In his Discours de la méthode (1637) Descartes said that he chose to write in French rather than in Latin in order to reach “those who employ nothing but their pure natural reason.” We are justified in supposing that among such readers the philosopher included women, since they were not taught Latin.1 And although women did not have a right to the same education as men, it was common knowledge that their opinions were influential within aristocratic society, and their praise or criticism often determined a book’s success or failure.

Descartes’s philosophy implied that women were the victims of ancient prejudices. His distinction between the physical and intellectual spheres, his professed faith in the universal value of reason, and “his concept of mind as a place where there is no sex,” as Genevieve Lloyd2 puts it—all these depriveSd the most widespread and deep-rooted antifeminist arguments of any sense whatever. For moralists and churchmen the physical weakness of women, their unbridled sexual appetites, and the hysteria resulting from their “uterine” temperaments made them frail and dangerous creatures and undermined their powers of reasoning, inevitably putting them in a position of inferiority to men.

How far, therefore, did the new Cartesian theory of knowledge, destined to have such a vast impact in France and elsewhere, enable women of the upper classes to establish their right to participate in the “rational discourse” formulated by the Discours de la méthode? This is the question posed by Erica Harth in Cartesian Women. On the one hand, she examines the critical ideas of a number of illustrious women who were drawn to Cartesian ideas, such as Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Madame du Châtelet, and Olympe de Gouges; on the other, she traces the limits of the intellectual activities open to women in French society during the ancien régime. She tells a story of defeat. Women were the moving spirits in defining and presiding over the fashionable conversation that took place in the salons of the seventeenth century—conversation that became central to French culture and literature—but they eventually lost control of it; during the following century they were to be excluded from the intellectual debate that took place in their houses and in their presence.

The important place of conversation in French high society during the ancien régime is the central theme of three other recent studies published on both sides of the Atlantic. In Watteau’s Painted Conversations the art historian Mary Vidal argues that fashionable conversation was both the theme that inspired Watteau’s painting and the key to his aesthetic theory. In a contribution to a recent book the French scholar Marc Fumaroli, professor of rhetoric at the Collège de France, examines the phenomenon of conversation as a cultural ideal in all its historical complexity, showing the ways in which it was one of the main components of “French cultural identity.”3 Jean-Paul Sermain, professor at the University of Provence4 analyzes the twofold nature of conversation in the eighteenth century: as a stylish form of social exchange on the one hand, and, on the other, a provocative form of intellectual inquiry.

That so many studies have recently approached the same subject in such different ways is itself intriguing. The art of conversation is a particularly rich and appealing subject since it involves both the history of manners and the history of ideas, the transitory spoken word and enduring works of literature and art. The books and the recent articles under review provide an excellent opportunity to examine sharply divergent readings of the same historical facts.

Erica Harth is concerned with the issue of gender, and there is no doubt that French aristocratic society of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is a rich field for studies of the changing position of women. Harth begins with the observation that “in France, modern rational discourse was elaborated in three main social sites: the salon, the academy, and the conférence” (or public lecture), and she stresses the disparity between the chances open respectively to men and to women so far as the academy was concerned. The all-male academies were established so that scholars and men of letters could meet for discussions, usually in the study or library of one of the members; amid the talk of writing and research, it was thought desirable that the books themselves be at hand. In officially recognizing one of these coteries and founding the Académie Française in 1635, Cardinal Richelieu wanted to increase the cultural prestige of the monarchy and to maintain control over intellectual debate.

The salons, by contrast, owed their existence to women, and filled a need for independence and recreation among members of the aristocratic class who had ceased to identify themselves entirely with the narrow life of the Court. They wanted to create a select society, dedicated to loisirs, society games, gossip, music, the theater, poetry, dance, and, above all, the art of conversation. The desirable place for the fashionable gathering was not a reception room but the hostess’s bedchamber, or more precisely the ruelle, the space near the bed itself. The Marquise de Rambouillet started the fashion of seeing her guests while actually reclining on her “lit de parade,” a bed used exclusively for receiving people.


