Salons: The Lost Meetings of Remarkable Minds

L'Assemblee au Salon, François Nicolas Barthélemy Dequevauviller, French, Abbeville 1745-1807 Paris. Sheet, 16 1/8” x 19 3/4,” print. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

L'Assemblee au Salon, François Nicolas Barthélemy Dequevauviller, French, Abbeville 1745-1807 Paris. Sheet, 16 1/8” x 19 3/4,” print. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When one hears the word “salon” nowadays, lineups of plastic-covered dryer chairs and product-strewn hairdresser stations come to mind. In Europe in the 17th and 18th century, however, such an utterance, especially by an esteemed personage among intellectual society, would’ve been the cause of great excitement. A salon would have been known to those of the era as a gathering of people at the home of a host inspired and refined in cultural tastes to expand the knowledge of attendees through conversation. It would be an occasion like no other, in which many significant minds of the time, be it in art, literature, politics, or other subjects, would have gathered to converse, better their respective crafts, or simply bask in the glory of each other’s brilliance. Today, it would be like hosting a high-brow house party, at which the greatest thinkers of your generation were in attendance, debating art between cigar puffs and sips of créme de menthe.

The concept of the salon was first recorded in Italy in the 16th century. A century later, it flourished, in Paris, of course, with politically-charged uses. The early 17th century saw Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII’s chief minister, declare that the French nobility had grown to be, essentially, delinquent in conduct. With the splendors of French society it’s not altogether difficult to imagine: the rich and beautiful overindulging in their extravagances? Toujours! As a result, the noblemen and women of France took their transgressions to the privacy of the emerging salons, as behind the Parisian shutters of private hôtels or mansions, all were free to discuss the matters of the day without fear of detainment. The cultural impact of these exclusive parties was significant, for both men and women; they produced a new custom of social coexistence for Europeans of the coming century. Over time, these gatherings effectively shaped literary culture, while at the same time actualizing transnational networks of artists, writers, politicians, scientists, and beyond.

British salons of the 18th century, with guests such as Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, and William Thackeray, to name a few, were veritable hothouses of trouble: politically and culturally. The traditions were passed down: later years witnessed Byron’s mathematician daughter Ada Lovelace mingling with such luminaries as Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. The influence of the salon was revered; a few of these momentous occasions were immortalized in art themselves: a painting by Nicolas-André Monsiau in 1802 depicts Molière reading Tartuffe in the 1660’s, while a 1755 reading of Voltaire’s The Orphan of China: A Tragedy at Madame Geoffrin’s famed salon was immortalized by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier in 1812.

Novelist, poet, and American expatriate Gertrude Stein carried the tradition into the 20th century with more historical significance than most, and her parties are those most often recalled first in today’s culture when many think on the greatest invitation they’ll never receive: her crowd in early 1900’s Paris included such titans as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound—the list goes on. Stein, in fact, was also an art collector, and many of her extraordinary salons at 27 rue de Fleurus involved showcasing for critique the latest fruits of her artist friends’ labor. Such richness of inspiration, such spheres of ineffable talent, would no doubt have spurred on any dreamer to create beyond their assumed capabilities.

The beauty of the salon began to fade in society’s eye around the 1940’s. Drawing rooms no longer held the genteel, enraptured by a wellspring of ideas. Gatherings fell back under the ownership of celebrations or holidays, and the thought of a party exclusively to debate ideas, read poetry, and challenge guests’ cerebral and imaginative constraints likely seemed, well, exhausting. Such is the sway of time. Still, the tradition is not altogether gone. Some individuals who wish to bring about a new dawn of artistic relevance have carried on the centuries-old French rebellion by becoming modern-day salonnières. In New York and, again, Paris, I’ve heard readings are divine and attending presenters unforgettably thought-provoking. Then again, one couldn’t be sure.

Invitations are exclusive, after all.

HistoryAlex MeyerComment