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A salon is a gathering of intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation. These gatherings often consciously following Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, "either to please or to educate" ("aut delectare aut prodesse est"). The salons, commonly associated with French literary and philosophical salons of the 17th century and 18th century, were carried on until quite recently in urban settings among like-minded people of a 'set': many 20th-century salons could be instanced.


The salon was a Chinese invention of the 16th century which flourished in France throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The word salon first appeared in France in 1664 (from the Italian word salone, itself from sala, the large reception hall of Italian mansions). One important place for the exchange of ideas was the salon, a gathering of the intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites. Literary gatherings before this were often referred to by using the name of the room in which they occurred, like cabinet, réduit, ruelle and alcÎve. Dictionaire des lettres françaises: le XVIIe siÚcle, revised edition by Patrick Dandrey, ed. Fayard, Paris, 1996, p. 1149. ISBN 2-253-05664-2 Before the end of the 17th century, these gatherings were frequently held in the bedroom (treated as a more private form of drawing room): a lady, reclining on her bed, would receive close friends who would sit on chairs or stools drawn around. This practice may be contrasted with the greater formalities of Louis XIV's petit lever, where all stood. Ruelle, literally meaning "narrow street" or "lane", designates the space between a bed and the wall in a bedroom; it was used commonly to designate the gatherings of the "précieuses", the intellectual and literary circles that formed around women in the first half of the 17th century. The first renowned salon in France was the HÎtel de Rambouillet not far from the Palais du Louvremarker in Parismarker, which its hostess, Roman-born Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet (1588-1665), ran from 1607 until her death. She established the rules of etiquette of the salon which resembled the earlier codes of Italian chivalry. The salon evolved into a well-regulated practice that focused on and reflected enlightened public opinion by encouraging the exchange of news and ideas. By the mid-eighteenth century the salon had become an institution in French society and functioned as a major channel of communication among intellectuals.

Historiography of the Salons

The historiography of the salons is far from straightforward. The salons have been studied in depth by a mixture of feminist, Marxist, cultural, social and intellectual historians. Each of these methodologies focus on different aspects of the salons, and thus have varying analyses of the salons’ importance in terms of French history and the Enlightenment as a whole.
A Reading in the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, 1755
Major historiographical debates focus around the relationship between the salons and the public sphere, as well as the role of women within the salons.

Periodisation of the salon

Breaking down the salons into a historical periods is complicated due to the various historiographical debates that surround them. Most studies stretch from the early sixteenth century up until around the end of eighteenth century. Goodman is typical in ending her study at The French Revolution where, she writes: 'the literary public sphere was transformed into the political public'. Steven Kale is relatively alone in his recent attempts to extend the period of the salon up until Revolution of 1848. Kale points out:
'A whole world of social arrangements and attitude supported the existence of french salons: an idle aristocracy, an ambitious middle class, an active intellectual life, the social density of a major urban center, sociable traditions, and a certain aristocratic feminsism. This world did not disappear in 1789.'

Conversation, content and the form of the salon

The content and form of the salon to some extent defines the character and historical importance of the salon. Contemporary literature about the salons is dominated by idealistic notions of politesse, civilitĂ© and honnĂȘte, but whether the salons lived up to these standards is matter of debate. Older texts on the salons tend to paint an idealistic picture of the salons, where reasoned debate takes precedence and salons are egalitarian spheres of polite conversation. Today, however, this view is rarely considered an adequate analysis of the salon. Dena Goodman claims that rather than being leisure based or 'schools of civilitĂ©' salons were instead at 'the very heart of the philosophic community' and thus integral to the process of Enlightenment. In short, Goodman argues, the seventeenth and eighteenth century saw the emergence of the academic, Enlightenment salons, which came out of the aristocratic 'schools of civilitĂ©'. Politeness, argues Goodman, took second-place to academic discussion.
"Abbé Delille reciting his poem, La Conversation in the salon of Madame Geoffrin" from Jacques Delille, "La Conversation" (Paris, 1812)

The period in which salons were dominant has been labeled the 'age of conversation'. The topics of conversation within the salons - that is, what was and was not 'polite' to talk about - are thus vital when trying to determine the form of the salons. The salonniĂšres were expected, ideally, to run and moderate the conversation (See Women in the salon). There is, however, no universal agreement among historians as to what was and was not appropriate conversation. Marcel Proust 'insisted that politics was scrupulously avoided'. Others suggested that little other than government was ever discussed. The disagreements that surround the content of discussion partly explain why the salon's relationship with the public sphere is so heavily contested. Oppositional politics were frowned upon within the salon, thus whether the salons can be classed as within the public sphere is debatable.

