Paris: City of Light

Madame Stäel: The Great Salonnière


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



Mme. de Stäel (1766-1817)

Figure 1.5 Engraving of Mme. de Stäel,Thomas Phillips, Bibliothèque National. Estampes (Bezard, 36).


"It has been said that Madame Stäel may have been the cleverest and most extraordinary woman of her time" (Ravenel, 104).

The daughter of the famous salonnière Suzanne Necker and James Necker, the Swiss Director of Finance under Louis XVI, Anne Marie Louise Germaine Necker had a amazing childhood.

Growing up in a setting so rich in intelligence and learning, surrounded by all the facilities of affluence, it is no wonder that Gibbon, a historian and family visitor, writes this of Germaine in his own Memoires:


"She was learned without pedantry, lively in conversation, pure in sentiment, and elegant in manners: her wit and beauty were the theme of universal applause"(Child, 1-2).

The demanding system of education Germaine's mother designed for her daughter included having Germaine join the table of her mother's salon, one of the favorite gathering places for the philosophes of Paris and often foreigners. Here Germaine had the opportunity to take interest in various subjects and learn to converse at a level beyond her age. It is no wonder that as early as twelve, Germaine revealed incredible literary and social talents.

Married at twenty to the Baron von Stäel Holstein, Swedish Ambassador to France, Mme. Stäel developed into a woman of many abilities including:

            • stateswoman
            • novelist
            • playwright
            • actress
            • metaphysician
            • musician
            • philosopher

With her marriage to de Stäel, Germaine gained an influential position in the social world of Paris. As statesmen passed through her salon at the Swedish Embassy in the rue de Bac, she was given the opportunity to express herself with authority on public affairs.


Figure 1.6 Portrait of Mme. de Stäel, François Gerárd, Château de Coppet, (Bezard, 37).

In observing this portrait of the great salonnière, Mme. de Stäel, imagine that in the early years of the Revolutionary period she ran a salon considered the "most brilliant in the height of its vogue" (Ravenel, 102).

She is not an incredibly handsome woman yet her large dark eyes and the loose ebony ringlets that adorn her face are quite becoming and attract interest. She appears very gentle and angelic as she stares off into the distance. Rather than take the typical seated pose, she stands in her portrait, possibly hinting at her great ambition to run and maintain her salon through France's turbulent times.

Yet based on Gerárd's portrayal of Mme. de S, it is still surprising that it was in fact this dull, modest-looking woman who supposedly caused a great sensation when appearing in the brilliant circles of Paris.


How exactly did Mme. Stäel create a stir of excitement in Paris? How did she attract much notice?

Guests of Mme. Stäel's salon were dazzled with:

        • her eloquent and fascinating style of conversation
        • her animated writings
        • her kindness and generosity
        • her clever tact (as she knew how to adapt herself to every variety of character in her salons)


    She was unlike the typical hostess of an 18th century salon, as it has been said that Stäel's guests were not there to talk to each other but to listen to her. "In other salons, it was the men who made history but not at Mme. de Stäel's salon" (Mason, 113).

However, Mme. de Stäel was not entirely content with her life. She wrote of a dinner to which she was invited by Marie Antoinette and was well received by the king and queen. Nevertheless, she considered the glorious court to be a demoralizing life with "utter recklessness pervading everything" (Watson, 103). All the men about her, including her husband, were ruining themselves by gambling. In addition, approximately four thousand of the political offices owned by the nobility were being corruptly bought and sold.

The winter after Mme. de Stäel's marriage, her father was exiled forty leagues (approximately 310 miles) from Paris because he was regarded as a friend of liberty and the people. Upon his recall to power, Mme. de Stäel transferred her salon to her father's house where it quickly became "a forum for the spread of liberal ideas" (Watson, 104).



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