Geoffrin, Marie Thérèse (1699–1777)

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Geoffrin, Marie Thérèse (1699–1777)

One of the most famous of the 18th-century salonnières, whose salon was the intellectual home of influential writers, philosophers, and artists of the period, including the Encyclopedists, many of whom received her financial support . Name variations: Geofrin. Pronunciation: Marie Tur-ESS Jeff-RAN. Born Marie Thérèse Rodet in 1699 in Paris, France; died on October 6, 1777, in Paris; daughter of Pierre Rodet (a valet de chambre of the French royal court) and the former Mlle Chemineau (daughter of a banker); married Pierre François Geoffrin, on July 19, 1713; children: Marie Thérèse Geoffrin, later the Marquise de la Ferté-Imbault (b. 1715) and a son (b. 1717) who did not survive childhood.

Attended salon of the Marquise de Tencin, which opened her intellectual world (1730); established her salon (1737); supported the work of the Encyclopedists, including Diderot, D'Alembert, and many others (1750s–60s); commissioned many works of art, including over 60 paintings (1750–70); was guest of King Stanislaus Augustus of Poland and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary (1766).

It has been said of uneducated women that "Ignorance forces a woman who is not stupid to make great use of her brains," and there is probably no better example of this axiom in history than the 18th-century Frenchwoman known as Mme Geoffrin. Orphaned at age seven, poorly educated, and married off at the age of 15 to a man 33 years her senior, she became a patron of the arts, a supporter of the intellectual enterprise known as the Encyclopédie, and the most important social and literary arbiter of her age. Among her correspondents she counted the Empress Catherine II the Great of Russia, King Stanislaus Augustus of Poland, and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria . Her Paris salon at no. 372 Rue Saint Honoré remained a gathering place of artists and women and men of letters for more than a quarter century. Although she acquired great social power and influence, she was known chiefly as a generous patron and friend of the poor, epitomizing the spirit of the period of the Enlightenment in which she lived.

Marie Thérèse Rodet was born in Paris in 1699, daughter of Pierre Rodet, a valet de chambre at the court of King Louis XIV. Her mother, the former Mlle Chemineau , was the daughter of a banker, whose family passed on its solid bourgeois values to Marie Thérèse. Mlle Chemineau died giving birth to a son Louis when Marie Thérèse was a year old. When Marie Thérèse was seven, her father died, leaving both children to be brought up by their maternal grandmother, Mme Chemineau , a traditionalist who did not endorse education for women. Marie Thérèse was taught to read, but writing was little emphasized, and her spelling was notorious. Throughout her life, many would note her lack of education. Deprived of disciplined studies, she learned to enter into the feelings of others rather than express her own opinions, a skill she developed into a fine art. But the limitations of her upbringing were typical of the time. "She taught me in my childhood simply to read," wrote Geoffrin of her grandmother, "but she made me read much; she taught me to think by making me reason; she taught me to know men by making me say what I thought of them.… My educa tion was continual."

On July 19, 1713, Marie Thérèse Rodet married François Geoffrin, whom she had met at daily mass at the Church of St. Roche. François had been left wealthy by a brief first marriage to an elderly widow and had invested his inheritance in the Compagnie de Saint-Gobain, the glass works of which he became administrator. Mme Chemineau viewed the union as ideal, since François was a well-to-do, respected man, who could also serve as a father figure to both his young wife and her brother. Marie Thérèse brought a substantial dowry to this marriage, and after two years the couple had a daughter, Marie Thérèse, born in 1715. Two years later, a son was born who died at the age of ten. Mme Chemineau did not live to see her grandson born.

At age 18, the young Geoffrin was thus in charge of her two young children and her brother Louis. A sensible soul given to an ordered life—who knew the value of money and never indulged in flashy dress or jewels—she adhered to a soberly bourgeois lifestyle. But in 1730, the life of the Geoffrin family was forever changed, after Mme de Tencin (1685–1749) came to live nearby on the Rue Saint Honoré. Famed for organizing notorious fêtes for Philippe II, duke of Orléans, regent to the young King Louis XV, at Saint-Cloud, Mme de Tencin was not one who would be expected to share many interests with the sober and industrious Mme Geoffrin. Nevertheless, the two became friends, and the younger woman became a frequent guest in the home of Mme de Tencin, where she entered a new world inhabited by such illustrious intellectuals as Montesquieu, Fontenelle, and La Motte-Houdard. The table at the home of Mme de Tencin was not sumptuous, however, and when Geoffrin began to invite the same prominent figures to dinner at one o'clock on Wednesday afternoons, the good food, wine, and conversation she offered was a real drawing card. Thus was the salon of Mme Geoffrin born.