Whereas the academicians frequented the feminine world of the salons, and could take part in fashionable conversation, women could not be admitted into the male academies. And while men recognized that women had an essential pedagogical function—as teachers of refined manners and of the customs and usages of high society—they considered it unbecoming to share their own knowledge with them. Guez de Balzac, a writer of vast erudition, dedicated a few of his Discours to Madame de Rambouillet, but he wrote to his friend Chapelain that nothing irritated him more than “the pedantry of the other sex”; and declared that he preferred “a bearded lady [to] one who plays the learned lady.”

Still, there were attempts to create feminine academies in the seventeenth century. Among others, Mile de Gournay, spiritual daughter of Montaigne, and the Vicomtesse d’Auchy, with whom the poet Malherbe was in love, presided over small intellectual circles. As Ms. Harth points out, the intellectual salons, which were heavily satirized in plays such as Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes, were seen as “a kind of salon gone wrong” for “women who literally did not know their place.” But the very fact that the term “academy” was applied to a few of the salons indicates that, in seventeenth century France, men did not wholly dominate the discussion.

Nonetheless, as the philosopher François Poullain de la Barre wrote, the founding of the Académie Française and subsequently of the Académie des Sciences was “a decisive step in the exclusion of women from a dominant culture.” Poullain, a follower of Descartes, and a “militant feminist,” argued in his De l’égalité des deux sexes (1673) that the supposed inferiority of women was not natural but cultural, the result of biased education; women, he thought, could derive immense benefits from academic learning. “If Cercles [salons] were changed into Académies, the conversations would be more solid, pleasant, and loftier.” But Poullain de la Barre would have been disappointed by what actually happened. Although “the eighteenth century salonnière was the indispensible social center” of intellectual life, for the most part she remained, Harth writes, apart from serious discussion, merely “monitoring and protecting her flock.”

Ms. Harth illustrates the difficult intellectual situation of women who were allowed “neither to be ignorant nor to be learned” from two important literary sources: La Prétieuse, ou le mystère des ruelles (1656–1658), by the Abbé de Pure, and the Conversations collected in old age by Mademoiselle de Scudéry (1680–1692). Michel de Pure’s novel is a satirical description of the salon of les Précieuses, who were feminists before the idea of feminism had been invented and much concerned to demonstrate their own superior value (prix). They challenged the institution of marriage, theorized about Platonic love, and kept the brute facts of life at a distance with elaborate literary metaphors and extreme ceremoniousness of manners. (A mirror was the “conseiller des grâces,” an armchair was the “commodité de la conversation,”—examples of precious language that Molière used in his Précieuses ridicules of 1659.) To establish their real historical identity, however, poses some knotty problems. As Jean-Michel Pelous5 has pointed out, all the information we have about them—starting with the Précieuses ridicules—comes from the satirical literature they inspired; and the historian Domna Stanton6 maintains that the Précieuses were the invention of male misogynists. What seems clear is that they were talked about for about a decade, between 1654 and 1665, and then nothing more was heard about them.

In the Abbé de Pure’s novel Erica Harth finds all the elements of a typical contemptuous indictment of feminine intellectual ambition. The abbé charged that women overindulged themselves in intellectual curiosity and wit; they were excessively free in their conversation, aped the rituals of the Academy, and secretly aspired to be writers. “La Prétieuse,” writes Ms. Harth,

seemingly follows contemporaries’ idea that the domain of women was la parole, or speech. It has been thought that the novel satirized the idiolect of the salons, the peculiarly ornate and metaphorical language said to have been favored by the précieuses. However, in counterposing speech, the purview of the feminine salon, to writing, the purview of the masculine academy, de Pure questions not only an ideolect, but the value of speech itself, not only the précieuses, but women.

