Geoffrin, Marie-Thérèse (Marie-Thér

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GEOFFRIN, MARIE-THÉRèSE (Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin; 16991777)

GEOFFRIN, MARIE-THÉRèSE (Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin; 16991777), French Enlightenment salonnière ('host of literary salons'). Mme Geoffrin hosted intellectual conversations for important philosophes (writers and thinkers of the French Enlightenment), artists, musicians, and writers on Mondays and Wednesdays at her home on the fashionable rue Saint-Honoréin Paris. Born in Paris, the daughter of a valet to the dauphine and orphaned in her youth, Marie-Thérèse was raised by her grandmother, Mme Chemineau, who valued self-education. She prepared Marie-Thérèse religiously, morally, and socially for society. Although pedagogy did not concern Chemineau, she cultivated independent thought and reason in her granddaughter, characteristics later integral to the foundation of her renowned salon.

On 19 July 1713, the aging, and thus concerned, Chemineau, married fourteen-year-old Marie-Thérèse to the fifty-year-old Peter Francis Geoffrin, a wealthy manufacturer, and the prestigious director and a shareholder in the royal glass-works, Compagnie de Saint-Gobain. Geoffrin gave birth to two children, her namesake and a son who died at the age of ten. Her daughter, Mme de la Ferté-Imbault, wrote later of her parents' marital strife, her filial competition with Geoffrin, and the ultimate blessing of growing up among "great minds."

Geoffrin attended the salons of her neighbor, Mme Tencin, a celebrated salonnière who attracted many of the leading intellectuals of the day, including Helvétius and Montesquieu. Tencin was an undisputed mentor to Geoffrin, yet Geoffrin's letters emphasize her gratitude to Chemineau for encouraging her erudition. Geoffrin's instincts, her grandmother's guidance, and her exposure to the intellectual discourse at Mme Tencin's salons combined to fashion her probing mind. Geoffrin's husband did not share Geoffrin's intellectual drive, yet his financial support contributed to her initial success in 1748. Following the deaths of Tencin and her husband in 1749 and 1750, respectively, Geoffrin joined the board and management of the Saint-Gobain glassworks and welcomed the habitués of her mentor to her own salons. Geoffrin distinguished herself from her colleagues by the unparalleled and elevated exchange in her salons.

The diversity of intellects drawn to Mme Geoffrin's salons and her correspondence testify to the esteem in which prominent artistic, literary, and political circles held her. She established a serious purpose for the gatherings over which she presided, and her guests noted her skill in drawing worldly and erudite minds to her salons, a challenge to her brilliant rival, Mme du Deffand. Her contemporaries describe her integrity, distaste for conflict, and incomparable brilliance in navigating thorny subjects. On Mondays one found artists and sculptors including Carle Van Loo, François Boucher, and Étienne Maurice Falconet. On Wednesdays men of letters, including Denis Diderot, the art critic and editor of the Encyclopédie, and the editor Friedrich Melchior von Grimm were frequently in attendance.

Though Geoffrin shunned discord, she respected the process of civilized conversation and she harnessed runaway egos, maintaining a strict focus. Her motto, donner et pardonner, "to give and to pardon," describes the role she seemed born to play within the Republic of Letters (the intellectual and rational discourse of the Enlightenment facilitated by the polite conversation and letter-writing of salon culture). Geoffrin counted Catherine the Great, tsarina of Russia (ruled 17621796), and Stanisław Poniatowski, the last king of Poland (ruled 17641795), among her friends, and her letters to both rulers demonstrate the personal and political rapport they shared. In 1766 Geoffrin visited Poniatowski in Poland, a rare trip outside her beloved Paris.

Recent scholarship has reassessed Geoffrin's role, eschewing eighteenth-century views of women seeking recognition in the shadows of famous men. Geoffrin may have demonstrated what her friend André Morellet called "a little vainglory," yet she did not desire the celebrity she achieved through her salons. Her passion was education, and her goal was to propagate Enlightenment thought, evidenced particularly by assisting in the Encyclopédie 's rescue from its censors in 1759, paying 200,000 livres to facilitate production. Artistic images of her gatherings, for example, A. C. G. Lemonnier's An Evening at the Home of Mme Geoffrin in 1755, reveal a sophisticated Parisian woman who inspired intellectual risks and helped to govern the civilizing discourse of the French Enlightenment.

By 1777, her daughter, Mme Ferté-Imbault, had zealously insulated Geoffrin, who was suffering from erysipelas, a skin disorder, from her indebted following. Ferté-Imbault viewed this intellectual coterie as nothing more than a group of depraved infidels. Patronage of the Enlightenment did not mitigate Geoffrin's unyielding devotion as a Christian. She was humored by her daughter's fierce protection and determination to giver her a proper Christian burial. Shortly before her death, Geoffrin and Ferté-Imbault repaired the ancient enmity that had divided them. Saint-Beuve recalled Geoffrin's peerless influence, and the artist Mme Vigée-Lebrun described her unique legacy as remarkable for a woman of the eighteenth century. Geoffrin died in Paris on 6 October 1777.

See also Catherine II (Russia) ; Diderot, Denis ; Encyclopédie ; Enlightenment ; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; Philosophes ; Poniatowski, Stanisław II Augustus ; Republic of Letters ; Salons .


Primary Source

[Poniatowski, Stanisław, king of Poland, and Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin]. Correspondance inédite du roi Stanislas-Auguste Poniatowski et de Madame Geoffrin (17641777). Paris, 1875.

Secondary Sources

Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994.

Gutwirth, Madelyn. The Twilight of the Goddesses: Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era. New Brunswick, N.J., 1992.

Rosamond Hooper-Hamersley

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Geoffrin, Marie-Thérèse (Marie-Thér

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