revolutionary terror, her royal connections might have proved fatal. She was indeed imprisoned for a time, but held on to her head, regained freedom, and survived until 1814, when she died aged 77.

Her name was sometimes spelled “O’Morphy”. Which may or may not have resulted from a pun made by Casanova who noted a similarity between the name so pronounced and the Greek word for beauty. It’s said that a (different) nude portrait he had made of her, with the inscription “O-morphi”, first brought her to the attention of Versailles.

Her life has striking similarities with that of another Irishwoman Eliza Gilbert, who escaped poverty by reinventing herself as Lola Montez, the “Spanish” dancer, and as mistress to King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Gilbert acquired a title out of the affair, being made a countess. But despite lack of official status at court, O’Murphy may have left a more enduring legacy.

According to some accounts, her family tree includes a branch which, in the 19th century, returned to Cork and founded Murphy’s Brewery. Later again, another wing of that family left Cork, this time for England. And their offspring too have achieved fame, latter-day descendants including one Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

The exhibition, Treasured Sheets: European Works from the Collection , is now showing at the National Gallery of Ireland.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com