The Salon Myth


Above is Anicet Lemonnier’s ‘Siecle de Voltaire’ (also ‘An Evening with Madame Geoffrin’), exhibited at the 1814 Louvre exhibition.  It depicts the salon of Madame Geoffrin in 1755, two years before Casanova’s second visit to France which is the setting of ‘Casanova Shadows’.  Madame Geoffrin was a wealthy businesswoman, socialite and noted patron of the arts.  She is seated in the front row, third from the right, surrounded by many of the great Enlightenment writers, musicians, painters, and scholars of the time. D’Alembert, Diderot, Rameau, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Helvetius and van Loo are just a few of the luminaries on show.  Oh, and Abbe de Bernis is there as well (front row, looking heavenwards, as befits a man of the cloth, near to the duc de Nirvais who is dressed in green).  Centre stage is a bust of the great Voltaire, the reading of whose play ‘L’Orphelin de la Chine’ was the reason for this particular occasion.  Voltaire could not be there in person as in 1734 he had been banished from Paris and was not officially invited back until 1778.

Lemonnier claimed that ‘Siecle de Voltaire’ represented an actual event and it contains several of the elements that historians have traditionally associated with salon culture: a gathering of the high-minded and sophisticated elite of French society and beyond, bound together by the sort of radical intellectual and artistic pursuit that was at the core of the Enlightenment; an unusually egalitarian assembly in this most privileged based society, where both aristocracy and bourgeoisie could socialise and be treated according to their merits rather than their pedigree; a place where women, such as Madame Geoffrin, could exert considerable influence despite their gender.  A quick bit of Googling confirms this accepted history:

The salons of Early Modern Revolutionary France played an integral role in the cultural and intellectual development of France.  The salons were seen by contemporary writers as a cultural hub, responsible for the dissemination of good manners and sociability.  It was not merely manners that the salons supposedly spread but also ideas, as the salons became a centre of intellectual as well as social exchange, playing host to many members of the Republic of Letters. In contrast to other Early Modern institutions, women played an important and visible role within the salons. (‘Salon’, Wikipedia)

The philosophes and the salonnières [the women who lead the salons] worked together to achieve the ends of philosophy broadly set up as the project of the Enlightenment. Their base was the Parisian salons, where networks of social and intellectual exchange were developed to connect Paris, the capital of the Enlightenment and the City of Light, with the rest of France. (‘The Salons of the Enlightenment’, France in the Age of Les Miserables)

In 18th century France, salons were organised gatherings hosted in private homes, usually by prominent women. Individuals were invited to salons to discuss literature and share their views and opinions. Guests at salons usually came from the haute bourgeoisie or nobility; most were educated, well read and informed about politics, current affairs and intellectual debates. (‘The Salons’, Alpha History)

Unfortunately, this orthodoxy, rather like Anicet Lemonnier’s ‘Siecle de Voltaire’, is based upon a fiction. In her fascinating 2006 PhD thesis, ‘The Problem of the Enlightenment Salon’, Nancy W Collins demonstrates that modern conceptions of the salon stem from a nineteenth-century re-imagining of the realities of the Ancien Regime of pre-Revolutionary France.

Collins first of all traces back the claims made by twentieth-century historians:

Several academics have analysed the exceptional origins of the salon, whereby a few elite women set out to create a new institution, taking considerable risk to transform their homes from sites of leisured sociability into serious working places. They have studied the unique steps these women took to assert their political independence from the aristocratic men who had long dominated the public realm of France (and Europe), and have elaborated on the economic and social lengths that these women went to in order to ensure its success. In detailing how these salonnieres selected the themes, priorities, and participants, scholars have accorded these leaders a high degree of historical significance for the salon’s considerable results. (Nancy W Collins, ‘The Problem of the Enlightenment Salon’)

Although the concept of the salon as a social institution had been around since the very late nineteenth century, historians did not ascribe to it the significance they do today until the second half of the twentieth century.  The scholar who was key to this historical re-evaluation was the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas.  He argued that the salon was an example of a number of social spaces, including book clubs and coffee houses, that had grown up in urban environments.  Uninhibited by social norms and hierarchies, these public spaces enabled a free flow of ideas that ultimately challenged the ideological underpinnings of an absolutist state.  Collins writes: ‘The salon, he argued, served as a site of opposition to aristocratic culture, one that strove to break free of the monarchical stranglehold and to establish an egalitarian society’.

