Salonnières (fl. 17th and 18th c.)

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Salonnières (fl. 17th and 18th c.)

Women who operated as agents and funding agencies for the most important writers, philosophes, and artists, and who encouraged and supported the founding of the French Academy as well as the writing of the Encyclopedia.

Created in the Marquise de Rambouillet's famous chambre bleue (1618), salons played an important role in the shaping of the French Academy; Lambert opened her salon which was called the "antechamber of the Academy" since she personally selected half of the Academy's members (1710); Tencin put artists, writers, and philosophes on an equal footing with aristocrats at her salon (1729); Geoffrin established a salon which was home to philosophes while a second salon sustained artists; her support over several decades of the writers of the Encyclopedia was critical to its success; Deffand's rival salon was important for its foreign influence, especially English; Lespinasse included many foreigners as well; salonnières were agents of change and did much to foster modern concepts of equality, democracy, and liberty.

"Between conversation and civilization, the art of talk and the art of living, there has always been a vital link," writes Peter Quennell in Affairs of the Mind. Women played a central role in the development of the salon which has been called the cradle of the French Revolution. Indeed, many of our modern concepts of individual liberty, equality, and democracy were born in this unique French institution. Salons were not receptions. They were groups of carefully selected people who came together to discuss a common topic skillfully directed by a hostess or salonnière. Members of salons sought to attain the highest ideals of truth and beauty as well as to emphasize perfection, proportion, and harmony which they believed led to unity and temperance. Freedom, not license, they felt, represented an opportunity to stimulate and enlarge intellectual life.

A salon required two elements—a good hostess and literary lions. Leaders of salons selected participants and directed the flow of conversation. It was commonly said: "Hostesses, like poets, are born, not made." Women in 17th- and 18th-century French salons rose to positions of power and influence because they were agents and granting agencies rather than mere hosts. Their stamp of approval determined what books were read, what plays were attended, and what art was purchased. Salonnières often found funding for their protégés, some of whom they supported entire lifetimes. Their extensive networks were essential to success, and few philosophes, writers, or artists achieved success without their assistance. Their influence was also felt in the creation of cultural institutions like the Academies, the Comédie Française, government pension lists, and the administration of the book trade. The modern world continues to benefit from the influence wielded by this unique group of women.

The ascendancy of French women has several explanations. During the Middle Ages, women were considered supreme; the age of chivalry elevated their status, especially in France. A series of kings' mistresses established a powerful political dynasty which was imitated in the arts. The salonnières' cultural dominance was a counterpart to the political influence already wielded by some women at court. Finally, there was a long tradition of intellectual comradeship between the sexes in France. It is not surprising that given the opportunity, French women gained prominence and a breadth of view not found in other parts of Europe.

The history of the salon begins with Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet (1588–1665), who invited a group of writers, scholars, nobles, and women to regular social gatherings in her chambre bleue. Playing a major role in shaping French classical taste, Rambouillet encouraged the original members of the French Academy as they struggled to reconstruct the French language. Boussuet, La Rochefoucauld, Marie-Madeleine de La Fayette , Corneille, Marie de Sévigné , the Duchesse de Longueville , Madeleine de Scudéry , and the Duchesse de Montpensier all met at the Hôtel Rambouillet. Since she proposed so many of the candidates who were selected for membership, Rambouillet's name is inseparably connected with the French Academy, and the tradition of having salonnières select Academy members continued long after her death. Despite the fact that women were excluded from authorship, Mademoiselle de Scudéry and Madame de La Fayette wrote long romances expressing their ideas, dreams, and desires, no doubt influenced by the literary company they kept. La Fayette's much celebrated Princesse de Clèves is one of the better-known works by women which emerged from the Rambouillet salon. Many of the women involved in this circle would later found their own salons and become collectively known as the Précieuses. These women fundamentally shaped the French Academy.

Salons lost their importance during the reign of Louis XIV when all activity was centralized in the court of the Sun King, then reappeared during the reign of Louis XV. Mme de Lambert's salon was the bridge between 17th-century and 18th-century institutions. A rich widow, Anne Thérèse de Marguenat de Courcelles, Marquise de Lambert (1647–1733) had been educated by her stepfather, Bachaumont. When she opened her salon in 1710 in the Palais Mazarin, she insisted upon a high standard of ethics in a time of license. Her salon was characterized as dignified, tranquil, and constructive and was called the "antechamber of the Academy" as she was credited with creating half of the Academy's membership. Lambert was a writer, and although her works, chiefly on education, were ostensibly produced for her children, they were read by a much larger audience. She was also responsible for the substitution of French scientific formulas for Latin ones: Fontenelle facilitated this change in order that Lambert might be able to read his scientific treatises.

