Paris: City of Light

The Salons of the Enlightenment


Parisian Salons
 ~Salons of   Enlightenment
 ~Madame de   Stäel         
~Salons of the   Restoration
 ~The Salons of   Victor Hugo

Influence of Printed Materials
 ~Pre-Revolutionary   Timeline
 ~Post-Revolutionary   Timeline


Defining the Parisians
 ~Parisians Viewed   by Foreigners
 ~Parisians   Viewed by   Themselves
 ~Paris Fashion




The Republic of Letters, which formed during the second half of the 18th century in France, was made up of both men, the philosophes, and women, the salonnières, who played corresponding but not equal roles. The philosophes and the salonnières worked together to achieve the ends of philosophy broadly set up as the project of the Enlightenment. Their base was the Parisian salons, where networks of social and intellectual exchange were developed to connect Paris, the capital of the Enlightenment and the City of Light, with the rest of France.


Here in the salons of the Enlightenment, compared to other 18th century social gatherings and salons of an earlier age, the tone was much more serious. From the memoires of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, entitled La Femme au dix-huitième siècle (1862), it is claimed that the Enlightenment salons may have been solemn and grave... but this seriousness was "a sign of decadence, the first stage in the destruction of all that was beautiful and good" (Goodman, 74).

The de Goncourts' wrote:

"Between [the] salon of the time of Louis XV and [that] of the time of Louis XVI, is the difference between the two reigns. The salon of the time of Louis XV seemed to open onto the present, the salon of the time of Louis XVI opens out onto the future. Its walls, its architecture are saddened like the court and like society, by reform, seriousness, rigidity....This is still society, but it is no longer pleasure" (de Goncourt, 77).


Pleasure was not the objective of the Enlightenment salons. The philosophes who had rejected the academy and the university as the institutional bases for their Republic of Letters turned to the Parisian salons to continue their conversations and practices. The salonnières served to listen attentively to the philosophes and fill in during the silences of the conversation if needed.


Conversation was the primary activity of the salons but it was the letter that made the Parisian salons of the 18th century centers of the Enlightenment. Correspondence served to move the Enlightenment out of the private world of the salon into the public world beyond it. Letters began to be increasingly used by the philosophes "to bridge the gap between the private circles in which they gathered and the public arena that they sought and conquer" (Habermas, 40-1). By the end of the century, a multitude of letter writing forms had developed, for example: the copied letter, circulated letter, open letter, published letter, and the letter to the editor. This began to connect a large span of readers which often started with an initial intellectual exchange made in the Parisian salons. This enormous network of exchange led to the development of readers who reacted, responded, and then became writers themselves via pamphlets and the emerging periodical press.


A main purpose of the salons of Paris for the salonnières during the Enlightenment was to "satisfy the self-determined educational needs of the women who started them" (Goodman, 42). For the salonnières, the salon was a socially acceptable substitute for the formal education denied to them. Most parents at this time saw no reason in educating their daughters and even if they did, there were no institutions in which to do so.


Under the direction of the salonnières such as Madame Geoffrin, Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, and Madame Necker, the salon was transformed from a noble, leisure institution into an institution of the Enlightenment.



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