French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848 – Steven Kale


  • “In the 17th and 18th centuries salons encouraged socializing between the sexes, brought nobles and bourgeois together, and afforded opportunities for intellectual speculation. During the reign of Louis XIII and the ministry of Cardinal Mazarin (1610-61) they helped transform and homogenize the mores of the upper classes and provided a setting for feminine literary expression; in the Age of Reason, they focused on and reflected enlightened public opinion by facilitating the exchange of news and ideas and by permitting the philosophes to display themselves to the “the world.” With the outbreak of the French Revolution and the emergence of parliamentary government, salons acquired a political vocation, becoming institutes of political sociability for French aristocrats and intellectual elites […] The persistence of salons in the 19th century shows their remarkable ability to adapt to changing historical circumstances.” (2-3)
    • Salons somewhat disappeared between the Revolution and Napoleon
      • Napoleon encouraged aristocratic salons to bolster his power and prestige
    • During the Restoration (1815-30) and July Monarchy (1830-48) salons were the “principle centers for political networking, structured by the conventions of mondaine sociability and managed by powerful salonnières”
  • Basic characteristics: luxurious space, feminine governance, select company, polite conversation
    • Seen as anchored to feminine cultural norms, yet was very flexible (hence its long survival)
    • A “flexible vehicle for the accomplishment of goals constrained by social and gender norms” (on the margins of public life -> thus had freedom)
  • Filled an institutional vacuum at the intersection between public and private life left by the decline of old institutions and before new ones arose
    • Variety of salon types: philosophical, mundane, official/ministerial, literary, musical, amusement (including gambling, theatre, singing/dancing, poetry), etc.
      • Most salons were many of these at once though
  • Depicted in a variety of literary works
    • Almost invariably the author’s opinions color the picture that appears
    • Reports range from salons being a-political to driving the course of revolutions! (The former is probably truer)
      • Very few salons were purely political (many of the most political salonnières were foreign women)
      • Salons were most political during the early 19th century
  • Though salons were run by women, its a “legend” that “women held the key to power and imposed their tastes, preferences, and ideas, notably in political matters” (Kale citing Adeline Daumard, 8)
  • The salon was a “tool of survival” for the aristocracy, which faced a slow but relentless decline (Kale citing Arno Mayer, 9-10)
    • Helped regulate the transition from hereditary to an open elite (based on wealth and education, as well as ancestry)
    • Salons struck a balance between being exclusive and open in their membership
  • Regarding women: the “separate spheres of the Victorian era are not applicable to early modern French aristocrats” (12)
    • The public and private spheres blended together
    • Women were viewed as not the typical element of social disorder
      • Instead, Renaissance view of women as “civilizers,” “ethical cornerstones” and in sharp contrast to the coarse male side of society.
        • cf. Chapter 4 in James McMillan’s France and Women
      • The Countess d’Agoult “required that women with the power to render ‘the final opinion on delicate matters of propriety and honor’ receive ‘fervent and constant homage’” (13)
    • Salonnières had a great deal of power, and were generally admired and respected
  • Salons were spared from a series of repressive governmental anti-association acts starting in 1791 (a result of their being associated with the upper class)