The character of the salon alters with the debut of the Marquise de Tencin in 1729. An exmistress of Philippe II, duke of Orléans (regent for Louis XV), Claudine Alexandrine Guérin de Tencin (1685–1749) was famous for organizing the notorious fêtes at Saint-Cloud. A runaway nun, she was liberal and déclassé, and it seems fitting that her illegitimate son, Jean d'Alembert (1717–1783), was the famous editor of the Encyclopédie. Tencin abandoned him to his father, the Chevalier Destouches, who provided

Rambouillet, Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de (1588–1665)

French salonnière of the first salon who left an indelible mark on the history of French thought, language, and literature. Name variations: Marquise de Rambouillet. Born in Rome in 1588; died in December 1665; daughter of Jean Vivonne, marquis de Pisani, and Julia (or Giulia) Savelli, a Roman woman of noble family; married Charles d'Angennes, marquis of Rambouillet; children: Julie d'Angennes, duchesse de Montausier; Angélique d'Angennes (who was the first wife of the marquis de Grignan).

Known as the founder of preciosity (a manner of thought and exchange which reflected the utmost delicacy of taste), Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet, presided over the first of the salons which were to dominate French intellectual and literary life during the 17th and 18th centuries. "She drew up a new code of behavior, of manners, and of speech," notes one historian, "and she encouraged the intellectual appreciation of beauty, and the study of language and letters." While the ideal of the "cultivated man" which Rambouillet inspired was lauded by many, it was mocked by others, including Molière in his famous Les Précieuses ridicules.

She was born in Rome in 1588, the daughter of Jean de Vivonne, marquis of Pisani, and Julia Savelli , a Roman of noble birth. At age 12, Catherine was married to Charles d'Angennes, who was to become marquis of Rambouillet. In France, disliking both the coarseness and the intrigue of court life under Henry IV, she conceived of an alternative. There was at the time no precedent for the salon Rambouillet founded in a mansion located near the Louvre. There, at what would be known as the Hôtel Rambouillet, in 1618 she remodeled the structure so as to arrange a suite of large reception rooms for the purpose of gathering intellectuals, nobility, and literary greats for discussion. Rambouillet's salon served as the center of France's social and literary currents for 30 years.

There were likely many reasons for her success. She was not alone in her dislike of the court, and many found her gatherings and the way of life which was developed there a new and welcome avenue of exchange and expression. Her fine tastes have been attributed to her Roman nationality as well as her early training. Although there is no known portrait of her in existence, she was also reputedly beautiful. Regardless of the qualities which allowed her to preside for so many years over gatherings of France's elite, there is no question as to the enormous extent of her influence. French men of letters owed the advancement of their position to her salon, and, as noted in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, "the almost uniform excellence of the memoirs and letters of 17th-century Frenchmen and Frenchwomen may be traced largely to the development of conversation as a fine art at the Hôtel Rambouillet, and the consequent establishment of a standard of clear and adequate expression." Thanks to Rambouillet's vision, such a standard was engaged in many influential salons that appeared in France and were presided over by women who achieved great importance in French cultural life by following Rambouillet's example.

Among the notable events originating from Rambouillet's salon was a poetry collection on different flowers called the Guirlande de Julie, a work composed by the day's most famous poets and addressed to Rambouillet's eldest daughter Julie d'Angennes (later duchesse de Montausier). In fact, much of the preciosity which later earned the salon ridicule has been attributed to Julie. By the mid-17th century, Rambouillet's extraordinary influence waned as Louis XIV tolerated no social rivals to his court. She continued to preside over her salon, however, until her death in December 1665.

Lambert, Anne Thérèse de Marguenat de Courcelles, Marquise de (1647–1733)

French salonnière. Name variations: Marquise de Lambert. Born in Paris, France, in 1647; died in 1733; stepdaughter of Bachaumont.

Tencin, Claudine Alexandrine Guérin de (1685–1749)

French writer and society leader. Name variations: Madame de Tencin; Marquise de Tencin. Born in 1685; died in 1749; sister of Madame de Ferriol ; mistress of Philippe II also known as Philip or Philippe Bourbon-Orleans (1674–1723), 2nd duke of Orléans and regent for Louis XV (1710–1774), king of France (r. 1715–1774); children: illegitimate son, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783), was the famous editor of the Encyclopédie.

for his maintenance and education. She was audacious and ambitious, fond of intrigue, highly intelligent, and imaginative, so it was no difficult task to gather the most brilliant minds around her. Whereas Lambert had held separate salons for nobility and commoners, Tencin included both groups. Influential until her death in 1749, Tencin held the first salon where writers and artists were elevated to the same status as aristocrats: Fontenelle, Marivaux, Montesquieu, Chesterfield, and Grimm were among those who frequented.