In 18th-century France, it was possible for women to reach great ascendancy. A succession of royal mistresses formed a virtual dynasty based on authentic political power. Other women achieved equal influence in literature and the arts by acting as host in their salons. To create a salon required a good host and literary lions who would attend, and it was said of such salonnières, "Hostesses, like poets, are born, not made." In essence, these women were in charge of the clearing houses for the creative and intellectual thought of their time, because a philosopher, playwright, poet, or artist could find it difficult to gain recognition without their stamp of approval. Compared to Hollywood in the late 20th century, these women of Paris were the superagents of their age.

The salons were also important in raising the general status of artists. Prior to the 18th century, artists had generally been treated as servants rather than as independent creators capable of unique contributions, and the patronage provided by the nobility reinforced their lowly status, allowing them to be ordered about. In the salon of

Mme de Tencin, the prestige of artistic accomplishment was on the rise, according some artists the same status as aristocrats, while the role of the hostesses in their salons expanded beyond the confines of social entertainment. Gifted artists, writers, and philosophers were launched through these social mentors, who advertised their work, provided them with desirable contacts, and gave financial assistance.

Geoffrin was in no sense an intellectual luminary, but in her time she was the most powerful of the salonnières. Never overawed by the prominent and powerful, she disliked controversy, so politics were rarely the topic under discussion in her salon. If other talk became too heated, she might halt the conversation with the phrase, "Voilà qui est bien." Religious, even somewhat devout, she was also open minded, welcoming members of the intellectual group known as the Encyclopedists at her table, although she did not share their anti-clerical ideology. Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, Lord Shelbourne, and Stanislaus Augustus, later king of Poland, were regular guests at her dinners, as well as Horace Walpole, Grimm, and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Following the dinner, there would be other guests to join in an invigorating exchange of ideas. Some described no. 372 Rue Saint Honoré as the place where the aristocracy of genius met the aristocracy of birth.

Mme Geoffrin's salon was considered the center of the philosophical movement partly because of her sponsorship of the Encyclopédie. She was known as the "foster mother of the philosophers," and her contributions to this immense undertaking were greater than many realized at the time. The very first enterprise of its kind, it took many years to complete, and there is evidence that the publishers were on the verge of ruin in 1759. Geoffrin provided much of the funds for Diderot and D'Alembert as well as lesser contributors like Marmontel and Morellet, to carry out the basic research and writing of the encyclopedia's entries. Providing regular stipends as well as publicizing the work and introducing the writers to influential members of her extensive network, she made a critical difference, in ways great and small, leading to the work's publication. In sheer monetary terms, her daughter later estimated that she had contributed the vast sum of more than 100,000 livres and some estimates are as high as 200,000 livres. With typical largess, she also refurnished the study of Diderot, supplying leather chairs, deep-red damask for the walls, an intricate marquetry desk, and a gold-and-bronze clock. In response, Diderot was inspired to write a pamphlet, Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre, a comedic lament for his old furniture.

Equality of sex, of mind, and of person was never more conspicuous than in the salon of the 18th century.

—Helen Clergue

Mme Geoffrin did not confine her support to literature, however, as she also sponsored an artistic salon. Noticing that the artists always drew apart at her Wednesday receptions, she began sponsoring a Monday dinner just for them which was organized by M. de Caylus, the artist and archeologist. Although china, bronzes, tapestries, sculpture, and furniture were all pleasing to her, she personally preferred paintings and commissioned at least 60 between 1750 and 1770. Sponsoring the works of Van Loo, Vernet, Boucher, La Tour, and Greuze, she provided other artists with stipends and gifts. Her two most famous commissioned paintings, by C.A. Van Loo, La Conversation espagnole and La Lecture, were sold to Catherine the Great in 1772 and now hang in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Hubert Robert, an artist she supported, painted his patron and himself. He is in a gray suit standing by his easel, while she is in a stiff, black-lace bonnet.

