Marie-Louise (Louison) O’Morphi: Royal Mistress

The life and loves of Marie-Louise O’Morphi (1736-1815) are widely chronicled by historians and other writers. She ranks amongst the “dauntless and daring women of the Gael” whose unorthodox lives became legendary in pushing the boundaries of political, religious, social and cultural limits with varying degrees of fame or notoriety. Louison has been recounted in story telling over time and was dramatised in the 1997 novel Our Lady of the Potatoes. She is profiled in Marian Broderick’s book Wild Irish Women, Extraordinary lives from history (2001), pp.348.
As Mademoiselle de Morphy or ‘la belle Morphise’, she is known by other names. Her legal name O’Murphy, O’Murchadha (murchadh, sea warrior), is the most common name in Ireland from three Gaelic septs. The resumption of the prefixes O and Mac which is a modern tendency with most Gaelic-Irish names, has not taken place in the case of Murphy.
Marie-Louise (Louison) O’Morphi (1736-1815)
Born on 21 October 1736 to Irish immigrant parents in Rouen France, she was the youngest of five sisters. Her grandfather fled to France after defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the first major battle in the wars (1689-91) between the Jacobites and Williamites. James II commanded an Irish army of 25,000 including 7,000 French and William III led an army of 36,000 including English, Dutch, French, German, Danish and Ulster Protestant regiment. In the wake of defeat, James II fled to France where he died.
Her father was Daniel O’Murphy de Boisfaily of Rouen, and her mother Margaret, née Hickey, is described as a “none-too-good” Irish woman. He had been an Irish officer serving at the court of James II at Saint-Germain-en-Laye who, like his father, had taken up shoemaking in France. Described as beautiful, trim and round, Louison was convent educated, learned music, and did not miss an opportunity to allude to her purportedly noble Irish lineage to reinforce her own image and, in later years, to advance the career of her illegtimate son who remained devoted to her.
On the death of her father they were penniless and Louison’s mother moved with her family to Paris working as second-hand clothes merchant while finding work for her daughters as ‘actresses or models’. The O’Murphy sisters variously started to bring in money as actresses, dancers, artists’ models, dealers in fake jewels and live-in mistresses. At one point they lived in Saint-Germain-en-Laye where James II had died in exile which had subsequently become a gathering place for Jacobites. The family ended up settling in the quarter of Montorgueil in Paris.
Between 1750 and 1752 the famous eighteenth century Italian adventurer, Giovanni Giacomo Casanova (1725-98), was staying with a friend across the street from the O’Murphys. In his partly disputed memoir titled ‘Histoire de ma Vie’ (History of my Life), he relates his encounters with many women including the O’Murphy sisters being particularly struck by the beauty of Marie-Louise, boasting he once spent a surprisingly chaste evening in her company.
At a young age, Casanova introduced her to the controversial and prolific French painter at court, Francois Boucher (1703-77) for whom she posed in a series of paintings. She became his lover and notoriously modelled in a series of some of his most erotic nudes in the history of art. His pictures of nude models were extensively displayed at the royal court. Casanova may have facilitated her introduction to Louis XV but it was after viewing the 1752 erotic oil painting of Marie-Louse that King Louis XV summoned her to the French court said to be drawn by her beauty, youth and innocence. The family was handsomely compensated and became rich. Louison became known as “la petite reine de Louis XV”.
Boucher’s 1752 nude painting Resting Girl Marie-Louise O’Murphy hangs in the Alte Pinakothec, Munich and was recently on display at an exhibition in Berlin. Another version is in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne. A similar painting believed to be of Louison’s older sister hangs in Le Louvre; it also exists in a clothed version in Turkish costume titled ‘Miss Victoire O’Murphy’. The French philosopher, Denis Diderot (1713-84) accused Boucher of “prostituting his own wife” as he had her pose for erotic pictures that he sold to wealthy collectors. The pose of Boucher models has since been used by painters and photographers interpreting his earlier work.
Royal Mistress
Captivated by her looks, good humour and apparent naiveté, she quickly became one of the younger mistresses of King Louis XV. Called Sirette, feminine of Sire, by her royal lover she was popular at the French court. Unlike his celebrated mistresses, Mme de Pompadour (whom Louison called “la vieille”) and Countess du Barry, the King’s mistresses lived outside the palace provided with a home and transport to be at his disposal when summoned. Louison bore him some illegitimate children, the first by the age of seventeen, from whom she was separated at birth.
Assuming she had gained special favour with Louis XV she was involved in a court plot to oust Madame de Pompadour, a blunder that badly backfired. She was banished from Versailles being married off to an army officer, Comte de Beaufranchet, to live as a lady of rank in a chateau in Auvergne. Cast out from court life and pregnant with another of the king’s children, she suffered a second blow when her husband was killed at the Battle of Rossbach in 1757 at which Frederich the Great smashed the combined Franco-Austrian army. She still bedded the King but her role was changing subtly. As well as being a bed mate herself, she started to procure young virgins for his royal pleasure. Louis XV’s appetite for women was voracious requiring a constant provision.
In time she became partly rehabilitated and by 1759 the King and Madame de Pompadour were seeking another husband for Louison. Her new husband was given an important job as a steward to the king’s brother. For Louison it meant a move away from the wilds of Auvergne and back to her beloved Paris. Eventually King Louis even summoned little Louis Charles to court as a page, thereby tacitly acknowledging the child’s royal paternity. She lived in comfortable prosperity for the next twenty five years. Her rival, Mme de Pompadour, died and was replaced by Mme du Barry. Louis XV died and was replaced by Louis XVI. Now a woman in her fifties Louison was well preserved and wealthy and secure in her position as a woman of fashion.
Louis XV’s weak reign and influence of his mistresses, especially Mme de Pompadour and Mme du Barry, helped lead to the French Revolution under Louis XVI. Due to her royal connections Louison was imprisoned for a time during the Reign of Terror (1793-94). Thanks to her influential son, she narrowly escaped the guillotine when he arranged for his mother to be transferred to a different convent prison and granted a reprieve. By then she changed her name back to Louise Murphy playing on her humble Irish roots and dissociating herself from her royalist past.
Louison was divorced by her third husband, thirty years her junior, whom she married at the age of sixty-one. She survived many years of political turmoil and died in Paris on 11 December 1815. Her funeral mass took place at Saint Roche, traditionally considered the artists church. She was buried in the cemetery of Pére Lachaise, Paris.
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At the time of her death, Saint Roche was to hold a commemoration service for another scion of Irish émigré in France, Jean-Baptiste MacNamara, or MacNemara, a second generation Irish immigrant who rose through the ranks of the French navy to become Vice-Admiral just before his death in 1756, aged sixty eight.
Ita Marguet, December 2011
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text. MacNamaras of Co. Clare: A place in French history is the subject of a separate text by the author, written in 2004.