The most famous salonnière, Marie Thérèse Geoffrin (1699–1777), was a friend and neighbor of Tencin's. Bourgeois rather than aristocratic, Mme Geoffin was the wealthy wife of a glass manufacturer. She began frequenting the Tencin salon before inviting some of its members for Wednesday dinners in 1737. Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, Lord Shelbourne, Horace Walpole, Grimm, and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre were among her circle. Mme Geoffrin also patronized the arts and began a second salon for artists on Mondays. It was, however, the philosophes who set the tone at Geoffrin's. Her involvement was considerable and she gave large amounts of her fortune to underwrite the Encyclopédie. Her reputation was international, and she corresponded with Catherine II the Great , Empress Maria Theresa of Austria , and King Stanislaus Augustus of Poland, who was like a son to her. A sober, honest woman, Geoffrin was known for her many acts of kindness to the writers and artists whom she constantly supported as well as for her largesse to the poor. Such was her influence that a common joke of the time went: "I don't know him, but he must have wit, I suppose, since he visits Mme Geoffrin." She was often called the "foster mother of the philosophes."

Mme Geoffrin's most formidable rival was Mme du Deffand. These two remarkable women shared no love for each other although Geoffrin was generally on equitable terms with almost everyone. While Geoffrin is known for her patronage, Marie Anne de Vichy-Chamrond, Marquise du Deffand (1697–1780) is remembered for her voluminous correspondence with Horace Walpole, the Duchesse de Choiseul , and Voltaire. Cultivated and intense, Deffand was dissatisfied by nature. Hers was a stressful life with much inner loneliness and partial failure. Critical of others and of herself, she was her own worst enemy and never at peace. She was born in 1697, the daughter of the Comte de Chamrond. Sent to a convent school in Paris, she declared herself a skeptic though she disapproved of open attacks on the church. She married the Marquis du Deffand, a distant cousin, then became the regent's mistress as well as the mistress of his crony, the Comte de Fargis. Bored with her marriage, she arranged a legal separation from her husband and returned to Paris.

When Mme du Deffand's husband died in 1750, and she regained the part of her dowry that he had retained, she resolved to found a salon. Living in a suite attached to the Convent of St. Joseph, she received guests every day after six. Unlike Geoffrin whose salon was almost all male, Deffand included women. The Maréchale de Luxembourg and the Duchesse de Choiseul were stars at Deffand's, while d'Alembert, Montesquieu, Maupertuis, Beaumarchais, and Lady Mary Hervey and George Selwyn all frequented the lively and entertaining evenings.

But Deffand began to go blind in her 50s and feared her salon would have to close. In hopes that rest would aid a cure, she decided to visit her birthplace, spending time with her brother, Gaspard de Vichy, and his family. Here she discovered a mystery child, Julie de Lespinasse (1732–1776), who would one day found her own salon. Born in 1732, Julie grew up in the home of a doctor and a midwife, but she was actually the illegitimate daughter of the Comtesse d'Albon whose husband left her after the birth of four children. Subsequently the Comtesse had two other children, a son who became a monk, and her daughter Julie. When the Comtesse died, the 15-year-old Lespinasse turned her annuity of a few hundred francs over to her elder brother; as an orphan, she was penniless from that point forward. Lespinasse was invited to look after the children of Comte Gaspard de Vichy who married one of her half-sisters. Although the Vichy children loved her, the young woman's life was miserable. It seems almost certain that Comte Gaspard had been Comtesse d'Albon's lover and so was, in fact, Julie's father. Wishing to hush up his guilty secret, he took his anger out on the girl. After four miserable years, the young woman had resolved to enter a convent; then Mme du Deffand arrived.

Deffand, Marie Anne de Vichy-Chamrond, Marquise du (1697–1780)

French patron of fashion and literature. Name variations: Madame du Deffand; Marquise du Deffand; Marie de Vichy-Chamrond. Born Marie Anne de Vichy-Chamrond in 1697; died in 1780; daughter of the Comte de Chamrond; sister of Gaspard de Vichy; married the Marquis du Deffand, a distant cousin.

suggested reading:

Craveri, Benedetta. Madame Du Deffand & Her World. Trans. by Teresa Waugh. Godine, 1994.

