Print Article

Between Court and Drawing Room

Written by: Karen Klitgaard Povlsen |

Salon life in the Nordic region grew out of the French prototype of les précieuses and the German pre-Romantic salons. In the seventeenth century, les précieuses formed their own salons in protest against the vulgarity of the court of Henri IV. These salons were coveted gathering places for the cultural elite. Les précieuses sought out artists and celebrities and displayed them as trophies in the salon forum. This made for a breach in the otherwise so rigid class distinctions; in the salons of the précieuses, an aristocracy of the mind could now mix on an almost equal footing with an aristocracy of the blood. A culture of extreme attention to social conventions and to spoken and written forms developed in the salons. Form became an enthusiasm. Not the external conventions of propriety, which all aristocrats commanded, but the inner elegance. It was a case of being able to improvise with style.

Carl Johan Ljunggren, from Scener ur Sällskapslivet. 1830’erne. Watercolour. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm NMH 61/1894.

Literature, art, marriage, friendship, motherhood, and love were favourite topics of the précieuses. In order to discuss these topics exhaustively, the précieuses developed a new, sophisticated vocabulary – the beginnings of a system of psychological terminology. The précieuses were split on the issue of lineage versus a new individuality. They accepted the arranged marriages, but withdrew from marital relations once succession was taken care of, then devoting themselves to platonic love, friendship, and motherhood. The précieuse salons exuded another kind of pleasure, a courtesy and spiritual coquetry conceptualised in the philosophy of Venus Urania, the goddess of platonic love. With her it was possible, in noble renunciation, to achieve a different – and greater – spiritual pleasure. The eternal triangle that followed in the wake of this philosophy is echoed by some of the Nordic salonnières.

Court culture considered the grand formal dinner in the ‘salon’ to be a sine qua non. The précieuses often skipped it. The focal point of the salon was the witty conversation, often taking place in the boudoir, the intimate space. In Scandinavia we see that the more bourgeois the salon, the less important the formal dinner gathering. There is a reason why Anna Maria Lenngren and Kamma Rahbek only served tea at their respective salons.

Dinner was also done away with at the German pre-Romantic salons. Rahel Levin (1771-1831) held salons from 1790 until 1806 in a modest room in which she lived, the unmarried daughter of a Jewish merchant. She could not always even offer a cup of tea; every evening after 5 o’clock, however, all the outsiders in Berlin would gather at her home in the company of people from the best circles. The tone at salonnière Bettina von Arnim’s (1785-1857) was even more relaxed: she would skip around the gathering, swift and pert, and sit on the table while being enthused by the utopias and visions of the political radicals. Bettina and Rahel link the tradition from Enlightenment defence of women and cultivation of emotion with the Saint-Simonist ideas about a free, equal society without division along lines of gender, rank, or work. Both women strove to create just such a society en miniature in their salons.

Men of the younger generation – Heinrich Heine and Ludvig Börne, for example – gathered at Bettina von Arnim’s salon. She read Karl Marx and the French memoirist Louis de Rouvray, duc de Saint-Simon, whose critique of absolute monarchy was radicalised in the direction of social reform by his followers, and also endeavoured to live in accordance with Saint-Simonism and Marxism. Material she had gathered in an attempt to document the miserable plight of the working class in Prussia and Germany was supposed to have appeared in 1844, but was not published until 1962 as Das Armenbuch (Book of the Poor).

Bettina von Arnim and Rahel Levin, later Rahel Varnhagen, both idealised Goethe. Bettina had made a model of a monument to him, which she kept in her sitting room, and she thought highly of his mother – the woman who had reared this genius. The younger Goethe – the one who described young Werther’s sorrows, and who had created Mignon as an androgynous ideal of woman,

Mignon is the mysterious child from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796; Eng. tr. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship). She is a young girl – “from the land where the lemon blossom grows”, Italy – who follows the main character, Wilhelm, on his journey. Like the country she comes from, she is passionate and sensuous, but she always carries an air of mystery and yearning.

As female ideal she is the child who refuses to become an adult, and who therefore arrogates to herself an anarchistic latitude – also as regards traditional gender limits. Southern and spontaneous, she can offend against every idea of correctness and yet retain her integrity. Mignon-fervour is accompanied by an enthusiasm for all things Italian.