Chapter 6

  • The salon declined in importance after 1830, becoming increasingly marginalized
    • Contemporary opinion held that intense political partisanship and a decline in civility towards those of another party initiated the decline (sound familiar?)
    • Incidentally, the huge focus on politics helped reduce the influence of women
  • The July Revolution, and the reversal of many peoples’ personal fortunes no doubt impacted, at least temporarily, salon life
    • Following the Revolution was the “War of the Salons” (a less bloody but by no means less emotional conflict between conservative and liberal groups)
  • Marie d’Agoult regretted the decline in importance of salons, but said “No longer under the eyes of the dauphine and our old dowagers, we felt ourselves delivered from a surveillance that had not until then permitted us to open our salons to new people, to men of a lesser condition, bourgeois, the newly ennobled, writers, and artists, whose celebrity had begun to pique our curiosity.” (cited in Kale 172)
  • The functionalist (and perhaps best) explanation for salon decline: “salons were undifferentiated, informal gatherings that performed tasks for which modernity subsequently invented a whole array of specialized institutions” such as newspapers, railroads, telegraphs, etc. (173)
    • Modernity also helped make obsolete the amateur (gentleman) - for instance an amateur who dabbled in the intellectual side of politics (rather than the nitty-gritty), replacing him with a professional politician
    • As men became busier, women remained just as leisurely (175)
  • Salonnières in general: aristocratic, moderate (open to hearing all sides of an argument), sought a “feminine” reconciliation between partisans
    • Some held “dictatorial” power; all were gatekeepers of an aristocratic world to which many lower class people sought entrance (183-4)
  • Upper-class (exclusively male) clubs were formed starting in the 1830s – another iteration of a male, business-dominated world (192)
    • Clubs had significant annual dues and restricted membership (prospective members needed to be voted in by a large majority in most cases)
    • Allure of clubs included: privacy, good food, luxurious setting, axis of common interests, not much intellectual conversation, much more political homogeneity than salons
    • The ever increasing popularity of clubs throughout the century led to what Balzac called the “end of women’s reign” (195)
  • “Political sociability began to undergo a process of specialization in the 1820s, which tended to move practical political matters out of salons and into réunions, conferences, and clubs …” (197)
    • “Specialization among institutions of sociability neither eliminated salons nor ended gender mixing, but it separated politics from mondanité, deprived salons of their multifunctionality, and left women to preside of a sociability of leisure that was increasingly marginal to public life. The private sphere to which women had already been confined was now drained of its relative political importance.” (198)
    • Perhaps the cigar, more than anything else, was a sign of increased male independence and the emblem of the new clubs (see 199)!

Christensen, Thomas. “Four Hand Piano Transcription and Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Musical Reception,” JAMS Vol. 52, No. 2 (Summer, 1999), pp. 255-298.

Weber, William. “Did People Listen in the 18th Century?” Early Music Vol. 25, No. 4, 25th Anniversary Issue; Listening Practice (Nov., 1997), pp. 678-691.

  • 18th century salons: developed out of music in the courts, patronage; salons tended to center around touring musicians
  • According to Weber, if the host of the salon was not musically inclined (or perhaps less musically minded as other hosts), then more background noise was heard under the music; this led to the idea that salon music was “associated with the lesser kinds of virtuoso composition”
  • It was common for transcriptions of orchestral works to be played by four, sometimes eight hands in mid-19th century Parisian salons.

Clark, Linda L. Women and Achievement in Nineteenth-Century Europe.


  • Began c. 1660s under Louis XIV
  • Became setting for conversation on politics, literature (especially that of Enlightenment authors*, in the beginning); books were often read aloud in salons
  • Clark refers to Jürgen Habermas*: by the end of the 18th century, salons had been instrumental in creating a new public sphere, sitting between the court and the general public; “important for the airing of views on numerous governmental and social issues” (8)
  • Salons allowed for mixed company, by both sex and class (aristocrats and bourgeoisie*)
  • Clark quotes author Germaine de Staël, 1800: “The influence of women is necessarily very great when all events occur in salons, and all character is revealed in words; in such a state of affairs, women are a power, and what is pleasing to them is cultivated.” (8)
  • French influence spread to St. Petersburg, London, Berlin, Madrid
  • Tied directly into women’s education: Rousseau* spoke out against this
  • Pauline Viardot held weekly salons; she also composed four operettas, which were performed at her salons

Stock-Morton, Phyllis. The Life of Marie d’Agoult, alias Daniel Stern.

  • Exchange of ideas at salons
  • 1840s: d’Agoult’s salon focused on literary conversations, and grew to include politics as well''

Tunley, David. Salons, Singers, and Songs.

