The salons in the 18th centurye century

The salons in the 18th century<sup>e</sup> century

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Reading of the tragedy “The Orphan” of China ”by Voltaire in Madame Geoffrin's living room.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Publication date: September 2020

Professor of modern history at the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis.


The Salons in the 17th century


Historical context

An aristocratic and worldly sociability

Commissioned by Joséphine Beauharnais, this painting by the painter Lemonnier was exhibited at the Salon of 1814. The goal of this group portrait is to establish for posterity all those who counted on the social, philosophical and artistic scene in Paris during the century of the Enlightenment, well beyond the members who actually formed the company of Ms. Geoffrin.

Significantly named "companies" in the XVIIIe century, salons are in fact one of the main components of a worldly sociability of which the XIXe century cultivates nostalgia. If literate entertainment and the search for the right word are at the heart of these meetings, self-control and good manners are essential to the quality of the relationships between “salonniers”. Under these conditions, certain figures of the Enlightenment, such as the mathematician d'Alembert, co-editor of the first volumes of theEncyclopedia with Diderot, are sought after as much for their sense of humor and good company as for their flash of wit. As Alembert himself admits, “in England, Newton was content to be the greatest genius of his century; in France, we would also have liked him to be kind ". Salons do not decide academic careers or positions in the Republic of Letters, but they make and break reputations (in the case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who fails to submit to their judgment in terms of good taste and performance).

Image Analysis

Enlightenment group portrait

The stage is located in a living room richly decorated with paintings and rugs, that of Madame Geoffrin, wife of the director of the Ice Cream factory (future Saint-Gobain company). The hostess, who is also referred to in American historiography as a "salonnière", welcomes regulars from her "company" into the comfortable setting of the salon. It invites distinguished visitors, especially in the case of Parisian salons, foreign travelers of condition who have taken care to bring letters of recommendation. The most famous hostesses associate men of letters and artists with powerful people - here ministers like Turgot, Malesherbes or figures of the aristocracy like Marshal Duke of Richelieu. They are also concerned with bringing together guests whose characters are compatible. We recognize here in particular: Georges Louis Leclerc comte de Buffon, Mademoiselle de Lespinasse (another famous salt cellar), Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, Carle Van Loo, Claude Adrien Helvetius (whose wife ran a famous salon), the Prince de Conti , the baron de Montesquieu, Dortous de Mairant, Anne Robert, Louis Turgot, Denis Diderot, François Quesnay, the count of Caylus (famous art lover), Germain Soufflot, the duke of Choiseul, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Father Raynal, Marivaux, Françoise de Graffigny, René Antoine Réaumur or even Madame du Bocage.

In the center of this group painting of the Lights at their zenith sits the bust of the patriarch of Ferney, Voltaire, to whose genius the participants pay symbolic homage by reading his tragedy The Orphan of China.


Enlightenment history and artistic fiction

This work, often referred to as Madame Geoffrin's Salon in 1755, is one of the most frequently requested representations of the European Enlightenment. The private space meets the public space, people of letters and of the world pose to immortalize a flourishing social commerce, where the literate entertainment and the social chronicle combine harmoniously, where each one submits freely to norms of behavior and being in society.

The identification of the present and the absent, the expected figures of the cosmopolitanism of letters and of the aristocracy, reassures: the Enlightenment is at its peak, Paris is their favorite scene, its salons are courted by all the Europe of letters and taste. Yet this scene never happened, it's a reconstruction a posteriori Enlightenment in majesty, to the glory of one of the main salons of the 18th centurye century.

  • Lights
  • Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, said)
  • living room
  • Paris
  • absolute monarchy
  • Diderot (Denis)
  • D’Alembert (Jean le Rond)
  • Rousseau (Jean-Jacques)
  • philosophers
  • Montesquieu (Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède and)
  • Turgot (Anne Robert Jacques)


BEAUREPAIRE Pierre-Yves, France of the Enlightenment (1715-1789), Paris, Belin, coll. “History of France”, 2011.

BEAUREPAIRE Pierre-Yves, The myth of French Europe in the 18th century: diplomacy, culture and sociability in the age of enlightenment, Paris, Autrement, coll. “Memory & history”, 2007.

LILTI Antoine, The world of salons: sociability and worldliness in Paris in the 18th century, Paris, Fayard, 2005.

To cite this article

Pierre-Yves BEAUREPAIRE, “The salons in the XVIIIe century "

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