We tend to think of the 18th-century French salon as the setting in which women masterminded the gathering of the philosophical avant-garde to engage in polite, enlightened conversation. This view of a decorative haunt, inhabited by the frivolous and intellectually self-indulgent, owes a great deal to the most famous image of the salons, Anicet Lemonnier’s Reading in the Salon of Madame Geoffrin. The painting shows the mathematician and coeditor of the Encyclopédie Jean le Rond d’Alembert at a reading of Voltaire’s tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine among an audience of his literary and philosophic contemporaries.
But although it seemed true to life, as Antoine Lilti reminds us in his remarkable history of the salons, this painting was in fact commissioned in 1814, more than thirty years after Madame Geoffrin’s death, reflecting a post-Revolutionary nostalgia. As Lilti states: ‘Where salons are concerned, we are often looking through nineteenth-century glasses.’ Drawing on a wealth of new archival material – diaries, diplomatic correspondence, memoirs, private letters and police reports – Lilti overturns the common myths about what salons were and what took place in them.
The term ‘salon’ was itself an anachronism. Before the 19th century, it was solely an architectural term