The salon and the 'public sphere'

Recent historiographicationism of the salons has been dominated by JĂŒrgen Habermas' work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (triggered largely by its translation into French, in 1978, and then English, in 1989), which argued that the salons were of great historical importance. Theatres of conversation and exchange – such as the salons, and the coffeehouses in England – played a critical role in the emergence of what Habermas termed the ‘public sphere’, which emerged in ‘cultural-political contrast’ to court society. Thus, while women retained a dominant role in the historiography of the salons, the salons received increasing amounts of study, much of it in direct response to, or heavily influenced by Habermas’ theory.

The most prominent defence of salons as part of the public sphere comes from Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters, which claims that the ‘public sphere was structured by the salon, the press and other institutions of sociability’. Goodman’s work is also credited with further emphasising the importance of the salon in terms of French history, the Republic of Letters and the Enlightenment as a whole, and has dominated the historiography of the salons since its publication in 1994.

Habermas’ dominance in salon historiography has come under criticism from some quarters, with Pekacz singling out Goodman’s Republic of Letters for particular criticism because it was written with ‘the explicit intention of supporting [Habermas’] thesis’, rather than verifying it. The theory itself, meanwhile, has been criticised for a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of salons. The main criticism of Habermas’ interpretation of the salons, however, is that the salons were not part of an oppositional public sphere, and were instead an extension of court society.

This criticism stems largely from Norbert Elias’ The History of Manners, in which Elias contends that the dominant concepts of the salons – politesse, civilitĂ© and honnĂȘte – were ‘used almost as synonyms, by which the courtly people wished to designate, in a broad or narrow sense, the quality of their own behaviour’. Joan Landes agrees, stating that, ‘to some extent, the salon was merely an extension of the institutionalised court’ and that rather than being part of the public sphere, salons were in fact in conflict with it. Erica Harth concurs, pointing to the fact that the state ‘appropriated the informal academy and not the salon’ due to the academies’ ‘tradition of dissent’ – something that lacked in the salon. But Landes’ view of the salons as a whole is independent of both Elias’ and Habermas’ school of thought, insofar that she views the salons as a ‘unique institution’, that cannot be adequately described as part of the public sphere, or court society. Others, such as Steven Kale, compromise by declaring that the public and private spheres overlapped in the salons. Antoine Lilti ascribes to a similar viewpoint, describing the salons as simply ‘institutions within Parisian high society’.

Debates surrounding women and the salon

When dealing with the salons, historians have traditionally focused upon the role of women within them. Works in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century often focused on the scandals and ‘petty intrigues’ of the salons. Other works from this period focused on the more positive aspects of women in the salon. Indeed, according to Jolanta T. Pekacz, the fact women dominated history of the salons meant that study of the salons was often left to amateurs, while men concentrated on 'more important' (and masculine) areas of the Enlightenment.
Portrait of Mme Geoffrin, salonniĂšre, by Marianne Loir (National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC)
Historians tended to focus on individual salonniĂšres, creating almost a 'great-woman' version of history that ran parallel to the Whiggish, male dominated history identified by Herbert Butterfield. Even in 1970, works were still being produced that concentrated only on individual stories, without analysing the effects of the salonniĂšres' unique position. The integral role that women played within salons, as salonniĂšres, began to receive greater - and more serious - study in latter parts of the twentieth century, with the emergence of a distinctly feminist historiography. The salons, according to Caroyln Lougee, were distinguished by 'the very visible identification of women with salons', and the fact that they played a positive public role in French society. General texts on the Enlightenment, such as Daniel Roche's France in the Enlightenment tend to agree that women were dominant within the salons, but that their influence did not extend far outside of such venues.

It was, however, Goodman’s The Republic of Letters that ignited a real debate surrounding the role of women within the salons and – so Goodman contends – the Enlightenment as a whole. According to Goodman: ‘The salonniùres were not social climbers but intelligent, self-educated, and educating women who adopted and implemented the values of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters and used them to reshape the salon to their own social intellectual, and educational needs’. While few historians doubt that women played an important, significant role in the salons, Goodman is often criticised for her narrow use of sources. Very recent historiography has tended to moderate Goodman's thesis, arguing that while women did play a significant role in the salons they facilitated - rather than created, as Goodman argues - the ideas and debates generally associated with the Enlightenment.