She is the fruit of an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister; this feature of her personal history is typical for the literature of the period. The close sibling relationship is a new phenomenon, and one we also encounter in the Nordic salons.

the eternal pubescent child – was the object of their veneration. On the other hand, they took exception to Schiller and his praises of a more housewifely female ideal, just like they abhorred High Romantic gender polarisation. Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel’s unfinished romance Lucinde (1799) provides the best description of their ideals: sexuality is liberated and role divison is put on the line in an androgynous utopia. If one of the gender roles is better than the other, however, then it has to be the woman’s, because she is outside the boundaries of a bourgeois professional life with its career pressure and division of labour.

The précieuses and the pre-Romantic salons alike inspired the Scandinavian salon culture, but in a modified and blended form. The pre-Romantic salons had most impact in German and pietist-orientated circles, the précieuses in aristocratic milieus.

The concept of an androgyne (from Greek: andros = man, gynos = woman), this being a creature with elements from both genders, was very widespread from the 1790s onwards, as the idolisation of Mignon also demonstrates. The concept never had as great an impact in the Nordic region as it did in, for example, Germany and France.

Salon culture was a gathering mid-way between private and public forum. As such, it was an offshoot of the ceremonial court culture, and it vanished into the bourgeois inwardness where it echoes in the ladies’ tea- and literary evenings right up until the twentieth century. Between the court culture’s ceremonial salon hall and the bourgeoisie’s private parlour, the salon culture gave place to specialised forms of fellowship created and run by the brilliant and witty hostesses.

The salon hall at the royal court was reserved for persons of rank, with family and fortune in order, and proceedings followed a well-established code of behaviour. These distinctions and conventions were abandoned in salon culture. Here, artists and intellectuals could associate with nobility and bourgeoisie on an – almost – equal footing. One did not converse, but discussed earnestly and heartily subjects of an intimate, political, and cultural nature. On the other hand, some freedoms of the court culture were lost – for example, the coquettish, erotic collusion of stage-managed seduction. Seduction in the salon culture was of a different, inward-looking and individualised quality. Court culture accommodated children as small adults. Salon culture assigned children other roles, carrying over a Rousseauesque promotion of the childlike nature.

In the drawing room, we find the nuclear family comprising mother and children along with closest family and friends. The social convention here is intimate and childlike, based on games, play, and amateur performance. The child is the focal point, but the child-centric scope is set within narrow bounds and also defines the scope of mother and woman.

Neither royal court nor bourgeois drawing room culture were thus a salon culture. They represent the beginning and the end of the various forms of salon culture. The hostess has always had the dominant role in the salon. She determines its reputation and esprit. She shapes an attentive audience and a committed discussion forum for her contemporary artists, intellectuals, diplomats, and patrons: for the influential men of the day, on whom she is also dependent. The success of a salon is proportionate to the number of participating celebrities. The salon sets the standard for good taste; it is a decisive constituent in the cultural life of the day.

Indgangen til Frederiksberg Have i 1786. Drawing by Bernhard Olsen after an old copperplate engraving. Illustreret Tidende, 1866. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

At the time, salon hostesses were regarded as exceptional and ideal manifestations of their gender, and for a short period salon culture provided an opportunity for some women to take part in art, culture, and politics. They did not do this on their own terms or on an equal footing with the men, but from an idealised position that forced them to create an image for themselves as women and individuals. This gave them a new awareness of having to present themselves to the eyes of the salon, of reflecting the life of the mind in the external presentation of the self. Realising that this cannot be done without something of the mind remaining unfulfilled, some of the salonnières also reached for their pens.

Salon Genres

Sophisticated Nordic culture of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century was multilingual. Developments in Europe were thus speedily adopted in their corresponding Nordic settings. French was the language of culture, learnt by children of the aristocracy and the higher bourgeoisie. Many an exchange of letters in salon circles was conducted in French, but German was also salonfähig (literally, fit for the salon; socially acceptable), particularly, of course, among the clique of German officials living in Denmark. Well-educated men employed Latin (and Greek) as their common European scholarly language, and the well-educated women read and spoke English, Italian, and Spanish. As far as the more bourgeois salon culture was concerned, insistence on the use of national languages for conversation and correspondence was a way in which to signal distance from the aristocratic circles.

The language issue might well explain why the salon culture has not been dealt with to any great extent in the annals of literary history. When a hostess is named – for example, a Malla Silfverstolpe or a Kamma Rahbek – it is because of the men she has assembled around her. The hostesses were, however, creative artists in their own right. They made conscious choices regarding genre, showing a predilection for the smaller, subjective variety: conversation, correspondence, diary, memoir, profile, and lyric poetry; genres catering for that section of the public attending the salons. Most works from the salon culture were not released into the public sphere, in the modern sense, until after the hostesses had died.

