The Salon: A Model of Sociability for European Elites?

The salon, along with the academy, masonic lodge, and coffehouse, was one of the centers of high-society and intellectual sociability during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most often associated with the city of Paris where it was born, it simultaneously evokes the refinement of aristocratic life, frivolity of society entertainments, and depth of conversation between fine intellects. Beyond Lemonnier’s painting, which stages the (imaginary) reading of Voltaire’s L’orphelin de la Chine at Madame Geoffrin’s, the salon refers to a complex reality because it placed diverse social categories in relation with one another (princes du sang, men of letters of various stature, cultured bourgeois, etc.), as well as fulfilled a number of functions: to entertain of course, but also to promote the debate of ideas, circulate knowledge, and create distinction within the elite. A symbol of French culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this practice was acclaimed throughout Europe, and sometimes imitated, but only with relative success.

Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1743-1824), Reading of Voltaire’s Tragedy L’orphelin de la Chine in Madame Geoffrin’s Salon, oil on canvas, 129.5 x 196 cm, 1812, Château de Malmaison. Source : Wikimedia Commons

During the eighteenth century, “salon” was an architectural term designating a large reception room. Until the French Revolution, the words “circle” or “society” were used to denote this form of private sociability, which was always located outside of court, and in which the lady of the house welcomed guests carefully selected beforehand. The term, which was anachronistic to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, designates various locations that shared a common practice of conviviality by urban elites. A few characteristics emerge, including the central role of women, gender diversity among guests, the importance and consistency of hospitality, the great codification of these meetings, as well as the social function attributed to them by participants. These salons constituted a social space that contemporaries called “Le monde” [Society].

Conversation and writing, preciosity and gallantry during the seventeenth century

Salons appeared in France in the early seventeenth century. Their model was sketched out by the marquise de Rambouillet (Catherine de Vivonne, 1588-1665), who from 1608 to 1659 brought together in her private mansion near the Louvre the great intellects of her time: Guez de Balzac, Voiture, La Rochefoucauld, Madame de Sévigné, Malherbe, etc. Following upon Madeleine de Scudéry, the duchesse de Longueville and others introduced within their Parisian mansions manners and an intellectual life inspired by the court, but at a distance from the monarch. They promoted the appearance of new practices of writing and the development of a new esthetic, called “galante” [gallant] or “précieuse” [precious]. Initially a Parisian and aristocratic phenomenon, salons subsequently increased in the provinces and among the bourgeoisie. The height of the phenomenon took place during the 1650s, before the attraction of Louis XIV’s court brought the center of gravity for high-society life to Versailles. 

Rich and well-born, salonnières nevertheless needed the authorization of a tolerant husband, or his absence, in order to host society. They were self-taught—for young girls received only a basic education—as well as cultured and curious. They considered the salon as a place for learning and the circulation of knowledge, particularly in matters of science, even though belles-lettres, eloquence, and sentiments made up most of the conversation. Finally, for them the salon represented the context in which they could begin to write, albeit without publishing. While the letters of the marquise de Sévigné were always circulated in manuscript, and the comtesse de Lafayette never admitted to writing La princesse de Clèves, many of them are today considered as authors in their own right. This initial period of salons was thus the first moment in which the world of letters and certain segments of the urban aristocracy connected. These French salons, which were led by women, did not have a real equivalent in seventeenth century Europe. In England, the revolution of the 1640-1650s disorganized high-society life and favored coffeehouses and spa vacations to the detriment of salons. In the Germanic world, intellectual sociabilities remained linked to universities, while the late development of court manners and German-language literature were also a curb.

Republic of Letters, the Enlightenment, and politics during the eighteenth century

During the ensuing century, salons increased once again in Paris, numbering sixty-two under the reign of Louis XVI. Like those of the seventeenth century, these salons were simultaneously a meeting space and a singular form of sociability dominated by women, even though gender diversity was still conventional. Salonnières were not all aristocrats, such as the duchesses de La Vallière and de Luxembourg. Mme Geoffrin (1699-1777) was the wife of the director of the Saint-Gobain factory, and Mme Necker (1737-1794), the wife of Louis XVI’s finance minister, was the daughter of a Swiss pastor. 

“With people from the salons, the primary everyday concern is to be entertained,” commented Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814). People played there, ate, drank tea, performed theater, or practiced particular forms of literature such as amorous poetry or epistolary art. However, during the eighteenth century, it was no longer a space in which women asserted themselves as authors. Their role, through their welcome and conversation, was seen as having a civilizing effect in the social and political order of the time. Respect for politeness and the rules of high-society savoir-vivre were essential in ensuring the quality of exchanges within society, in equal measure to the characteristics of wit and genius possessed by others. The hostess ensured this was the case, which is why she chose her guests carefully based on social criteria, reputation, and in the case of artists, talent. Whatever their geographical or social origins, regular visitors came to constitute “good society.” For all that, the salon did not eliminate social distinctions or inequality, but rather shifted them. It brought together the urban aristocracy and some men of letters around a series of shared values. In these conditions, it was also a place where the social dynamics of the high-society space played out. It created a new hierarchy in which the man of the world—not necessarily noble—dethroned the courtier.

An interface between a number of environments (court, litterary circles, the world of politics, etc.), the salon was also a node for the circulation of political, literary, and high-society information. Certain reputations or careers were made or undone there. News and rumors were debated. Certain salons became a breeding ground of opposition, such as that of the duc Étienne François de Choiseul (1719-1785) in Chanteloup. Foreigners traveling through used them as relays to promote their politics. For Enlightenment writers, it was a space for gathering material advantages, protection, and a social base. Far from representing a world closed onto itself, salons were at the heart of eighteenth-century social, cultural, and political mechanisms. Even so, they cannot be confused with the public sphere. They were not a space that was open or accessible, such as cafés, and the debates held there were based on social complicity that most often resulted in judgments with no political impact.

Owing to the growing mobility of elites and the influence of French culture, this form of sociability led to imitations in eighteenth-century Europe, from Russia and the United Kingdom to Sweden and Italy. The phenomenon was nevertheless much more modest than in France. The central role of women and the presence of men of letters were less evident. A few salons held by women appeared during the second half of the century: Henriette Herz (1764-1847) held a salon in Berlin, and the comtess Caterina Vignati di Saint-Gilles (1714-1800) in Turin. Despite the highly masculine character of the political and cultural sociability connected to the Curia, a few women also asserted their presence in Roman social life. In England, intellectual sociability was especially concentrated in cafés and clubs. Their clientele was therefore masculine, less high-society, and more politicized, and the cafés were especially based on a commercial logic. The exceptional nature of the “Bluestocking circle” formed in London by the woman of letters Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) is thus all the more striking. In the end, despite its European reputation, the French model had difficulty adapting to national contexts due to the gap in most countries separating the world of court elites from intellectual circles.

Translated by Arby Gharibian

To quote from this article

Marion Brétéché , « The Salon: A Model of Sociability for European Elites? », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 22/06/20 , consulted on 14/04/2024. Permalink :


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