The salon was thus transformed into a proto-democratic organisation.  Other scholars, such as the historians Francois Furet, Maurice Agulhon and Marc Fumaroli, began to build upon this idea until the salon was perceived as occupying a place of pivotal political, intellectual and literary importance.  By the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first:

They presented a story of the Enlightenment salon as triumphant and heroic, representing the abstract ideals of the era: liberty, equality, and rationality. The salon, they argued, was at the centre of the birth of their modem era and integrated the institution into France’s overall political and cultural achievements. (Nancy W Collins, ‘The Problem of the Enlightenment Salon’)

Historians also re-assessed the role of women. In the 1970s and 1980s, gender bias typically led to the role of women being neglected or minimised even as the significance of the salon was being elevated: at best, they were adornments or supporting players; at worst, gossips immersed in social rivalry.  As the study of women’s history gathered pace, however, this characterisation was challenged by historians such as Deena Goodman.  Now the salonnière became a dominant and transformational figure, able to hold her own with the men around her and able to create a space in which Enlightenment discourse could flourish.

Inevitably, other themes and disputes enlivened this new Habermassian paradigm, such as the relationship of salon culture to seventeenth-century traditions or to elite sociability, but for the most part the fundamental assumptions as to the existence and nature of the salon institution were not disputed.

Collins analysis of eighteenth-century letters, journals and dictionaries, however, reveals that the term ‘salon’ only referred to a novel type of room.  No social significance was attached to it.  ‘Salons’, ‘salles’ and ‘sallettes’ were introduced by architects in the late seventeenth century, promoted to cater for the different needs of their clientele, and by the middle of the eighteenth century they had become popular amongst the elite.  She notes that there were: ‘salons dejeux (game rooms), salons du Billard (billiard rooms), salons and sallettes des musiques (music rooms), salons and salles des bains (bathing rooms), salons de compagnie (company rooms), salles and sallettes a manger (dining rooms)’.

It was only from the middle of the nineteenth century that dictionary and encyclopaedic definitions of ‘salon’ moved beyond this physical definition to include ‘good society’.  Entries then expanded further to signify a gathering of polite society, to refer to the now famous supposed salonnières Vichy du Deffand and Madame Geoffrin, and to identify the importance of its literary and political role.  It was by the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century that ‘salon’ came to be understood as a social institution in a way that would be familiar to a modern audience.

Of course, it could be objected that the fact that the term ‘salon’ was not in use in the eighteenth century in the way it is used today does not necessarily mean that social interactions of the sort now understood by the term ‘salon’ did not take place.  Maybe instead of at ‘salons’, these worthy and high-minded citizens were pursuing their Enlightenment interests at ‘soupers’, ‘dîners’, or ‘maisons ouvertes’.  Unfortunately, there is little evidence in the historical record that this was the case.  Collins observes: ‘The rosy ideal of the salon story simply does not stand up when compared to the records of these individuals’ everyday lives, interactions, and experiences’.  The entertainments and social whirl of aristocratic and bourgeois Paris was described by contemporaries in great detail and there is little resembling the sort of salons depicted by Lemonnier.  Alongside fine dining, the social interactions of this fiercely competitive beau monde revolved around gambling, theatricals, fashion, game playing, witty conversation, gossip, flirting, hobnobbing with one’s betters, networking and generally showing off.  Obsessive attention to manners and etiquette, since time immemorial a way of distinguishing the wheat from the chaff, was also very much in evidence: hardly the mark of tolerance and egalitarianism.

But what of those great salonnières such as Marie Geoffrin (1699 – 1777) and Marie Vichy du Deffand (1696 – 1780)?

Upon the death of her husband in 1749 Madam Geoffrin become the owner of the famous Saint-Gobain mirror and glass manufacturer and until the 1760s much of her time was spent immersed in her business.  In her letters, she described her daily life and visitors recorded their impressions of her. By the 1760s and 1770s, she had become exceptionally rich and used her wealth as a philanthropist and generous patron of the arts.  She was well connected (she corresponded with Catherine the Great of Russia) and enjoyed travel.  She spent some time in Poland as a guest of the future king of Poland, where she did, in fact, meet Casanova, who described her as ‘an old sweetheart of the king’s’ and ‘the object of universal admiration’.  She was also a particular devotee of soupers and dîners both as guest and host.

