The French Salon was a gathering of selected people to learn from an expert about a subject (historian, philosopher, composer), discuss ideas and events of the time, and connect with people in society. Salons met regularly and each Salon created its own personality and subject of interest.
A Salon often served food as an opportunity to gather more informally. Some Salons served snacks, others an entire meal.
Salons were not new to the Classical Era – they actually started during the 1500s (pre-Baroque). However, during the Classical Era they became more intellectually rigorous, more influential in the spread of philosophical ideas, and more focused on politics as the American and French revolutions drew near.
French Salons were run by Salonnieres, upper-class women who had an interest in learning and networking. The Salonniere served as the moderator of the evening, and guests understood that every request she made must be honored to maintain civil discussion. She planned the food that was served and guided discussions to provide interest and maintain civility.
The Salonniere invited guests who would create interesting yet harmonious conversation, a delicate balancing act. She arranged for foreign guests to attend when possible. As the French were supportive of the American plea for independence, prominent Americans including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were foreign guests to French Salons.
The job of a Salonniere was to create an environment that encouraged thought, debate and the free exchange of ideas. A significant feature of Salons is that guests were not all from the same class – court nobles, writers, philosophers, musicians, and artists would gather at the same Salon to exchange ideas across class boundaries.
So that difficult topics would not decay into animosity, the Salonniere reminded guests to use politeness and manners when they were forgotten. A good Salonniere would strategically divert conversation that became too contentious to allow a cooling off period before resuming further discussion on that topic. Food, readings and music were often used to divert attention when needed.
Well Known Salonnieres
Some well know Salonnieres from the Classical Era include:
- Madame Suzanne Necker oversaw a Salon that discussed politics, literature and art during the 1770s. She also ran a charity hospital.
- Madame Marie Geoffrin hosted philosophers, writers and foreign guests that made her a leading female figure in the Enlightenment. She was well known as a patron of the arts.
- Madame Louise Dupin hosted a literary and arts Salon from 1733-1782. She was nicknamed by Voltaire the Goddess of Beauty and Music.
- Madame Julie de Lespinasse ran a Salon for writers of the Encyclopédie from 1732–1776. The Encyclopédie captured the ideas of the Enlightenment regarding a wide range of topics including the sciences, theology, and the arts. Though the intention of the Encyclopédie was to capture knowledge, many authors spent time in jail due to the radical departure of their ideas from the authority of the monarchy and church.
- Madame Sophie de Condorcet led a Salon that focused on philosophy and women’s rights. Thomas Jefferson visited her Salon.
- Madame Marie-Jeanne Roland ran a political Salon for the Jacobites in 1791, right in the midst of the French Revolution.
Music in the French Salons
Many Salonnieres and their guests were patrons of the arts and promoted the arts within their Salons. Some Salons focused on the arts – for example, a Salon may center its discussion around the newest operas and the ideas that these operas portrayed. For example, Mozart’s opera Bastien und Bastienne was a parody on philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opera Le devin du village. Beethoven’s opera Fidelio is set around a prison for political prisoners. These would have provided great possibilities for discussion.
Since many guests would have some level of musical ability, Salonnieres could use a spontaneous performance to divert attention during overly-contentious debates. A Salonniere might interrupt a discussion to listen to a keyboard or violin performance, which allowed the debaters a chance to regain their composure before continuing the discussion.