November 01, 2007

The Russian Pompadour

A Pompadour of the male sex” is how Prussian King Frederick II aptly characterized Russian Empress Elizabeth’s favorite, the High Chamberlain Ivan Ivanovich Shuvalov (1727-1797). Of course, this kind of comparison has its limitations, yet in the present case the parallel with Louis XV’s famous mistress – the Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764) – has a certain historical accuracy. Indeed, both Shuvalov and Pompadour spent many years as favorites of crowned protectors known for their capriciousness and eccentricity. Louis’ penchant for love was legendary, (he was nicknamed “Louis the In-Love”) and Elizabeth was no less “passionate for love” (to cite Mikhail Shcherbatov’s phrase), and at one time was even considered as a possible wife for Louis. Neither favorite could boast an ancient lineage: Pompadour was the granddaughter of a peasant, and although Shuvalov was of the gentry, his family was far from well-born and of only middling status. Nevertheless, their upward paths were quite different. 

The future marquise, for whom it was foretold in childhood that she would belong to the king, unswervingly proceeded toward her goal, and for 20 years wove intrigues around the monarch, bribed courtiers to her side, and arrayed herself in lavish, eye-catching costumes (for example, of Diana the huntress); she studied the nuances of her patron’s psychology, divined all of his desires, and, binding him to herself, adroitly manipulated all of the secret springs of his heart. 

Shuvalov, on the other hand, began his service at court as a simple page and, with characteristic modesty, did not go out of his way to please the empress, who was two decades his senior. Catherine the Great (then still Grand Dutchess) wrote this of him on the eve of his liaison with Elizabeth: “I found him forever in the waiting room with book in hand… He was then 18 years old, was not at all bad looking, very ready to oblige, very polite, very attentive, and seemed to be by nature of very gentle manners... Apart from that, he was very poor.” 

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