Without realizing Lespinasse was her niece, Deffand took an instant liking to the young girl. Here was someone with whom she could talk, someone who loved the French classics and knew English and Italian. When the girl responded to the older woman's kindness, Deffand began to envision a life together in Paris with Lespinasse as her paid companion. Her friends suggested the younger woman live in a convent nearby rather than actually living with Deffand, but she would have none of it. Soon Julie de Lespinasse was settled on the floor above her employer and fitted out with new clothes.

Lespinasse, Julie de (1732–1776)

French writer and salonnière whose salon was a meeting place for writers of the Encyclopédie. Name variations: L'Espinasse. Born Jeanne Julie Éléonore de Lespinasse at Lyons on November 9, 1732; died in Paris on May 23, 1776; born out of wedlock to the Comtesse d'Albon and (probably) Comte Gaspard de Vichy; brought up as the daughter of Claude Lespinasse.

Julie de Lespinasse was one of two children born out of wedlock to the Comtesse d'Albon , whose husband had left her after the births of their first four children. It is likely that Comte Gaspard de Vichy was Julie's father, a fact which was kept secret. She was raised as the daughter of a doctor, Claude Lespinasse, and attended a convent school.

Left penniless following her mother's death, Lespinasse was invited to care for the children of Comte Gaspard de Vichy, who had married Julie's half-sister Mme de Vichy . Four years into her engagement as governess, she met Marie du Deffand who did not realize at the time that Julie was her niece. Employing Lespinasse as her companion, Deffand brought her back to her home in Paris where Lespinasse lived on the floor above. Their alliance, which lasted from 1754 to 1764, grew strained as Lespinasse's popularity with Deffand's salon guests grew. The affections shown toward Lespinasse by philosopher and mathematician Jean d'Alembert (the greatest ornament of Deffand's salon) deepened the estrangement between the two women, and in 1764, following a violent quarrel, Lespinasse founded her own salon in the rue Saint-Dominique.

Although d'Alembert came to share a roof there with Lespinasse, their relationship was free from scandal, allowing him to lead a comfortable existence while she benefited from the influence his presence lent to her salon. Lespinasse, presiding over the most popular gatherings in Paris, prompted the following laudatory remarks in the Memoir of Marmontel: "The circle was formed of persons who were not bound together. She had taken them here and there in society, but so well assorted were they that once there they fell into harmony like the strings of an instrument touched by an able hand. Following out that comparison, I may say that she played the instrument with an art that came of genius." Her salon became the center for the writers of the famous Encyclopédie, edited by d'Alembert, and her influence as a respected and beloved woman among great men was widespread.

In her day, even Lespinasse's closest friends were unaware of her amorous obsessions, her legendary passions that would inform her Lettres (2 vols., 1809). The Spanish Marquis de Mora was her first attachment, but in 1772 he had to return to Spain because he was dying of consumption. That year, Lespinasse met Comte de Guibert. Her letters to de Guibert, referred to by one historian as "the worthless object of her fatal infatuation," began in 1773 and were ranked by Sainte-Beuve as belonging to the same category of outpourings as those of Heloise and the Portuguese nun Mariana Alcoforado . In 1774, Lespinasse wrote to de Guibert: "You know that when I hate you, it is because I love you to a point of passion that unhinges my soul."

Lespinasse's letters reflect the struggle between her feelings for de Mora and her desire for de Guibert. De Guibert's marriage to another and de Mora's death in 1774 on his way back to Paris left her in misery. To calm her nerves, she used opium sedatives, and the deterioration in her health was likely accelerated by both the drug use and her despair. She died on May 23, 1776. Her writings include not only her letters but also two chapters which were meant as a sequel to Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne.

Lespinasse adjusted immediately to life in Paris. The daily routine resumed—supper with three or four guests and a larger party each week. There were trips to the opera and the Comédie Française. Since Deffand was an insomniac, the two women often drove around the streets of Paris until 2 am. For the first time in her young life, Mlle de Lespinasse was treated as an equal. Hénault, La Harpe, the Maréchal de Luxembourg were all enchanted by her, and d'Alembert formed a touching friendship which lasted her lifetime. Lespinasse's charm was a great contrast to Deffand's biting sarcasm. The first trouble came when the older woman refused to allow a young Irish nobleman entry to her home after he fell in love with the charming young woman. Scenes and reconciliations became the order of the day. Estrangement grew when Deffand discovered that her good friend d'Alembert, the greatest ornament of her salon, had transferred his devotion to Lespinasse.

Desiring more of Lespinasse's company, d'Alembert began to arrive early at the "floor above." This informal gathering grew as Turgot, Condorcet, Marmontel, La Harpe and Hénault joined the group. Leaving her bedroom an hour earlier one day, Deffand heard voices upstairs and discovered the existence of a rival salon. In his memoirs, Marmontel describes the ensuing scene as "the most celebrated quarrel in the literary history of eighteenth century France." Making the situation worse, all the guests, old friends of Mme du Deffand, sided with the newcomer, leading to an irreparable breach between the two women. The parting, however, was to prove a blessing for both. Lespinasse spread her wings, while Deffand uncharacteristically relied on her friends in her hour of anguish, thus tasting the depths of enduring friendship for the first time. Within a year, she began a correspondence with Horace Walpole. In this important literary legacy (over 1,000 letters survive), her vibrant spirit emerges triumphant over old age, bitterness, and blindness.

The influence of [these] women in France by the middle of the 18th century had become so powerful that a man could hardly rise without the cooperation of some one of them.

—Helen Clergue

D'Alembert immediately came to his beloved Lespinasse's rescue. Both were illegitimate children of prominent parents and no doubt he understood her situation well. He introduced the young woman to Mme Geoffrin who loved her from the start. She treated her as a daughter and included her as the only woman guest at her Wednesday dinners. With her typical generosity, Geoffrin sold three of Van Loo's paintings from her extensive collection and gave the proceeds to the younger woman who used them to set up her own establishment. Many of Geoffrin's circle also joined this new salon. The two women were great friends, and it was not uncommon for them to call on each other twice a day. Although some refused to attend a salon hosted by "a former companion of Mme du Deffand," most were only too eager to be enrolled as one of her guests. "Madame Geoffrin was feared; Madame du Deffand admired; … Julie de Lespinasse loved," said the Marquis de Ségur. Lespinasse gathered a wide variety of guests bound by no common tie. Her salon met daily from five to nine. International visitors were often included and Creutz, the Swedish ambassador, Abbé Galiani, the Neapolitan, and Lord Shelbourne attended when they were in Paris. British aristocrats and intellectuals were lionized in the salons, but particularly in Lespinasse's; she was an Anglophile.

While the salons were cultural institutions of great importance, they also represented a tangled web of human relationships. Adored by many men and women, Lespinasse fell in love with the Spanish Marquis de Mora, 12 years her junior. But de Mora was slowly dying of consumption and had to return to Spain. In 1772, she met Comte de Guibert and was soon again in love. Sainte-Beuve ranks her letters to him, quite justly, with the outpourings of Heloise , but the consumptive de Mora was still corresponding with her and the dual passions caused Lespinasse great anxiety. While de Mora wrote her tender letters, she continued her fervent prose to Guibert. During this tumultuous time, de Mora died and Guibert married, a great blow. Throughout d'Alembert remained her staunch and dedicated friend, despite the fact that Lespinasse was so distracted; she lost interest in her salon and her friends. Abetted by opium sedatives to calm her nerves, her health deteriorated, and she became increasingly frail. Lespinasse died leaving small tokens of affections to Mme Geoffrin and d'Alembert.

Salons grew, in part, because of the restrictions life imposed on women in pre-Revolutionary France. It was neither easy nor safe to get about the dirty and uncomfortable streets of Paris. Walks, drives, concerts, lectures, and shopping trips were infrequent. Since they were barred from the outside world, women invited the world to come to them, with amazing results. There were few journals and newspapers to spread new ideas, so the salon—as well as the literary café—became the principal means by which opinion on current events was circulated. Salons also opened new vistas for France. During Louis XIV's reign, the French never looked beyond their borders, confining themselves to their own civilization. It was the 18th-century salon which awoke them to the knowledge that ideas worth attention existed elsewhere.

Salons encouraged platonic friendships and intellectual exchange between women and men. Deffand's friendship with Walpole, d'Alembert's with Lespinasse, and Geoffrin's with Stanislaus Augustus of Poland are examples of the remarkable friendships which were an 18th-century ideal. Salons allowed continuous contact between the sexes. They offered a place where women and men could share common pursuits. This unique institution made substantial contributions to philosophy, literature, and the arts, as well as to the modern view of society. Intellectual liberty, liberty of thought, and liberty of discussion were shared goals. A sense of fraternity and comradeship characterized the best features of the salon. It has been said, "Equality of sex, of mind, and of person was never more conspicuous than in the salon of the eighteenth century."


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Karin Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia