Join us as we reminisce about the grande dame of Paris salon society, Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin. This trailblazing woman was so influential during her lifetime that she is considered to be one of the leading figures in the French Enlightenment, the intellectual movement in 18th century France that had everyone questioning just about everything. How did she do it? Marie Thérèse was the first to elevate the Parisian salon from a leisure activity for the nobility to a real working space. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Marie Thérèse was born in Paris in June 1699, the first child of Pierre Rodet, a valet de chambre, and Angelique Thérèse Chemineau, the daughter of a Parisian banker. Not long after Marie Thérèse’s mother died giving birth to her second child, a son, Marie Thérèse and her brother were taken to live with their grandmother on the rue Saint-Honoré.

“In the Salon of Madame Geoffrin in 1755”
By Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier (1812)

As if she hadn’t already experienced enough tragédie, when Marie Thérèse was 13, an arrangement was made for her to marry Francois Geoffrin, a 49-year-old widower. Monsieur Geoffrin was a colonel in the National Guard, a prominent director in the Saint-Gobain Venetian mirror company, and rather financially endowed. Apparently, he married quite well on his first matrimonial go-round. There was little rapport between the two, but they did manage to have two children together.

It was not until Marie Thérèse was in her thirties—after years spent attending Madame de Tencin’s salon—that our brainy and intellectually curious gal was inspired to create a salon of her own. She did so with the full support of her mentor, Madame de Tencin, but decided to change things up a bit by catering her salon to a more philosophical “in crowd” and holding two salons per week, one on Mondays for artists, like François Boucher, Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and one on Wednesdays for writers, like Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu. She also opted to serve dinner at one o’clock in the afternoon so the full day could be dedicated to discussion. Clearly, she meant business.

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A painting depicting The Republic of Letters

Madame Geoffrin’s salon grew quickly and became the basis for the Republic of Letters, a community of scholars and literary figures that stretched across national boundaries. While she was revered by most in Paris and beyond—no foreign minister or person of note arriving in Paris failed to call on her in the hope of receiving an invitation to her salon, she had her foes. Enter the aristocratic and educated Marquise du Deffand, who considered Marie Thérèse a rival and took every occasion to snub her and remind others of her ignoble upbringing.

Undaunted, Marie Thérèse went about the serious business of encouraging the French Enlightenment and even found the time to mentor the best up-and-coming salonnières, notably Julie de Lespinasse and Suzanne Necker. Madame Geoffrin died at the ripe old age of 78 but not without elevating the salonnières in 18th century Paris from ladies of leisure to agents of change. Bravo, Madame!

To read more about the great salonnières in history, click here. For a list of America’s 100 best modern-day salonnières click here, and for tips and ideas from today’s most skilled party hosts, click here.

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