Investigating gender and aesthetics in French Society

Ever so often, I’m reminded of just how many lectures, events, performances, etc. that are put on at our school and how many of them I miss. Usually I tell myself some self-pitying excuse about all the homework I have or how tired I’ve been lately—weak excuses to try to make myself feel better for not taking advantage of all that is being offered to us.

That said, I do sometimes find the inspiration to get to a lecture from a guest speaker, and I’m rarely disappointed. This past week I went to this year’s keynote speaker for the Clara M. Southworth Lecture Series. Daniel Harkett, a professor of the History of Art and Visual Culture at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), presented his research on the art of the French salons in post-revolutionary Paris. His presentation, entitled “Francois Gerard and the Art of the Interior” focused on the social significance of the salons and—specifically—Gerard’s immense influence on the ideas and philosophies associated with the hosting, upholding and overall organization of these cultural events.

Harkett began with a discussion of the 17th Century salons and the 19th Century bourgeois idealization of these gatherings. Seen as the epitome of French Enlightenment values, the salons of the past were modeled by French salonnieres and upheld as the ultimate intermixing of varying political, philosophical and artistic ideologies. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Harkett’s talk was the importance of gender in salon culture. Before the lecture, I hadn’t realized how the study of French salons was just as much an investigation of French bourgeois culture as it was on gender and the blurring of the traditional gender roles of the time.

Indeed, Harkett extensively discussed the roles women played in the hosting of the salons as well as their participation in them. Most central to the discussion was the story of Gerard’s painting Corinne at Cape Miseno, whose central subject was used as the model of the ideal salonniere. Based off of the protagonist in Germaine de Stael’s novel of the same name, Corinne was depicted with a harp looking to the heavens for inspiration before her performance. As a setting for performances of music, poetry and theatre, Harkett explained the importance of Corinne and the example the character set to female salonnieres who were expected to participate in the evening’s performances.

The ideal woman was thus considered a gracious host and an active participant. To me, the equality of genders that the salons seemed to foster was surprising. Women were expected to engage in conversation on contemporary issues from a long list of topics. That being said, there was an element to it all that in fact seemed the exact opposite of surprising. As one audience member was overheard saying after the lecture was over, it was “a lecture on rich girls hosting parties.”

Indeed, salons were events hosted for the bourgeois by the bourgeois. As Harkett put it, they “sat on the boundary between public and private.” In this context, the participation of women and the central roles they played in the salons were not insignificant to the development of their burgeoning participation in greater society. For a kid who was originally just going to the lecture with the intention of hearing about a few paintings, I was surprised by how much of an anthropological discussion there seemed to be in the undercurrents of the lecture.

Ending with several of the professors in attendance delving deeper into Harkett’s work, the lecture left me with a renewed love of academia. It sounds cliché perhaps to say that I have never felt like I didn’t gain something when I’ve gone to a lecture like this, but it’s true. I’ve discovered over the course of my Colby career how many brilliant people come through this school, and I wish I took advantage of that years earlier.

Comments are closed.