From the Emperor’s Desk: Louis XV of France, like many monarchs, has many mistresses. Today, and in the future, I will feature the lives of various mistresses to Europe’s monarchs. Today I’ll feature Marie-Louise O’Murphy, mistress of King Louis XV.
Marie-Louise O’Murphy (also variously called Mademoiselle de Morphy, La Belle Morphise, Louise Morfi or Marie-Louise Morphy de Boisfailly; October 21, 1737 – December 11, 1814) was one of the lesser mistresses (petites maîtresses) of King Louis XV of France, and possibly the model for the famous painting by François Boucher.
Marie-Louise O’Murphy or Morfi, was born in Rouen on 21 October 21, 1737 as the youngest of twelve children of Daniel Morfi and Marguerite Iquy, and was baptized the same day in the church of Saint Elo
The family of Marie-Louise O’Murphy was of Irish origin, settled in Normandy recently. The presence of her paternal grandfather Daniel Murphy is attested in Pont-Audemer at the end of the 17th century, when his first wife Marguerite Connard (Irish like him) died. Militant of the Jacobite army, he followed the deposed King James II-VII of England, Scotland and Ireland, to his exile in the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye; in consequence all the Catholic regiments who remained loyal to the King were sentenced to death in absentia by the new English government.
Marie-Louise’s parents had well-known criminal histories: Daniel Morfi was involved in a case of espionage and blackmail, while Marguerite Iquy was accused of prostitution and theft. Daniel Morfi appears in the records of the Bastille, where he was confined “for state business” after his arrest on February 23, 1735.
An unscrupulous collaborator, then identified as secretary of Charles O’Brien, 6th Viscount Clare accused him of stealing diplomatic correspondence that his master kept in secret with James Francis Edward Stuart (known as “The Old Pretender”), the pretender to the English throne, then exiled in Rome.
Daniel Morfi had tried to blackmail James Francis, by threatening to sell to the court of London the papers he had stolen. The case undermines the French Government, by revealing secret diplomatic negotiations in favor of the restoration of the Stuarts. The arrest record showed that Daniel Morfi possessed a handwritten letter of the Cardinal de Fleury, a letter from Viscount Clare and a letter from James Francis Stuart himself, where was shown his plans for the Restoration.
Daniel Morfi was held incommunicado for seven months at the Bastille; after this, he was able to join his wife and children, but all were locked under close supervision into the Abbey of Arcis near Nogent-le-Rotrou. This confinement was terminated on 21 December 1736: Daniel Morfi was allowed to go wherever he wished, except Paris. Thus, with his family, he returned to Rouen, where Marie-Louise was born a year later.
The sisters of Marie-Louise O’Murphy are also known for being involved in prostitution. Jean Meunier, police inspector who was in charge of monitoring girls and women dedicated to this work, dedicated several pages to the O’Murphy sisters in the diary that he wrote from 1747 and in a report made in 1753 for his superior Nicolas René Berryer, lieutenant général de police. On May 12, 1753 Meunier dedicated three pages to the five O’Murphy sisters: Marguerite, Brigitte, Madeleine, Victoire and Marie-Louise.
About Marguerite and Madeleine (nicknamed Magdelon), he notes that they have their “campaigns in Flanders” following the French army, but before their departure would often be in the company of their sister Victorie and “the Richardot, the Duval, the Beaudouin, the Fleurance and others women of the world”. About Brigitte, Meunier wrote that “she always stayed with her parents and she wasn’t either brilliant or noisy”; however, he concluded that “despite her ugliness we are sure that she wasn’t an innocent girl”.
This is probably a similar account to the information written by Marquis d’Argenson in his diary on 1 April 1753 about Marie-Louise O’Murphy: The King had a new mistress … she belonged to a family of prostitutes and thieves.
After the death of her father on June 4, 1753, Marie-Louise’s mother brought the family to Paris.
Model of François Boucher
Contemporary and modern historiography concur in identifying Marie-Louise O’Murphy as the very young model who posed for the Jeune Fille allongée (Reclining Girl), of François Boucher, a painting famous for its undisguised eroticism, dating from 1752. Marie-Louise O’Murphy would have been 15 years of age at the time of the painting.
Two versions of this painting have survived, both conserved in Germany, one in the Alte Pinakothek at Munich and the other in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum at Cologne. Boucher, at the height of his fame, had made a specialty of these deliberately licentious nudes, represented in lascivious poses outside a mythological context.
La Jeune Fille allongée, also known as l’Odalisque blonde (the Blonde Odalisque), echoes to the also erotic Odalisque brune (Brown Odalisque), painted around 1745, whose several copies are kept at the Louvre or the Museum of Fine Arts, Rheims.
In his Histoire de ma vie (vol. 3, chap. 11), Giacomo Casanova relates that he found her “a pretty, ragged, dirty, little creature” of thirteen years in the house of her actress sister. Struck by her beauty when seeing her naked, however, he had a nude portrait of her painted, with the inscription “O-Morphi” (punning her name with Modern Greek ὄμορφη, “beautiful”), a copy of which found its way to King Louis XV, who then asked to see if the original corresponded with the painting.
The skilled artist had drawn her legs and thighs so that the eye could not wish to see more. There I write below: O-Morphi wasn’t a Homeric or either Greek word. It simply meant “beautiful”.
In his account of those events, which were written many years later, the Venetian seducer seeks to obtain the central role, even though he was perhaps only a partial witness. He did not specifically cite Boucher and seems rather, in the evening of his life, to have recorded this episode from gossip and pamphlets which circulated very freely in Europe at the end of the 18th century. Other sources are more accurate.
Police inspector Jean Meunier echoes in his diary another version of the facts, that circulates in the months following the meeting of Louis XV and Marie-Louise O’Murphy. On 8 May 1753 he wrote very specifically:
They say that the youngest Morfi, fourth sister and therefore the youngest served as a model of the Boucher painting, he painted her naked and gave or sold the painting to Monsieur de Vandières [brother of Madame de Pompadour] and when the King saw it, became intrigued if the painter hadn’t flattered the model, so he asked to see the youngest Morfi, and after their meeting, he found her even better that the painting.
Petite maîtresse of Louis XV
The term Petite maîtresse (little mistress) was given to Louis XV’s mistresses that were not formally presented at court, and unlike the official mistress (maîtresse-en-titre) did not have an apartment in Palace of Versailles. Generally recruited by the King’s valets in Paris surroundings, if their affair lasted more than a single night, they were placed in a group of houses in the district of Parc-aux-Cerfs in Versailles, or close to other royal residences. Marie-Louise O’Murphy resided there for two years, from 1753 to 1755.
Different stories circulated about the exact circumstances in which was presented to the King. As was previously mentioned, according to Meunier’s reports, this was thanks to the mediation of Abel-François Poisson de Vandières, brother of Madame de Pompadour, showing Boucher’s portrait to Louis XV.
Another version supports the theory that the recruitment of Louis XV’s little mistresses was done under the control of the inner circle of Madame de Pompadour:
Monsieur de Vandières, Director of the King’s Buildings (Bâtiments du Roi) in a letter dated February 19, 1753, gave a peculiar order to the painter Charles-Joseph Natoire in Rome, who provides elements that suggests that he was in possession of the portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy made by Boucher, and he was able to show it to the King:
I had a private room that I wanted to enrich with four pieces of the most expert painters of our school. I already had a van Loo, a Boucher and a Pierre. You can judge that lacks a Natoire … Because the room was very small and secret, I wanted nudity: the painting of Carle who represents the sleeping Antiope, and the painting of Boucher of a young woman lying on her stomach …
Then it is Dominique-Guillaume Lebel, first valet of the King’s chamber, who had the delicate and secret mission to negotiate the “virginity” of the girl and bring her back to Versailles. Thus the Marquis d’Argenson in his diary, dated on April 1, 1753, recorded that “Lebel was in Paris to bring a new virgin … then he contacted a dressmaker named Fleuret, who provides the lovers with dresses from his shop at Saint Honoré”. By March 30, he still did not know the identity of Marie-Louise O’Murphy and he refers to a “little girl who was a model in Boucher” and the King “would have seen Lebel his valet”.
After a miscarriage in mid-1753 which almost killed her (as a result this merely brought Louis XV closer to her because he loved the idea that she had almost died “in service” as a proof of her affection for him), Marie-Louise O’Murphy gave birth to Louis XV’s illegitimate daughter, Agathe-Louise de Saint-Antoine de Saint-André, born in Paris on June 20, 1754 and baptized that same day at Saint-Paul as a child of “Louis de Saint-André, Old official of infantry and Louise-Marie de Berhini, resident of Saint-Antoine street”, both non-existent persons; the King (who did not want to recognize the offspring born from petites maîtresses and brief affairs) ordered that the newborn must be immediately placed in care of a wet nurse.
Subsequently, Agathe-Louise was sent to the Couvent de la Présentation, where she was raised; Louis XV paid a pension for his daughter and appointed Louis Yon, Secretary of the Comptroller of Finances and Jean-Michel Delage, a notary, both trustworthy men, as her legal guardians.
Marie-Louise Morphy de Boisfailly
The name of “Marie-Louise Morphy de Boisfailly” that she used in the second part of her life was invented for her first marriage.
After serving as a mistress to the King for almost two years, Marie-Louise O’Murphy made a mistake that was common for many courtesans, that of trying to replace the official mistress. She unwisely tried to unseat the longtime royal favorite, Madame de Pompadour. This ill-judged move quickly resulted in O’Murphy’s downfall at court.
In November 1755 Marie-Louise O’Murphy was expelled at night from her home at Parc-aux-Cerfs. Repudiated by the King, she was sent far away from Versailles:
The King ordened her to leave at four in the morning to Paris: there she received the unexpected order to marry and she must obey.
She was hastily married on November 25, 1755, by contract signed before Mr. Patu, notary in Paris, with Jacques Pelet de Beaufranchet, Seigneur d’Ayat (born 5 March 1728). The marriage was arranged by the inner circle of Madame de Pompadour. The Duke of Luynes and the Marquis de Valfons recorded that the Prince of Soubise and the Marquis de Lugeac received the task to find a husband for Marie-Louise O’Murphy and arrange her marriage.
The intended husband was chosen with great care: well born, with a good name for the former Petite maîtresse, young and good-looking. Beaufranchet, a good soldier and without fortune, obeyed the King’s order.
It was in order to give Marie-Louise O’Murphy a better status before her future in-laws and to spare the aristocrat sensibilities of Beaufranchet, that the young woman received the surname of Morphy de Boisfailly, and called a daughter of Daniel Morphy de Boisfailly, an Irish gentleman. As a dowry, she received the sum of 200,000 livres, a disguised donation of Louis XV, through the father Vanier, canon of the Royal and Collegiate Church of Saint-Paul de Lestrée at Saint-Denis; in addition, she was allowed to keep the clothes and jewelry received from the King during her stay at Parc-aux-Cerfs.
The engagement took place the next day and the wedding was celebrated on November 27, 1755 in the parish of Saints Innocents, in the greatest secrecy. Beaufranchet’s parents remained in the province and send their proxies to the wedding. By the side of Marie-Louise, no family member was present. Her mother was represented by a lawyer of the Parlement called Noël Duval, and none of her sisters was present, perhaps to spare the “mighty Seigneur d’Ayat” a painful confrontation with his humble and scandalous in-laws.
Soon, the new Dame d’Ayat became pregnant. Her first child, a daughter named Louise Charlotte Antoinette Françoise Pelet de Beaufranchet, was born on October 30, 1756. Thirteen months later, on November 5, 1757, Jacques Pelet de Beaufranchet was killed in action at the battle of Rossbach, and seventeen days later (November 22), Marie-Louise gave birth a second child, a son, Louis Charles Antoine Pelet de Beaufranchet, the later Comte de Beaufranchet and General under the Republic.
Her daughter Louise Charlotte died on February 6, 1759, aged two. Thirteen days later, on February 19 at Riom, Marie-Louise married secondly with François Nicolas Le Normant, Comte de Flaghac and Receiver General of Finance in Riom (born September 13, 1725), a divorcee with three children.
A distant cousin of Charles Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles and Charles François Paul Le Normant de Tournehem, through this marriage Marie-Louise became related with Madame de Pompadour. In addition, the former royal mistress was able to enter in the finance world and thanks to the traffic of influences, could accesses on the Ferme générale, which enable her to multiplicate her assets and fortune.
From her second marriage, Marie-Louise gave birth to a daughter, Marguerite Victoire Le Normant de Flaghac (January 5, 1768 – after 1814), who, according to one theory, could be another illegitimate daughter of Louis XV.
François Le Normant died on April 24, 1783. She was accorded a pension of 12,000 francs. During the Reign of Terror Marie-Louise was imprisoned as a “suspect”, under the name of O’Murphy, at Sainte-Pelagie and later at the English Benedictine convent in Paris.
After her release she married thirdly on June 19, 1795 with Louis Philippe Dumont (17 November 1765 – 11 June 1853), a moderate MP for Calvados in the National Convention and twenty-eight years younger than her; however, this union quickly failed, and after almost three years, they divorced on 16 March 1798. She never married again.
After the Bourbon Restoration, she received from King Charles X a rent of 2,000 francs from his own treasure, and further 3,000 francs from the Civil List. In 1811 was born her first great-grandchild, Louise Antoinette Zoé Terreyre (daughter of Anne Pauline Victoire Laure Pelet de Beaufranchet d’Ayat, in turn daughter of Marie-Louise’s son the Comte de Beaufranchet).
Marie-Louise O’Murphy died in Paris on December 11, 1814 aged 77, at the home of her daughter Marguerite Le Normant.