As some of the conversations published by Mlle de Scudéry suggest, it could be both a delicate and a difficult task for women to conform to the prevailing canons of fashion and to maintain their intellectual ambitions at the same time. Mlle de Scudéry was the author of two interminable and hugely successful historical sagas—Artamène, ou Le Grand Cyrus7 (1649–1653), and Clélie, Histoire romaine (1654–1660). Highly esteemed, received in the best society, herself the moving spirit in a famous salon, a woman who had her own theories of conversation and refined manners, she was certainly not lacking in either authority or courage. She was the first to advocate, among other things, feminine celibacy and l’amitié amoureuse. When it came to formal conduct, however, Mlle de Scudéry adhered strictly to the rules of the fashionable game: she published her books under a “transparent” pseudonym, obeying the conventions within which she was allowed to express her—not so personal—thoughts. In this she adopted the same position as the libertins, the coterie of male free-thinkers for whom it was too dangerous to be honest about their unorthodox political and religious views, including their ideas of freedom. For both men and women dissimulation was a rule, a code, and a style, but for women it was obligatory. They could cultivate their minds, write, and think, but only on condition that they carefully concealed their knowledge.


It would be wrong to interpret Mlle de Scudéry’s counsel of self-censorship solely as a matter of feminine renunciation and self-abasement. To endow the women of the seventeenth century with our own values, giving the highest place to intellectual achievement, would be misleading. For Mlle de Scudéry, as for other members of the aristocratic elites, the life of fashionable society took first place and became an absorbing passion; prestige and reputation were pursued not just for calculated reasons of social conformity but as evidence of one’s talent for having mastered the rituals of seduction and flattery that society had refined to a high point. Ease, taste, and politeness were the prerequisites of social intercourse. For both men and women, discussion was a playful performance, a game for whose purpose specific “qualities” were developed and praised—among them brilliance, esprit, quickness, and a sense of nuance. Mme de Rambouillet’s salon was the most prestigious incarnation of this culture of disguise and refinement, and Mlle de Scudéry’s books (Le Grand Cyrus, Clélie, the Conversations) were all an idealized reflection of polite society. Through her writings, she contributed to the aestheticizing of life by which members of the French nobility, deprived of real power and thrown into a crisis by the increasing absolutism of the monarchy, attempted to redefine themselves by cultivating their own refined style.

To excel at interpreting the complex codes of customs and usages—les bienséances, or “proprieties”—which regulated an aristocrat’s fashionable performance day by day, was seen as transforming one’s life into a work of art.8 For the men and women of the aristocratic elites, the figure they cut, the public manner they assumed, ended up virtually coinciding with their identities. Family, gender, and social status defined the individual’s place in society, but could not by themselves guarantee social success. For that, as La Rochefoucauld put it, one had to please one’s peers by adopting the prevailing “opinions,” “tone,” “manners,” and “sentiments.”

The constant preoccupation with appearance eventually led to an anxious search for something more authentic. Seventeenth-century Moralistes, especially, made strong statements about the need to put aside artifice, discard masks, and reveal the true person. Alceste, Molière’s Misanthrope—who ends up retreating from a world in which authenticity can no longer be found—makes the point right at the start of the play:

Let men behave like men; let them display
Their inmost hearts in everything they say;
Let the heart speak, and let our sentiments
Not mask themselves in silly compliments.
—(Le Misanthrope, I, 1, in Richard Wilbur’s translation)

In fact, the aesthetic aspect of aristocratic behavior meant that everyone practised self-censorship, irrespective of gender. The horror of pedantry, the need to conceal one’s knowledge from others, and the notion that writing was nothing but a game—such attitudes were those of polite society as a whole and were reflected in the fashionable ideal of honnêteté. In behaving according to this seventeenth-century conception, which was increasingly adopted by the fashionable elites from the 1630s onward, the “honnête-homme” was aware that he was acting out in public the part of the “personnage” or worthy person described by the Moralistes while remaining eminently sociable and agreeable.9 The women who were allowed “neither to be ignorant nor to be learned” were the perfect mirror-image of La Rochefoucauld’s honnête-homme. In not signing their works, Mlle de Scudéry and Mme de La Fayette were behaving in the same way as the Duc de La Rochefoucauld and the middle-class poet Vincent Voiture, a great frequenter of the Hôtel de Rambouillet. In disdaining to publish his works and refusing to be described as “author,” Voiture showed that he had adopted the ideology of the upper class to which he aspired.

These considerations may lead us to suppose, as Erica Harth puts it, that fashionable women were victims, doubly constrained by their sex and by the rules of their class. But while the disadvantages of women’s situation were clear enough, a remarkable paradox remains: the very discrimination they suffered in getting an education made upper-class women the moving force of the cultural revolution from which modern French literature arose. Excluded from the world of learning, lacking in most cases any knowledge of Greek, Latin, and rhetoric, exposed to a complex and nuanced social system from childhood on, women had their own instinctive “feel” for their mother tongue and for the naturel in expression. Their conversation provided a standard for a “pure” French that avoided the technical vocabulary of the erudite and the coarseness of the uneducated—a French that became the language of Racine and Pascal, of Mme de Sévigné, La Fontaine, La Bruyère, and in short of all the great writers of the century. As has been shown by Alain Viala,10 women, with their need for diversion and entertainment, also made up a new and influential public for those writers—and there were many—who, according to Viala, frequented salons:

A hundred fifty of them were regular or assiduous participants. There were two distinct groups: “amateurs,” or “occasional” writers, and professional writers, many of them major ones, such as. Chapelain, Sarasin, Pellison, Ménage, Balzac, Corneille, Racine, Brébeuf….

The “amateurs”—they include Voiture, Godeau, Mlle de Scudéry, Mlle de Montpensier, Mme de La Fayette, La Rochefoucauld—were to have a major part in transforming minor literary genres into fashionable ones. New literary standards were thus set, and new forms flourished: the novel—the elites read L’ Astrée by Honoré d’Urfé, Les Lettres Portugaises, and La Princesse de Clèves with much enthusiasm—as well as anecdotal and galant poetry, portraits and vignettes, aphorisms and “pensées.”11

Joan De Jean, in a brilliant and provocative book, has recently argued that modern French fiction came into being not only through the impetus provided by women readers and the salons’ influence but above all thanks to the contribution of women writers.12 She maintains that although the many works of fiction she deals with are not part of the official literary “canon,” and have fallen into oblivion (except for the Princesse de Clèves and a few other works), this is owing less to the intrinsic qualities of the works in question than to their deliberate suppression by the official, male culture.

But the women of the elites had already contributed to the culture of the seventeenth century by imposing on it their taste, their language, and their flair for the natural, as opposed to the rhetorical, style. Transforming their initial disadvantage into an advantage, they turned their backs on an official culture that had always been hostile to them and became the promoters of a literature that could both provide pure entertainment and be useful for discussions about psychology and morality. Hostile to dogmatism, this literature welcomed new ideas and cultural trends—Fontenelle dedicated his Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686) to “a marquise.” It is no coincidence that in the famous Querelle des anciens et des modernes, an argument that raged among literati in the later seventeenth century, the supporters of modern literature (Perrault and Fontenelle among them) also took the side of women.

No explicit trace of the current concerns with feminism is to be found in the masterly essay on conversation by Marc Fumaroli, which sees the women of the salons as an essential component of the social triad—“grandes dames,” “gentilshommes,” and “gens de lettres“: noblewomen, noblemen, and what we would now call intellectuals—without which fashionable conversation in France would never have emerged as a form of art. Fumaroli evokes an atmosphere of verbal play between men and women, in which the two sexes could find a “harmony” in wit, and the women of the aristocracy, proud of their command of language and of the social skills handed down from mother to daughter, had an important civilizing function. With their modesty, their sense of delicacy, their psychological acumen, they were able, Fumaroli argues, to impart a sense of elegance and good taste to upper-class social life; and they were able to endow conversation à la française with its intrinsic characteristics, the same ones that Voltaire referred to in his entry on the French language in the Dictionnaire philosophique:

The natural order in which one is obliged to express one’s thoughts and construct one’s sentences confers on our language a softness and a fluency that is attractive to all peoples.

