Five hundred years ago, Paris was the intellectual capital of the world, a city giddy with the pace of industrial, scientific and cultural change. Literary, political and philosophical groups called Salons spanned the city limits and were important places for the exchange of ideas. The word salon first appeared in France in 1664 (from the Italian word salone, itself from sala, the large reception hall of Italian mansions.) They were an Italian invention of the 16th century, but flourished in France throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
Réunion de dames, Abraham Bosse, 17th century
Women were the hostesses of these highly sought-after, cerebral get-togethers. These women were les Grandes Dames des Salons Parisiens, the Great Ladies of the Parisian Salons. The guest lists of these meetings were infamous and included some of the greatest minds and personalities of the Enlightenment – Volatire, Molière, Marquise de Sévigné, David Hume, Horace Walpole, Benjamin Franklin – as well as the enlightened monarchs of Europe such as Frederick of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia and Gustav III of Sweden.
Marquise de Sévigné
These gatherings often consciously followed Horace’s definition of the aims of poetry, “either to please or to educate”.
‘aut delectare aut prodesse est’
Salon sociability quickly spread through Europe. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many large cities in Europe had salons copied on the Parisian models, although those were not as prominent as their French counterparts.
A salon in mid-19th century Russia
As the centuries progressed so too did the structure and attendance of these Salons. By the late 19th and early 20th century, the hostesses were almost as famous for their own intellect and writing as the guests they entertained. The list of their invitees was no less a who’s-who of 19th century greats in music, art, academia, theatre and literature than at these Salons. Some of the most notable guests included Balzac, Frédéric Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Eugène Delacroix, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.
A Reading in the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, 1755
Some of these hostesses, the Great Ladies, were highly original with extraordinarily intriguing personalities. Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet is one such woman and is often credited with the creation of the French Salon. In the late 1590s, she was brought to Paris from Italy to marry the son of a rich French nobleman. Quickly bored with her life, lacking all connection to love and incensed by the lack of culture and style that surrounded her, she began to accumulate in her presence the very essence of what Paris is now famous for: food, conversation, style and literature.
A reading of Molière, Jean François de Troy, about 1728
About a hundred years later, after a string of other salonnières, another influential figure appeared on the French scene: Madame de Pompadour. Of course, Pompadour was a courtesan, the King’s mistress, and thus enjoyed another stratosphere of luxurious notoriety and popularity. However, her mark on the style and graces of French culture cannot be denied. She surrounded herself with great minds and great talent and as a consequence set the standard of sophistication and elegance in Europe.
Salons have ceased to exist in such a form today, but we believe that they should be reintroduced. We have reinvigorated the formal custom with a new art form, a contemporary take and creatively curious twists. Head to Scent Salons to discover more.