The contemporary historical record is similarly rich with regards to Vichy du Deffand, who in her journals and correspondence wrote in detail about her daily life.  Her letters alone come to over 1,500.  Deffand was a determined socialite and regular party goer who, in particular, adored the souper and loved to gamble.  She herself hosted soupers for as many as thirty people at a time in her apartment at the rue Saint Dominique, upon the decoration and furnishing of which she spent large sums in order to create a convivial environment.  For further entertainment, she provided gambling tables in her dining room for her guests, who were frequently noisy, so much so that one neighbour at least complained.  Deffand was a noblewoman who relied upon allowances from her aristocratic peers.  Unsurprisingly, her politics were conservative.  She believed in a stable hierarchy as typified by the Ancien Regime.  She did not possess the sort of liberal, social reformist attitudes you might have expected from an Enlightenment salonnière.

In both the case of Geoffrin and Deffand, had they, in fact, been celebrated Enlightenment salonnières (whether or not the particular terms ‘salon’ or ‘salonnière’ were deployed) there should have been ample proof to substantiate this, either amongst their own records or the records of others who attended their salons. What we have, instead, is evidence of the sort of high society preoccupations characteristic of the lives of most Parisian aristocrats and bourgeoisie of the time (which would, of course, have included notable Enlightenment figures).  The mere concurrence of a philosophe or two and a Geoffrin, Deffand or Lespinasse a salon does not make.

So how did this state of affairs come about?  How could several generations of scholars across various fields of study devote so much work to a phenomenon that never existed?  The answer lies with the French Revolution.

The events of 1789 turned France upside down.  The old social structures and hierarchies were destroyed.  Large numbers of the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie found their previously respectable lives swept away.  Unsurprisingly, many had little sympathy for this new world and harked back with fondness to the old.  After the demise of the Revolution and of Napoleon they began to challenge the Revolutionary critiques of the Ancien Regime, memorialising a pre-Revolutionary France that was cultured and harmonious.  The painter Anicet Lemonnier, whose promising career was cut short by the Revolution, was amongst those who re-imagined life before the overthrow of Louis XVI.  Resurrecting his career in the early 1800s, his painting depicted pre-Revolutionary French elites as cultured and generous, a time when the arts and scholarship flourished under their paternal and appreciative gaze, in stark contrast to the destruction of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era of more recent memory.  Nowhere is this made more apparent than in ‘Siecle de Voltaire’ above, and which was to be popularised through an engraving by Debucourt:

In this carefully-contrived group portrait, Lemonnier constructed a harmonious eighteenth-century metropolitan elite. Differences were downplayed; allegiances to an overarching ideal were emphasised; a perfect model of intellectual sociability and production was promoted. Some individuals known to have been at odds with each other, who indeed could hardly stand the sight of each other, were portrayed here rubbing shoulders. (Nancy W Collins, ‘The Problem of the Enlightenment Salon’)

The restoration of the French monarchy in 1814 was obviously conducive to this reinterpretation of the past.  Scholars such as Andre Morellet and Jacques Delille shared similar experiences to that of Lemonnier and likewise promulgated an idealisation of the Ancien Regime that focussed upon its civilised and refined sociability and its willingness to welcome and nurture men of talent.  They challenged portrayals of pre-1789 France as a place of immorality and corruption. Morellet’s ‘Eloge to Madame Geoffrin’ and his own memoirs detailed and glorified the gatherings and conversations that took place in the private homes of the Parisian elite while Delille drew parallels between the cultured sociability of the ancient Greeks and the Ancien Regime.  This idealisation of the past became widely accepted, along with the leadership roles of Geoffrin and Duffand.  The term ‘salon’ in the sense understood today also began to evolve during this period.  Laure Junot, Duchess of Abrantes and supporter of the Bourbons, was a prolific writer and highly regarded as someone who provided an authentic account of pre-Revolutionary France.  In the late 1830s she published a six volume ‘Histoire des salons de Paris’ which endorsed and championed the narrative of a stable, affluent and cultured Bourbon era. Although this portrayal of salons was sharply criticised by republicans who attacked them for being decadent and corrupt, crucially they did not question the fact of their existence. Thus it was that the fiction of the salon became historical fact and by the turn of twentieth century had made its way into various popular histories and thereby into the consciousness of a broader public.

With each retelling, the early nineteenth-century creation of the salon institution became more obscured and multiplying narratives shrouded the eighteenth-century practices. Nostalgia, legacy, and contemporary political partisanship created considerable distance from eighteenth-century individuals, places, and practices. This has been the disconnect between the extant documentation and the popular retelling of the Enlightenment salon story. (Nancy W Collins, ‘The Problem of the Enlightenment Salon’)

Dave Thompson (2017)

Pinterest Board: The Salon Myth