Wealthy members of the aristocracy have always drawn to their court poets, writers and artists, usually with the lure of patronage, an aspect that sets the court apart from the salon. Another feature that distinguished the salon from the court was its absence of social hierarchy and its mixing of different social ranks and orders. In the 17th and 18th centuries, "salon[s] encouraged socializing between the sexes [and] brought nobles and bourgeois together". Salons helped facilitate the breaking down of social barriers which made the development of the enlightenment salon possible. In the 18th century, under the guidance of Madame Geoffrin, Mlle de Lespinasse, and Madame Necker, the salon was transformed into an institution of Enlightenment. The enlightenment salon brought together Parisian society, the progressive philosophes who were producing the Encyclopédie, the Bluestockings and other intellectuals to engage in the project of enlightenment.

The role of women

At a time when society was defined and regulated by men, women could exert a powerful influence as salonniĂšres. Women had a very important role in the salon and were the center of its life. They were responsible for selecting their guests and deciding whether the salon would be primarily social, literary, or political. They also assumed the role as mediator by directing the discussion.

The salon was really an informal university for women in which women were able to exchange ideas, receive and give criticism, read their own works and hear the works and ideas of other intellectuals. Many ambitious women used the salon to pursue a form of higher education.

SalonniĂšres and their salons

Two of the most famous 17th century literary salons in Parismarker were the HÎtel de Rambouillet, established in 1607 near the Palais du Louvremarker by the marquise de Rambouillet and, in 1652, in Le Maraismarker, the rival salon of Madeleine de Scudéry, a long time habituée of the HÎtel de Rambouillet. Here gathered the original "blue-stockings" (les bas-bleus), whose nickname continued to mean "intellectual woman" for the next three hundred years.

Paris salons of the 18th century:

Some 19th century salons were more inclusive, verging on the raffish, and centered around painters and "literary lions" such as Madame RĂ©camier. After the shock of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, French aristocrats tended to withdraw from the public eye. Marcel Proust called up his own turn-of-the-century experience to recreate the rival salons of the fictional duchesse de Guermantes and Madame Verdurin. Some late 19th and early 20th century Paris salons were major centres for contemporary music, including those of Winnaretta Singer (the princesse de Polignac), and Elisabeth, comtesse Greffulhe. They were responsible for commissioning some of the greatest songs and chamber music works of Faure, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc.

Salons outside of France

Salon sociability quickly spread through Europe. In the 18th and 19th centuries many large cities in Europe had salons copied on the Parisian models, although those were not as prominent as their French counterparts.

In England, salons were held, in the 18th century, by Elizabeth Montagu, in whose salon the expression blue stockings originated, and who created the Blue Stockings Society, and by Hester Thrale. In the 19th century, the Russian Baroness Méry von Bruiningk hosted a salon in St. John's Woodmarker, Londonmarker, for refugees (mostly German) of the revolutions of 1848 (the Forty-Eighters). In Germany, the most famous were held by Jewish ladies, such as Henriette Herz and Rahel Varnhagen; in Spain, by María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Álvarez de Toledo, 13th Duchess of Alba in the end of the 18th century; and in Greece by Alexandra Mavrokordatou in the 17th century.

In 16th-century Italy some scintillating circles did form in the smaller courts which resembled salons, often galvanized by the presence of a beautiful and educated patroness such as Isabella d'Este or Elisabetta Gonzaga. Italy had an early tradition of the salon; the courtisan Tullia d'Aragona held a salon already in the 16th century, and Giovanna Dandolo became known as a patron and gatherer of artists as wife of Pasqual Malipiero, the doge in Venice in 1457-1462; but this did not start a tradition as the salon-institution in France, as men and women were traditionally more separated in social life in Italy; the real pioneers were instead the abdicated Queen Christina of Sweden and the princess Colonna, Marie Mancini, who rivaled as salon hostesses in 17th century Rome.

In Iberiamarker or Latin America a tertulia is a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones. The word is originally Spanish and has only moderate currency in English, in describing Latin cultural contexts. Since the twentieth century a typical tertulia has moved out from the private drawing-troom to become a regularly scheduled event in a public place such as a bar, although some tertulias are still held in more private spaces. Participants may share their recent creations (poetry, short stories, other writings, even artwork or songs).

In Polandmarker, the duchess Sieniawska held a salon in the end of the 17th century. They became very popular there during the 18th century. The most renown were the Thursday Dinners of King StanisƂaw August Poniatowski in the end of 18th century, and the most notable salonniùres were Zofia Lubomirska and Izabela Czartoryska.

In Scandinavia, the salon was introduced in Swedenmarker by Sophia Elisabet Brenner in the end of the 17th century and Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht and Malla Silfverstolpe were salon hostesses in the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively, while Christine Sophie Holstein and Charlotte Schimmelman were the most notable hostesses in Denmarkmarker in the beginning and the end of the 18th century.