Women other than the hostess were usually excluded from salons, and for a while Geoffrin moved almost exclusively in male circles. A sociable person with many friends, she instituted petits soupers for her women friends to share light meals and conversation. Apart from Mme de Tencin, her friendships with women included Julie de Lespinasse , a companion and helper of the celebrated marquise Marie Deffand , who was much loved by D'Alembert. The salon of Marie Deffand declined as she became blind and increasingly cantankerous in old age, and when conditions became intolerable for Lespinasse, Geoffrin provided her young friend with funds for an apartment and servants so that she could begin her own salon.

Although Geoffrin was unobtrusive in her giving, stories of her generosity were legion. One friend who called on her unexpectedly on a Sunday found her making up bags of coins to distribute to the poor. When the artist Van Loo died, she bought two of his pictures for 4,000 livres and sold them shortly thereafter to a Russian prince for 50,000 livres; she then sent the difference to the artist's widow. When two workers delivered a vase from the famous sculptor Bouchardon, she pointed out a broken lid, and the men acknowledged the breakage, saying that the third worker who was responsible had been afraid to make the delivery. Geoffrin promised not to mention the breakage and later sent a servant with money for the hapless worker and his friends. Since many donations were made unobtrusively, no one knows the full extent of her generosity.

As the 18th century progressed, Geoffrin's reputation became international. She corresponded with the empresses Maria Theresa and Catherine the Great. She was also a great friend of King Stanislaus of Poland who had arrived in Paris at the age of 19 as Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski. When he was put in debtors' prison after a short sojourn, Mme Geoffrin paid his debts, and a close friendship ensued. In fact, he called her "Maman," and she referred to him as her "son," perhaps hoping to replace her son who died. Stanislaus later became a favorite at the court of Catherine the Great, who rewarded him with the crown of Poland.

When Geoffrin was 67, she was invited by Stanislaus to his capital. She was ecstatic at the prospect, having rarely left Paris, and was unaware of the conditions awaiting her on the roads and in filthy inns along her journey, which took several weeks. As she had a poor opinion of Frederick the Great, she bypassed Berlin in favor of traveling through Vienna and was given a royal welcome at the court of the Empress Maria Theresa, the future emperor Joseph II, and the little archduchess Marie Antoinette . From Poland, she wrote enthusiastic letters about the new king, and reports of her progress circulated throughout Europe. After the journey, however, her correspondence ceased with Catherine the Great, who was annoyed that Geoffrin had not chosen to extend her journey as far as St. Petersburg.

Little is recorded about the husband of Mme Geoffrin. A quiet presence, he attended the Monday and Wednesday dinners but rarely said a word, and lived to be 84. Shortly after his death, a guest inquired about the whereabouts of the elderly gentleman, wondering who he was. His widow replied: "That was my husband. He is dead."

The excellent relationships that Geoffrin enjoyed with people from all stations in life unfortunately did not extend at all times to her daughter. The young Marie Thérèse complained constantly about patching up quarrels between her parents, which may explain something of their rift. Her daughter also did not share much of her enthusiasm for Enlightenment ideas. Like her mother, however, young Marie Thérèse was placed in a loveless marriage, to the Marquis de la Ferté-Imbault, when she was 18 and he was 21. She lived with his family for four years until his sudden death. Then, as a 22-year-old widow with a seven-month-old daughter, she returned to the home of her mother. The young marquise began writing and sponsored a counter-salon, called the Order of Lanturelus, which was a forum for the intellectual movement of anti-philosophers.

Despite her association with many who considered themselves agnostic, Geoffrin was religious throughout her life. She often went on retreat at the Convent of the Abbey of Saint Antoine, where she is immortalized in a painting by Robert, shown seated among the nuns. During religious exercises for the jubilee of 1776, she took a chill and was incapacitated shortly thereafter by a stroke. Her daughter kept watch by her bedside, deciding who could see her ailing mother.

Since many of the philosophes were turned away, there was bitterness over the Marquise de la Ferté-Imbault's control over the patient. During the yearlong illness, Mme Geoffrin was visited by the future emperor of Austria, Joseph II, who stayed for two hours, but her contacts were limited. She died on October 6, 1777.

Had she reached the end of the century, Geoffrin would probably have been surprised by the bloodiness of the French Revolution, which claimed its ideological inheritance from those who met regularly in her salon. Such revolutionary upheaval surely would not have met with her approval. Yet the concepts of freedom, equality, and representative government frequently aired in her salon were the ideals fought for then and are the ideals that continue to be cherished.


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Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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Geoffrin, Marie Thérèse (1699–1777)

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