When Benjamin Franklin traveled to Paris in 1776 seeking support for the Revolution, the old charmer became a popular guest at the city’s glittering salons. His successor Thomas Jefferson continued his PR work and established contacts with the city’s most prominent salonnières. Thomas Paine too was a visitor of various salons. Thanks to their socio-diplomatic involvement, the American Revolution became a central topic of discussion at such gatherings.
Salons persisted into the twentieth century, not just in Paris but in most European capitals (Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere). Inter-war Paris was the setting for an artistic explosion that attracted an invasion of young American talent. The avant-garde camped in Montmartre.
Simultaneously, Paris welcomed the arrival from the United States of wealthy young women who were seduced by the city’s lesbian subculture. They set up salons at their private abodes and patronized modernist artists. Renewed art historical interest in their presence has persuaded some researchers to claim that there would have been “no modernism without lesbianism.”
The salon flourished in Paris from the seventeenth into the twentieth century and offered space for political and cultural debate. The arrival and departure of Enlightenment, Revolution, and Restoration, left their marks on the institution.
The first famous salon was the Hôtel de Rambouillet, close to the Louvre where, from 1607 until her death, Madame de Rambouillet, received visitors in her “chambre bleue.” Corneille, Malherbe, La Fontaine, and other prominent figures in socio-cultural life frequented her blue room.
These gatherings established the salon’s rules of etiquette. Hosted by a fashionable lady, guests were drawn from the nobility and upper social classes. It became an informal meeting place for politicians, intellectuals, and artists. The satire of Molière’s Précieuses ridicules was leveled at the numerous coteries that sprung up in imitation of Rambouillet.
The role of the “salonnière” proved controversial from the start. Some argued that the salon offered women an education and as such an escape route from a fixed place in society. To others, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, her presence represented the empty idleness of the aristocracy. The squabble lingers on in contemporary historical debate.
By the late eighteenth century salons had diversified, serving as debating hubs on political change. As she organized the gatherings, the hostess set the agenda and selected participants. As such, affluent women played their part in stoking intellectual rumblings of rebellion (working class women took to the streets instead).
Madame [Sophie] de Condorcet ran a salon at Hôtel des Monnaies, opposite the Louvre, that was attended by philosophers and writers. Foreign visitors were made welcome, including Thomas Jefferson and the economist Adam Smith. Sophie was close to Thomas Paine and translated some of his pieces.
In 1791/2 Marie-Jeanne Philippon, Madame Roland, hosted gatherings at the Hotel Britannique which were attended by members of the Jacobin club. Visitors included Robespierre and Thomas Paine. These were strictly political meetings. Apart from Madame Roland herself, there were no women present.
Discussion revolved around politics. Reports on the American Revolution electrified these gatherings and its critical documents (the Declaration of Independence or the Virginia Declaration of Rights) were closely studied. The salon was a nerve center of political debate and trans-Atlantic solidarity.
During the nineteenth century the salon became woven into the fabric of life and played a part in the political fermentation leading up to the 1848 risings in Europe. The suppression of nationalist movements in the Italian peninsula had forced rebels into exile. Among them was the Princess of Belgioioso who had been associating with followers of Giuseppe Mazzini until she was forced to leave for Paris. During the 1830s and 1840s her salon was a meeting (and plotting) place for insurgents.
Gradually, the role of salonnière was usurped by different characters. In Parisian social circles, the courtesan (“grande horizontale”) reached an unprecedented level of acceptance. She appeared in art and fiction. Balzac wrote about the Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes; Dumas published La dame aux camélias (which Verdi turned into La Traviata); Zola introduced Nana; and Proust gave immortality to Odette Swann.
Born in a Moscow ghetto, Esther Lachmann was of Polish Jewish descent. She became the star courtesan of her era. Sharing an apartment with the pianist Henri Herz in Paris, she invited prominent guests to attend her salon – these included Richard Wagner, Hans von Bülow, and Théophile Gautier. At a Baden spa she met Marquis Albino Francesco de Païva-Araujo. She married him in June 1851, acquiring a fortune, a Portuguese title, and her nickname “La Païva.” She left him the next day.
Her final conquest was Prussian Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck (who gifted her the famous Donnersmarck diamonds). With his money, she erected Hôtel de Païva at the Champs-Élysées, a mansion notorious for parties that reflected Second Empire decadence. Adolphe Monticelli’s painting “Une soirée chez La Païva” indicates the sumptuous surroundings of these gatherings.
Deep social injustices were hidden behind this facade of glamour. While celebrated courtesans were showered with champagne, most Parisian prostitutes were desperate women who had fled the provinces. By the end of the nineteenth century, some 34,000 “filles à numéro” were registered (and inspected) in the capital, most of them forced into whoredom out of poverty. Sex was their sole means of survival.
Once the First World War had ended, Paris rebounded in a carnival of hedonism. Americans were drawn to the city for its creative vitality and freedom of expression. Others escaped puritanical attitudes at home seeking sexual liberation. The avant-garde was bankrolled by rich lesbian expats. Having assumed the traditional role of hostess, these powerful women acted as curators of young talent. To make their presence felt, they divided the territories of art between them. They were trophy hunters.
Natalie Clifford Barney’s salon at 20 Rue Jacob in Paris’s Left Bank was a meeting place for writers. Born in October 1876 in Dayton, Ohio, into a wealthy family, she attended Les Ruches, a boarding school in Fontainebleau founded by the lesbian feminist Marie Souvestre. Natalie would spent the rest of her life in France.
For half a century she hosted leading French literary figures and expat authors. Ford Madox Ford, William Carlos Williams, and T.S. Eliot were attendees. Her affairs inspired various novels, including Djuna Barnes’s 1928 “roman à clef” (a story with fictitious names for real people) Ladies Almanack which catalogues a network of lesbian visitors to the Rue Jacob.
Winnaretta Singer’s salon was a haven for modernist composers. Born in Yonkers, New York, in January 1865, she was daughter of the famous sewing machine manufacturer. Although a lesbian, she married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard in 1887. It was a tumultuous affair. Five years later the marriage was annulled. She then entered into a “mariage blanc” with Prince Edmond de Polignac, a gay amateur composer. The non-sexual relationship was built on a shared passion for music.
In 1894 she established a salon at their mansion on Avenue Henri-Martin. Guests included Nadia Boulanger, Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, and Sergei Diaghilev. First performances were given there by Chabrier, Debussy, Fauré, and Manuel de Falla. Young Ravel dedicated his Pavane pour une infante défunte to the Princess. Many of Marcel Proust’s evocations of salon culture were born during his attendance of concerts in Singer’s drawing room.
Gertrude Stein established herself as a champion of avant-garde painters. Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, she made Paris her home having inherited a fortune. Alice B. Toklas, a wealthy young San Franciscan became her lifelong companion and secretary. For a while their Left Bank apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus was shared by her brother, the art critic Leo Stein.
The list of guests at her weekly gatherings reads as a roll-call of modernism. Her collection of paintings was on display there and included works by Cézanne and Matisse (others were casually stacked away and left unframed). For Picasso, Gertrude’s early patronage was critical to his success. In 1905, she commissioned him to paint her portrait.
A self-proclaimed genius, Stein published obscure poetry and fiction that Edmund Wilson and other critics dismissed as incomprehensible. The only book that reached a wider (prying) public was the conventional Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
Shakespeare & Co
Nancy Woodbridge Beach was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. In 1901 the family moved to Paris when her father was made minister at the American Church. The family returned six years later and settled in Princeton. By 1916 she was back in Paris as a student of literature and a lesbian woman seeking independence.
Two years later she met her lifelong partner Adrienne Monnier. In late 1919 Beach opened Shakespeare & Co, a bookshop and lending library specializing in Anglo-American literature which soon became a meeting place for modernist authors. Sylvia was a loyal friend to many struggling writers, including James Joyce. In 1922, he trusted her as the first publisher of Ulysses where editors in London and New York, fearing prosecution, had refused to touch the novel.
Sylvia had to work to make ends meet, but her contribution to artistic developments was a real one. The others were mere facilitators. C’est tout.
Illustrations, from above: Salon at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, 1863 by Francois Hippolyte Debon (Dreux Museum of Art and History); Plaque at 10 Rue de l’Odéon, Paris, where Thomas Pain lived from 1797 to 1802; Une soireé chez La Païva by Adolphe Monticelli (Date unknown; in private collection); Ladies Almanack by Djuna Barnes; Natalie Clifford Barney (Granger / REX / Shutterstock); Claude Debussy at Winnaretta Singer’s Salon; and Gertrude Stein at 27 Rue de Fleurus with Picasso’s 1906 portrait of her on the wall, May 1930.