Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin (1699-1777) was one of the leading female figures of the French Enlightenment and one of the greatest of the 18th century salonnières. Her literary gatherings, starting in the early 1740s and held on Wednesdays, were attended by many of the most important men of letters (somewhat later, she began to hold a salon on Mondays for artists). This painting, done long after her death, depicts a romanticization of one of these evenings at her hôtel particulier in the rue Saint Honoré. The event depicted is a reading of Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine (a tragedy about Ghengis Khan and his sons) that was first produced in 1755. Houdon’s bust of Voltaire, seen at the rear of the chamber, implies that the author is present in spirit at the reading even though at that time he was either traveling or in exile. Part of Geoffrin’s extensive art collection can be seen on the walls. The large painting at the far right by Carle Vanloo was sold by Geoffrin to Catherine II of Russia in 1772.1
In 1821, Philibert Louis Debucourt published an engraving after Lemonnier’s painting accompanied by a key identifying the “guests” (see line drawing, fig. 1). Lemonnier’s painting depicts many men of letters who were, indeed, attendees of Madame Geoffrin’s Wednesday salons, such as Bernard le Bouvier Fontenelle and Jean-François Marmontel. Two of the noblemen depicted, the Duc de Nivernais and Baron de Montesquieu, were also known to have attended the salons (though by 1755, Montesquieu was dead). However the presence of artists, such as Claude-Joseph Vernet and Carle Vanloo, as well as men of science and mathematics, such as Bernard de Jussieu and Alexis Claude Clairaut, would have been highly unlikely. Even some of the literary figures, such as Rousseau and Diderot, are not thought to have ever been in attendance. And so, Lemonniers’s painting cannot be taken as a historical representation, but is a complete fantasy gathering of many of the great intellectuals and public figures of the period.2
The prime version of this composition, signed and dated 1812, is in the collection of the Musée National du Château de Malmaison.3 It was commissioned by the Empress Josephine and was exhibited at the Salon of 1814. A drawing of the subject is in the Musée Borély, Marseilles. Another reduced replica, though larger than the present painting, is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen.4
1. Carle Vanloo, The Concert, oil on canvas, 164 by 129 cm. (depicted in reverse to the actual painting).
2. For a detailed discussion of Lemonnier’s painting and its historical context, see J. Lough, “Lemonnier’s Painting, ‘Une Soirée Chez Madame Geoffrin en 1755,’” in French Studies, vol. XLV, July 1991, pp. 269-279.
3. Oil on canvas, 129.5 by 196 cm.; see A. Pougetoux, La Collection de Peintures de L’Impératrice Joséphine, pp. 172-3, cat. no. 345, reproduced.
4. Oil on canvas, 62.5 by 96 cm.; see Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, Guide des Collections, 1994, p. 68, reproduced.