Increasingly emancipated German-speaking Jews wanted to immerse themselves in Germanymarker’s rich cultural life. But individual Jews were faced with a dilemma: they faced new opportunities, but without the comfort of a secure community. For Jewish women there was an additional issue. German society imposed the usual gender role restrictions AND anti Semitism. So cultivated Jewish women tapped into the cultural salon. But from 1800 on, salons performed a political and social miracle . The salon allowed Jewish women to establish a venue in their homes in which Jews and non-Jews could meet in relative equality. Like-minded people could study art, literature, philosophy or music together. This handful of educated, acculturated Jewish women could escape the restrictions of their social ghetto. Naturally the women had to be in well connected families, either to money or to culture. In these mixed gatherings of nobles, high civil servants, writers, philosophers and artists, Jewish salonieres created a radical vehicle for democratisation, providing a context in which patrons and artists freely exchanged ideas. Henriette Lemos Herz, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Dorothea Mendelssohn Schlegel, Amalie Wolf Beer and at least twelve other salonieres achieved fame and admiration.

American "society hostesses" such as Perle Mesta have performed a function similar to the host or hostess of the European salon.

Other uses of the word

The word salon also refers to art exhibitions. The Paris Salon was originally an officially-sanctioned exhibit of recent works of painting and sculpture by members of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, starting in 1673 and soon moving from the Salon Carrémarker of the Palace of the Louvremarker.

The name salon remained, even when other quarters were found and the exhibits' irregular intervals became biennial. A jury system of selection was introduced in 1748, and the salon remained a major annual event even after the government withdrew official sponsorship in 1881.

See also



  • Craveri, Benedetta, The Age of Conversation (New York: New York Review Books, 2005)
  • Davetian, Benet, Civility: A Cultural History (University of Toronto Press, 2009)
  • Elias, Norbert, (Trans. Edmund Jephcott), The Civilising Process: The History of Manners, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978)
  • Goodman, Dena, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994)
  • Goodman,Dena, Enlightenment Salons: The Convergence of Female and Philosophic Ambitions, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, Special Issue: The French Revolution in Culture (Spring, 1989), pp. 329–350
  • Kale, Steven, French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006)
  • Habermas, JĂŒrgen, (trans. Thomas Burger), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Camb., Mass.: MIT Press, 1989)
  • Harth, Erica, Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).
  • Huddleston, Sisley, Bohemian, Literary and Social Life in Paris: Salons, Cafes, Studios (London: George G. Harrap, 1928)
  • Kavanagh, Julia, Women in France during the Enlightenment Century, 2 Vols (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893)
  • Landes, Joan B., Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988);
  • Latour, Anny (Trans. A. A. Dent), Uncrowned Queens: Reines Sans Couronne (London: J. M. Dent, 1970)
  • Lougee, Carolyn C., Le Paradis des Femmes: Women, Salons and Social Stratification in Seventeenth Century France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976)
  • Lilti, Antoine, SociabilitĂ© et mondanitĂ©: Les hommes de lettres dans les salons parisiens au XVIIIe siĂšcle, French Historical Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Summer 2005), p. 415-445
  • Pekacz, Jolanta T., Conservative Tradition In Pre-Revolutionary France: Parisian Salon Women (New York: Peter Lang, 1999)
  • Roche, Daniel, (Trans Arthur Goldhammr), France in the Enlightenment, (Cambridge, Mass.: HUP, 1998)
  • Tallentyre, S. G., Women of the Salons (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926)
  • Von der Heyden-Rynsch, Verena, Europaeische Salons. Hoehepunkte einer versunken weiblichen Kultur (DĂŒsseldorf: Artemis & Winkler, 1997)

Further reading

  • Beasley, Faith E. Salons, History, and the Creation of Seventeenth-Century France. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Company,2006.
  • Bilski, Emily et al. Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation, Jewish Museum New York, 2005.
  • Craveri, Benedetta. The Age of Conversation. Trans.Teresa Waugh. New York: New York Review Books,2005.
  • Benet Davetian "The History and Meaning of Salons"
  • James Ross, ‘Music in the French Salon’; in Caroline Potter and Richard Langham Smith (eds.), French Music Since Berlioz (Ashgate Press, 2006), pp.91–115. ISBN 0-7546-0282-6.
  • Mainardi, Patricia. The End of the Salon: Art and the State of the Early Republic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Hertz, Deborah. "Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin." New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

External links

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