Saturday, November 14, 2009

Jewish Women: Later 19th-Century Salons

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Art and Architecture, mainly

I knew a great deal about the turn-of-the-century salon run by Gertrude and Leo Stein. But I had to rely on Bilski et al, Hertz and Wilhelmy-Dollinger for their original research on the 19th century history of women’s salons.

In the original post called Jewish Women: early 19th century salons, the main points were as follows. The salon allowed educated women to establish a venue in the privacy of their own homes. The women had to be well connected in their families, either to money or to culture. Since the husbands were busy with their businesses, the cultural role could legitimately be given to the wives. But male support was essential. In the salon, like-minded people could study literature, art, philosophy or music together, plus they could support both talented artists and writers. Each saloniere chose her own theme and selected the night of the week in which she wanted the salon to be held. Each saloniere had the responsibility to decide the salon's level of for¬m¬ality and the diversity of guests she favoured. As a result of the habitués and their conversations, the hostesses, guests and the arts flourished.

Schmid, Playing Schubert’s music, 1897

In reviewing the fabulous Jewish Museum Exhibition called Jewish Women and Their Salons, Deborah Hertz wrote: "Among the many difficult questions about salons posed by the exhibit, let us dwell for a moment on the problematic of the specifically Jewish salon tradition. Our curators claim very explicitly that over time more Jewish women hosted salons than Christian women did. If true, this is significant, since for a declassed Jewish woman, salon hosting could be a huge triumph over stereotype, considering that salons began as an aristocratic practice and were thought to set the tone for high culture. The curators make much of the outsider as insider notion; precisely because they were doubly marginal, as Jews and as women, the Jewish salonières became courageous modernists. They also argue that success in salon leadership helped bring about political emancipation, of particular importance for the 18th and early 19th centuries in central Europe. But both with modernism and with emancipation, we also must consider the dark side of success. We need to attend to how the Jewish salonières might have infuriated observers outraged at their extraordinary wealth, their connections to the powerful, and their exercise of patronage" (Hertz).

Herz raised a few of the key issues but there is another issue to be raised, I believe. The salonieres' roles in music, literature and philosophy were comprehensively considered, but I was particularly interested in their role as patrons of the visual arts. Some salonieres' families loved art above all other cultural pursuits, so their salons centred on paintings.

The salons’ impact on the art world could be seen at a time when wealthy non-French art buyers believed Impressionism belonged to the French tradition of shallow showiness. Jewish collectors, on the other hand, may have been less tradition-bound and more open to modern art. At least one salon was critically important. Carl Bernstein and Felicie Rosenthal Bernstein (1850-1908) married and left St Petersburg to set up their home in Berlin. Her salon was quite into modernity and artistic risk-taking. The Bernsteins were known as the first to buy French Impressionist art in Germany, and hang them on their walls in the salon. The artist Max Liebermann, later president of the Prussian Academy of Arts, was a regular particiant. At her salon, art discussions may have led to the founding of the influential Berlin Secession; she most certainly left a legacy to the Secession in her will..

Genevieve Straus was the daughter of the composer Jacques Fromental Halévy, widow of the composer Bizet and then wife of the successful lawyer Emil Straus. Her salon in Bvd Haussmann attracted literary intellectuals and political writers. Her large round drawing-room was decorated with wonderful art, including her own portrait by Delaunay. Remember the terrible Alfred Dreyfus trial, a military-political scandal that divided France in the 1890s and the early 1900s? Straus’ salon became headquarters of pro-Dreyfus supporters who managed to expose the French government’s involvement in the nasty army affair. Degas, Debussy and other anti-Semitic habitués stormed out of her salon in outrage, and never returned. Some salon regulars, who had enjoyed the Straus hospitality for years, crossed the street to avoid her.

Marcel Proust’s notebooks, given to Straus in thanks

Art historian and critic Bernard Berenson was Gertrude and Leo Stein’s greatest mentor. He showed them around the galleries in Florence, teaching them connoisseurship and helping them buy. In particular Berenson in¬trod¬uced Leo to Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse. Gertrude and Leo persuaded their cousin Etta Cone to buy Picasso drawings, whenever that artist was short of funds. Back in Paris, the Steins were introducing artist to artist, patron to artist, patron to patron. Their salon had walls that were packed with paintings and sketches, and art books were spread over the table so young artists could admire and learn from established masters. Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Francis Picabia, Marie Laurençin and Juan Gris, as well as Guillaume Apollinaire, frequented their salon. Even when Leo Stein moved permanently to Italy, Gertrude (and later Alice B Toklas) continued the Saturday night salon, providing food and mentoring to starving artists, especially those newly arrived from Eastern Europe.

Toklas and Stein in their Paris art salon

Finally back to literature and music. The intellectual orientation of Elsa Porges Bernstein’s family home was a powerful influence: Beethoven, Wagner, Goethe and Shakespeare. She ran Munich’s most famous salon, where the literary and artistic society gathered, and she was the author of Königskinder, with music by Humperdinck. Her father, Heinrich Porges, was very fond of Richard Wagner’s music and played a very active part in establishing the Bayreuth's festival. Elsa’s daughter Eva Bernstein later studied violin in Paris where she married Klaus Hauptmann, son of writer Gerhart Hauptmann. Gerhart, Otto Brahm and Richard Strauss had been intimates member of Elsa’s salon. In these cultural circles the links between Jewish and non Jewish families were very close.

Why did this 100 year period of non-Jewish/Jewish dialogue about culture come to a rather sad end? The disruption of war, leisure time being spent on travel and new mass media meant women of leisure spent their time differently. Polite, witty conversation was of little interest by 1900.

Bernstein’s rather modest salon


1. Bilski, Emily et al Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation, Jewish Museum New York, 2005.

2. Hertz, Deborah Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin, Syracuse UP, 1988.

3. Wilhelmy-Dollinger, Petra Berlin Salons: Late C18th to early C20th,


Maladjusted said...

Fascinating, Hels.

Might I reccomend to you Hannah Arendt's book on Rahel Varnhagen? It's really wonderful. Jewish women, salons, German Romantics and it's written by Arendt in her first book after her doctoral dissertation. What could be better?



Brian O'Mara-Croft said...

Wouldn't it be a much better world if people could still get together and discuss art and literature? Instead, most "book clubs" don't even discuss books anymore...they're simply gossip fests.

Thanks for visiting my blog. Yours is very interesting and informative (a bit different than mine, then, in other words.)

Hels said...

Always the question for students of the salons was did they really make a difference to the art, literature or music of the time? It was always possible that these very educated women were simply filling in the long evenings with extremely educated and witty guests, and tasty Viennese pastries.

Rachel Levin Varnhagen von Ense (1771-1823) ran a very nice salon in Berlin from 1790-1806 which was regularly attended by Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Hegel and particularly Johann Goethe. So you made a good choice, Mal. I am guessing that Varnhagen’s salon was as much at the heart of early C19th cultural and intellectual life as any.

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Hels said...


I know this thought has taken quite some time in arriving *sigh* but what happened to those anti-Dreyfus habitués who stormed out of Straus' salon in outrage and never returned? Did they stop attending cultural salons altogether?

As it turns out, they simply shifted their allegiances. Degas, Debussy, Renoir and others, all ex-Straus habitues, decamped to the equally literate and equally artistic Paris salon of Misia Sert.