  • Salons in Paris took place in four specific districts populated by the aristocracy and bourgeoisie: the faubourgs (suburbs) Saint-Germain, Saint-Honoré, and the Marais and the Chaussée-d’Antin
    • Saint-German (Left Bank, from Invalides B3 to church of Saint-Germain-de-Prés D4) was closest to the court, almost an extension of the court because of the connection made by Port Royal to the Palace of the Tuileries
    • The Marais (Right Bank) featured old aristocracy, only salon was that of a wealthy Jewish family (the Lévi-Alverès)
    • Saint-Honoré (south of Champs-Elysées, down rue Saint-Honoré up to the boulevard de la Madeleine B2-C2) was more liberal than the S-G and Marais in style and thought
    • Chaussée-d’Antin (from the boulevard des Italiens and the boulevard des Capucines C2-D2 to the rue Saint-Lazare D1) popular living area for artists and musicians, most liberal of the four salon areas; according to Tunley, a variety of artists lived in the Chaussée-d’Antin: Sand, Chopin, Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod, Viardot, Delacroix, Sarah Bernhardt, Balzac, and Rossini, to name a few
  • Famous salons include that of Saint-Saëns, Viardot, Princess Cristina Belgiojoso
  • Hosts and hostesses need to be rather wealthy to cover not only the cost of the artists, but also supper and possibly dancing (so other musicians); salons hosted by musicians like Rossini - did they charge a entrance fee? No evidence, but considering that many musicians depended on funding from salon performances, this would not be surprising.
  • Most evidence of salons comes from letters, diaries, and at times the press (reporters invited)
  • Some salons had no music (often true of literary salons); some only had music as background or a diversion
  • There were matinée (afternoon) and soirée salons (evening)
  • Princess Belgiojoso’s salon is featured in this book (see Salonnières)

The History of the History of the Salon by Duncan McCall Chesney
Title: The History of the History of the Salon. Source: Nineteenth-century French studies yr.2007 vol.36 iss.1 pg.94
-Understanding the salon will help us understand the political climate of the 19th Century
-During the July Monarch was the second empire of the salon
-Several key figures in understanding the writings about salons include Victor Cousin, Pierre-Louis Roederer and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve
-Balsac’s Autre Etudes de Femmes, a collection of short stories: describes salons as the soiree following the ball, the smaller more intimate social gathering following major events
-Salon is described as highly secretive and exclusive, the subject of the salon in Balsac’s story is the decline of society, spoken in terms of the woman. As social order was broken down by Napoleon and women became completely dependent on their husbands has caused the decline of society.
-According to Balsac, women no longer “governs the semipublic sphere of opinion and culture” as she did in the 18th century.
-These writers documented the salon to reflect their own political ideals.
-Eventually author/critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve tried to change the opinion that salons were something of the 18th century because he knew they were alive and well in the 1840s
-Germaine de Stael held many prestigious salons of the 19th century, grew up with her mother holding “enlightenment” salons
“The salon, which began in the early 17th century as an anti courtly appropriation of the Italian courtly tradition and became the touchstone of French society during its great centuries, had resurfaced after the Revolution as a reconciliatory symbol.”
The salon is said to have been lost at the end of the 19th century with the decimation of French aristocracy.

Parlor Games: Italian Music and Italian Politics in the Parisian Salon Author(s): Mary Ann Smart Source: 19th-Century Music, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Summer 2010), pp. 39-60

Comtesse de Merlin writes fictionally about a Salon saying,
“Most of the salons where polite society gathers can be distinguished only by the name of the man of the house, and by the degree of luxury and the number of lamps that adorn the rooms; they are performances in which everyone believes himself an actor, but in which everyone is no more than a poor bit of the parterre, crowded and confined, jostled and buffeted by the wave; tossed about by the rising tide. We do not look there for men of merit, but for those of position—here powerful men, there the titled, and everywhere dancers… . How is it possible to enjoy the charms of wit where conversation, the exchange of ideas, is impossible?”

