The word salon has been around since at least 1664, derived from the Italian salone or French sala, meaning “a reception room or great hall.” The indication was for a particular part of a house, a room or several rooms, where people gathered together. The English equivalent would be the drawing room or parlor.
The word Salon gradually became synonymous with the Paris assemblies of elites and intellectuals that had been popular since the early 1600s. Initially there were many names for these gatherings and almost all were based on the name of whatever room or building where the meeting took place, such as cabinet, rèduit, ruelle, and alcôve. However, with casual intimacy a main component, a common destination was the comfortable rooms inside private homes of the fabulously wealthy. Hence, salon as an in-home reception room became the title for the gathering itself, or perhaps it was the other way around since the activity appears to pre-date the room. Hmmm…..
The Salon ideal, as begun by the French and Italians, dates back to the 16th century and probably far before. Initially, this was an intimate gathering, almost always around a woman of royalty, who held court with select individuals versed in the arts, literature, philosophies, sciences, and so on. Formal education was limited for women during this time, so the salon provided an acceptable way to educate oneself. Until the end of the 17th century, these intellectual conclaves often took place in the lady’s bedroom and required a formal invitation. The importance to these gatherings would grow during these decades, and the power and influence wielded by these beautiful, educated patronesses was extreme.
One of the most famous early salon hosts, called a salonière, in France in the first decades of 1600 was Catherine de Vivonne, the Marquess de Rambouillet. Hailing originally from Italy, she found the French Court not to her taste so she used her home – called the Hotel de Rambouillet – as a place for the educated to meet. She made it warm and welcoming, a place for visitors to speak intimately and openly.
Following Madame de Rambouillet’s model, Madeleine de Scudéry was the second French salon pioneer. Known for creating her own ideal of a feminist utopia within her salon, she strictly forbade romantic and sexual love, as she herself was devoutly celibate. An invitation to her salon was a rite of passage into Parisian aristocracy.
These two women and their competing salons were the original assemblages of the les bas-bleues, or Blue Stockings, an informal society of women that eventually spread throughout all of Europe whose influence on education and society was unparalleled. The nickname would continue to mean “intellectual woman” for the next three hundred years. They also came to be known as les precieuses, translated “preciousness,” and refined the courtly tone of romance and elegant French language.
As the prestige of the salon grew, so did the momentum. A salon became THE place to discuss everything from the arts to politics. An extraordinary aspect of the early French salons was that they brought people from different economic classes together. Always the driving force was intellectual discussion for the betterment of one’s education and culture. The Enlightenment period during the 1700s into the early 1800s was a time when free-thinking flourished. Having one’s own point of view, to be listening and learning and debating ideas, was celebrated. Additionally, being dumb was severely frowned upon amongst the fashionable, the French believing that an educated and enlightened society was for the good of all.
It should be obvious that a salon was starkly different than balls or any other amusement based soirees. The numerous salons varied, depending upon the characteristic and motivation of the hosting female, but with few exceptions they were of a morally upright, edification based nature with entertainment and frivolity not an objective. To be fair, not all salons held to such high standards, many no more than a cover for vice with morals dubious. Again, the persona of the hostess pervaded how the salon was operated and depravity has existed throughout the entirety of human existence.
This excerpt is from the 1808 memoirs of Jean-François Marmontel regarding the Parisian Salon of Julie de Lespinasse:
The circle was formed of persons who were not bound together. She had taken them here and there in society, but so well assorted were they that once there they fell into harmony like the strings of an instrument touched by an able hand. Following out that comparison, I may say that she played the instrument with an art that came of genius; she seemed to know what tone each string would yield before she touched it; I mean to say that our minds and our natures were so well known to her that in order to bring them into play she had but to say a word. Nowhere was conversation more lively, more brilliant, or better regulated than at her house. It was a rare phenomenon indeed, the degree of tempered, equable heat which she knew so well how to maintain, sometimes by moderating it, sometimes by quickening it. The continual activity of her soul was communicated to our souls, but measurably; her imagination was the mainspring, her reason the regulator … Her talent for casting out a thought and giving it for discussion to men of that class, her own talent in discussing it with precision, sometimes with eloquence, her talent for bringing forward new ideas and varying the topic always with the facility and ease of a fairy, who, with one touch of her wand, can change the scene of her enchantment-these talents, I say, were not those of an ordinary woman.”
Although never as popular elsewhere as they were in Paris, salons did spread to all of Europe. By the mid-1700s into the early 1800s, it was considered a fashionable and esteemed occupation for a woman of eminence. The Countess de Lieven was one of several dozen women who opened their homes to the glittering literary and artistic luminaries of English Society, who shared gossip and philosophies. The salons hosted by Elizabeth Montagu are where the expression “bluestocking” originated, and it was she who created the Blue Stockings Society in 1750.
As the 1800s drew to a close, salons lost their previous fervor. Assemblies of like minded artists continued in various forms, still do to this day, but the age of salon as an influence upon Society and culture waned.