I love this painting by Jean Francois de Troy. It is titled: A Reading of Molière (or Reading in a salon). It was painted in 1728 during the reign of Louis XV.
(Personal disclosure: my painful revelation of my love of rococo and baroque art! )
The scene feels so immediate. I feel I know these women! It is three thirty in the afternoon and they are slumping in their armchairs, relaxed, congenial; two of them are looking at the painter as if interrupted by his gaze - into the camera as it was! The man on the left looks with a perplexed and curious expression to the woman with a red stole. The scene feels so direct, as if stepping through time and space.
Second little secret: I have always felt an affinity for XVII and XVIII century women and for the salonnières. (Never mind that I would never have gone past the kitchen staff: my dreams belong to me.)
These women were intent in changing the coarse and boorish behaviors of the times. (Earlier at the court of Henri II, Catherine de Medicis, in an effort to socialize men’s table manners, had brought the usage of the fork. Enough of men slaughtering each other with their knife when they had too much to drink! Catherine brought the less dangerous fork to French tables. Nice touch!)
Aristocratic women finding no room in the staunch and asphyxiating atmosphere of the court of Louis XIV and Louis XV started to invite the most important writers, philosophers and artists -the influencers of the day- and artfully lead the discussions trying to keep the discourse civil enough to encourage enlightenment.
Curiously Moliere held in derision this surge of preciosity and sneered at the salonnières in his play “Les Precieuses Ridicules”.May be this is why the women on the painting feel so nonchalant about the lecture of the Moliere’s play!
The salons started in the early 1600 in the chambre bleue of the Marquise de Rambouillet.The Marquise de Rambouillet surrounded herself with the hot writers of the time: madame de La Fayette, Corneille, Marie de Sévigné , Madeleine de Scudéry.
They all met at the Hôtel Rambouillet. It was the first breath of the French Academy - overseer of the purity of the French language - which was later founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635.
Women however were not accepted in the academy and mesdames had to wait another 345 years to enter this bastion of male chauvinism with the acceptance of Marguerite Yourcenar (1980). But I am getting ahead of myself.
In the early 1700 Madame de Tencin put artists, writers, and philosophers on an equal footing with aristocrats when she opens the doors of her salon. A slight to the clannish discriminative court.
Madame Geoffrin established a salon which was home to philosophers; her support over several decades of the writers of the Encyclopedia was critical to its success.
These salonnières encouraged a free exchange of ideas; they were brokers of power and agents of change and they did much to foster modern concepts of equality, democracy, and liberty.
From the modern point of view it is clear that Liberte-Egalite-Fraternity was a bourgeois concept. The ‘femmes du peuple’, the commoners, were not invited to the table: they could hardly bring bread to their own table to feed their kids and were made to obey church and husband.