Her writing also sums up the how the salon could be political in nature or a blend of different subjects

Smart speaks of how knowing what salon a song is tied to could help assign meaning to the song

Rossini and Mercadante are examples of Italian expatriates settled in Paris bring Italian politics to the music of the French Salon

Walker Biography of Liszt pgs. 148-151
After the revolution writers, painters, musicians, and social reformers came to Paris with artistic and intellectual activity.
People who lived there:
Authors: Sainte-Beuve, Victor Hugo, Balzac, George Sand, and Heine
Painters: Delacroix, Deveria, and Ary Scheffer
Musicians: Hiller, Berlioz, Kalkbrenner, and Alkan
Immigrants from Russia: Chopin, Mickiewicz (Polish poet)
Liszt was acquainted with all of the above
“Sponsored and organized by the wealthiest families in the realm, the salons of the Faubourgs St. Germain and St. Honore were the scenes of dazzling assemblies of aristocrats, politicians, artists, and scientists.”
-A place where radical ideas could be expressed, became the embodiment of “Haute Culture”
-Presided over by women: Countess de Montault, the Countess de la Rochefoucauld and the Duchess de Gramont
Walker suggests a sort of familiarity in these salons, not only a formal affair but a personal one where criticism and humor was exchanged
Liszt often went to the salons of the Faubourg St.-Germain, where he met Countess Adele Laprunarede who became the Duchess de Fleury
-He had an extended affair with Adele
-He also had an affair with Countess Plater who held salons, who when asked to compare Hiller, Chopin and Liszt said that “she would choose Hiller as a friend, Chopin as a husband, and Liszt as a lover.”
-He also took trip with a Mlle de Barre and two other young ladies
In 1932 Paris was struck with cholera and salons were halted

More salon facts

Salons and the Time Period/Society
-women were never excluded from salons
-exclusively for the elite and aristocratic
-mothers often brought their young daughters to salons to meet potential husbands (davidson, 24)
- salons, usually hosted by women, created a “woman’s place in the public sphere” (p3, davidson)
-previously, men and women were expected to exist in separate spheres (p3, davidson)
-original dynamic of salons began as a promotion of art and culture
-throughout the 30s, it shifted to take a much more political stance (p125, wiser)
-as salons grew increasingly political, police began keeping track of salon and cercle activities, making note of who was associated with what groups (p134 davidson)
-Cercle: a form of middle-class sociability in france during the early nineteenth century – an association of mostly men organized to share non-activity or leisure time
-Davidson says they defined themselves against the salon by being less accepting of women (davidson, 25)
-these cercles seemed to have evolved into the male equivalent of salons (davidson 26)

-In the 1830s, salons were also extremely commercial.
-the two major salons were the salle erard and the salle pleyel
-the conservatoire was also an important concert venue
-the erard and pleyel salons used concerts to advertise their latest piano models to the parisian elite
-virtuosos were used to endorse piano models
-walker compares these concerts to a stock exchange
-Liszt typically played at the salle erard, probably because of his personal friendship with the erard family. (walker 162)

-found an article that describes the art furniture displayed in salons
-it was a way for furniture artists to advertise themselves and become well known throughout paris
-also a way for salon owners to show their wealth and status (Starr 113)
-salons also often showed plays

interesting side note: (no real citation)
-paintings were displayed and sold in salons during this time as well. I know from an art history class I took last year that larger paintings depicting the classic greek myths were always on gigantic canvases, and put higher up on the walls; they were considered more important. Paintings on other subjects were smaller, and closer to the floor.
-the painter who broke this trend in 1819 was Gericault, who painted The Raft of the Medusa, showing the starving poor left behind from a shipwreck.

French Café’ society 19th century (Haine)
-informal gatherings at cafes were the lower class equivalent of salons
-there was a focus on entertianment. People would watch theatre, listen to music, or read journals “for nothing” (haine, 4)
-the police were hard on the café’s, and considered them hubs for unemployed drunkards
-from haine’s description, they’re almost exactly the same thing as salons, but with working class people

Davidson, Denise Z. France After Revolution: Urban Life, Gender, and the New Social Order. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Haine, W. Scott. The World of the Paris Café: Sociability Among the French Working Class, 1789-1914. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
. Starr, Laura B. “Art Furniture in the Paris Salon” The Decorator and Furnisher vol. 30 no. 4, 1897.
Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987

Wiser, William. The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000.