The most important salon genre was conversation. In court society one conversed with fixed forms of address, choice of topic, and body language involving bows, bobs, and curtseys. This rigid pattern was broken by the précieuses. Conversation as masque – coquetry – gave way to dialogue between persons, a dialogue representing authenticity, a meeting of minds, and intensity. This form of conversation reached a pinnacle in the German pre-Romantic salon with free, familiar speech. It takes mental sophistication and intellect to conduct this kind of conversation, but the exchange is based on a democratic concept of equality of minds and empathy of souls. Communication of sentiment lies at its heart, and as such the new form of conversation was also influenced by the pietistic tradition of confession.

Judging from the extant correspondence, salons in the Nordic countries did not foster the completely unconventional, free conversation. Aristocratic conversational mode is mixed, but in passing with the cult of inwardness to make for a freer form of conversation between equal minds. New conventions for what is proper are formed in the bourgeois drawing room, stipulating narrow bounds for familiarity. Civic morality becomes a new culture of propriety, in which the surface rules are replaced by other and now internalised rules. The art of conversation cultivated in the Scandinavian salons, from Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht to Kamma Rahbek, is a hybrid genre in progress. It is a bygone form with which we are familiar from reports in letters and memoirs, and of which the utopian vision is still alive to this day.

The letter is also an important genre in the salon. In the aristocratic culture, correspondence is formal in content, form, and occasion, but in the mid-1700s the private exchange of letters is disturbed by new ideas about the ‘natural’ letter. In the more bourgeois salon culture, the letter-writer wants to present his or her inner life, the self, to the recipient. Letters written while out travelling, for example, might depict the ‘I’ through a description of the scenery. The attempt to reflect the inner in the outer, or to show the recipient an undisguised inner self, seldom succeeds in more than occasional glimpses. The letters, therefore, often manifest a divided first-person, with the writing motivated by the longing to make good this split.

Elisabeth Vigeé-Lebrun: Germaine de Staël som Corinne, 1808. Oil painting. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. Genève, photo: Wikimedia Commons/The Yorck Project

Alongside their extensive letter-writing, many of the salon women wrote diaries. Here, too, they try to project their inner lives and feelings to an outside audience. The diary, therefore, takes on the quality of dialogue, and as a genre it approaches the free, experimental, and reflective aesthetics fostered by German salonnières around the year 1800. The aristocratic lady would send a miniature portrait to her fiancé, whereas the salonnière would send a letter or excerpts showing her cordial self copied from her diary. This is a different seduction strategy to that of sexual coquetry. The sexualised fellowship is replaced by a fellowship of the mind, the climax of which is in the meeting of two souls – lovers, friends, siblings, or mother and daughter – but consciousness of the other is always present, even in the most open and sincere of writers. Reflection on being seen and thus read is an element of the texts. Self-observation precedes presentation of the inner self to the other person.

A popular salon genre was the psychological penportrait, describing one another’s psychological physiognomies. And, finally, the autobiography or memoirs were a conglomerate of inner dialogue, letter, and portrait. The new form of autobiography attached importance to describing the formation of the inner self and this self’s impact on the surroundings. It is interesting to note how often life as wife, and also to some extent that as mother, is passed over by the women, whereas they dwell on the formative process of childhood and youth.

In De l’Allemagne (1810; Eng. tr. Germany), Madame de Staël describes the emotional intimacy and gentleness which characterise pre-Romanticism relative to the polarised gender ideals of High Romanticism. At the heart of the pre-Romantic – and the salons’ – idealisation of women are the mysticism and melancholy resulting from a split identity:

“[…] in our days, [women] are generally worthier of moral esteem than the men […] their selfishness is extended to a double object, while that of man has himself only for its end.”

Madame de (Anne-Louise-Germaine) Staël (1766-1817) had a learned upbringing in a wealthy Swiss-French family. She married into the nobility, but she also managed to have numerous lovers. She presided over a political salon in Paris, but was banished by Napoleon and subsequently held her salon at her father’s château in Coppet, Switzerland. She became the role model and rallying figure for the women of the anti-Napoleonic salons. Coppet gained a reputation as the most brilliant salon in Europe. Friederike Brun lived here, for example, from 1805 to 1807, and later also stayed with Mme de Staël in Rome. What made Mme de Staël’s salons special was their pronounced intellectual and political profile, and the fact that they operated as creative communities.

On the one hand, femininity is everything – on the other, nothing. A modern split makes for a position of self-observation in the female writings, a twofold gaze in the construal of self.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch