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August 08, 2008

Femme of the Week: Yolande Marie Gabrielle de Polastron, duchesse de Polignac

Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, The Duchess de Polignac. 1783, oil on canvas. The National Trust Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, UK.


A year after Marie Antoinette and the Princesse Lamballe teamed up, the comtesse de Polignac enters the picture. She was born in Paris in 1749. Her father was Comte Gabriel Polastron, who had been a member of the household of Marie Antoinette's father-in-law, Louis XVI’s father, the late Dauphine Louis. and her mother was Jeanne Charlotte Hérault, daughter of Rene Hérault who had served on the privy counsel. Their family was more impoverished than wealthy, and had been that way for decades.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Duchesse de Polignac. 1787, Pastel.

Average in size, with fair skin, blue eyes accented by dark brown eyebrows and hair, a high forehead, tilted nose and a smile that could kill Yolande had an angelic look about her. Some have said she had the features Raphael would take love. At 18, on July 5, 1767 she married Jules Francois Armand, comte de Polignac arranged by the comte de Vaudreuil. The comte Jules de Polignac was an officer in the royal Polish Regiment.

Yolande was introduced at Versailles in September of 1775. Madame Campan recalled that Marie Antoinette was instantly fascinated with her and couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t seen the girl at court before. At learning she was not permitted to attend royal weddings due to her wealth, Marie intended to counteract, “the injustice of wealth.”

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Yolande Polignac. 1782, oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum.

She expressed her gratitude for all Marie Antoinette wanted to bestow on her as a favorite but let M.A. know she feared the cost of living at Versailles. Marie consulted Louis XVI about it, and how much she wanted her friend to live near them. The comtesse, later the duchesse, was given her own apartments at Versailles at the top of a marble staircase. She became a favorite, and the Queen would often run to her drawing room to take a needed break from life, or merely gossip.

Little Po is portrayed by writers in two ways, either as an enormous cause of the revolution, scheming to improve her own status and having utter disregard for the state of the country, or she as almost a total pawn a midst needy, greedy and ambitious relatives and associates. Some claimed there had never been a favorite at the court who was less greedy or egotistical. Madame Campan noted that she never saw the duchesse wear diamonds, she could pull off the same effect with a flower in her hair, and that her personality left her free from jealousy and always pleased. While others associated her with the Trianon entertainments described as rude as scandalous orgies!


In any case, her position as favorite secured life for many others who created her ‘society.’ The society of the duchesse de Polignac seems to be un-entertaining, un-witty and more annoying than charming. Madame Elisabeth was said to tire quickly of the duchesses’ sister-in-law Diana who was apparently both greedy and ugly.

The Duke de Polignac was secured a job in 1780 as directeur-général des postes and Little Po herself was given the position of gouvernante des Enfants de France. Her, lover, the comte de Vaudreuil also enjoyed living off the benefits of her post, comfortably by the late 1770’s. The Polignacs received a dowrey for their daughter of 800,000 livres, 400,000 livres to pay off various family debts and had won 10,000 in the lottery on pure luck!



With the revolution the royal family urged the Polignacs to leave France, and they left for Switzerland. In 1790 they went to Venice to celebrate the marriage of their son Armand and finally settled near Vienna, July 1791. Little Po died in December 1793, only a few months after Marie had been executed. Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, who was living near-by had said that in those few months the duchesses’ appearance had alter so much, by sorrow and trauma that she was no longer recognizable.

5 comments

  1. Lots of research went into that! Brava!

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  2. I find the duchess de Polignac such a mysterious and evasive personality-it seems difficult to learn more about her. Perhaps there is no more to be said. Versailles will forever be a place of intrigue and study for those (such as moi) studying that era of French history.

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  3. The duchess is indeed a mysterious character in the tragic story of Marie Antoinette. Did she die of heartbreak?

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  4. I'd like to read this beautiful lady's bio. All I have so far read are "pieces" in other bios. Do you know of any (in English, my French is pretty bad) on this fair-weather friend of the tragic queen.

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