Certainly the art of conversation was also the art of speaking elegant French, and fluency was an essential component of artfulness. Moreover, conversation of high society, in contrast to rhetoric (“the premeditated art of speaking in public” with the specific purpose of persuading), could be “luxurious,” an “art of conversing between equals and at leisure.”

“To take part in ‘conversation,”‘ Fumaroli writes, “was to enter into a game with partners whom one considers one’s equals, and from whom one expects nothing but the pleasure of playing well. One would be judged not by technique or results, but by the degree of art and wit one has displayed…. If there is a rhetoric of conversation, it is what is left of rhetoric when everything else has been forgotten: felicity of phrase, rapidity, clarity, vivacity.” The salon, he writes, “has nothing in common with those enormous saloni in Italian palaces, built for mass receptions, or with the famous ‘comfort’ of English-style clubs, intended for small talk between men.”

In this private world where verbal wit was valued more than anything else, Fumaroli continues, many other minor arts had a part in providing the appropriate setting:

the decorative arts and those of the table, of the vintner, of the chef, of the pastry cook, of the musician, but also of the tailor, the coiffeur, the “master of philosophy” and the “dancing master” dear to the heart of the “Bourgeois Gentilhomme.”

The exchanges of letters, the mémoires, the portraits, the maximes, the society poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth century—all, according to Fumaroli, were mainly byproducts of conversation, filling its pauses, giving it variety, prolonging it, and fixing its most impressive moments in memory. And although “the pleasure of listening, in a society of connoisseurs, to the spoken word, took precedence for them over the ‘pleasure of the text,”‘ conversation eventually had a strong effect on French prose. “The French text, in order to last,” writes Fumaroli, “must borrow the apparent facility of speech.” The naturel of feminine conversation had become, for Molière as for Voltaire, the style par excellence of great French literature.

The actual traces of oral culture—variations in voice pitch, facial expressions, gestures—could not, of course, be recorded, and the conversations we find in Molière and Marivaux are telling but remain fictitious. Perhaps contemporary letters come closer to anything else to suggesting what the conversation of the time was like. Letters were often written with the intention of having them read aloud in the salons, and Mlle de Scudéry defined the letter as “the conversation of absentees.”

The following letter was written in one draft by Gabriel de Lavergne, Vicomte de Guilleragues (1628–1685), private secretary to Louis XIV, diplomat, and presumed author of the first French epistolary novel Les lettres Portugaises. It is addressed to the Marquise de Sablé (1599–1678), who was considered to be one of the most intelligent and cultivated women of her time, and it is not hard to imagine something like it being spoken at the time:


I know very well that I do not deserve your letters, but I want to have some from you in spite of that—a rather tactless beginning, which will doubtless astonish you. It is true that such a precious thing should be requested with far less impudence, especially from a person like yourself, a person of the highest merit and quite as much refinement. But, Madam, you know that one is carried away in speech when one wants something very much, and that the phrase I want is not always restricted to the mouths of mistresses and kings. Those two kinds of people, who confuse reason with desire, do not always want very reasonable things, and they should not often say I want…. As for myself, what I want is so delightful, and I wish for it so passionately, that if there were something stronger than I want, I should be forgiven for saying it. Please allow me then, Madam—in giving my letter an ending even more extravagant, if that were possible, than its beginning—to tell you, as the King to his sergeant and the Queen to her child, which are the most absolute commands you have ever heard of, that I want you to do me the honor of writing me, and to believe me to be, with my utmost respect….

In the eighteenth century the art of conversation reached its high point, and was admired throughout Europe. But, as Jean-Paul Sermain points out, “this accomplishment contained in itself the germs of its own destruction.”13 With the appearance of the philosophes, the very conception of conversation underwent a change. It was no longer concerned with the aesthetic preoccupations and gossip of an elite of privileged persons but took up the fundamental issues raised by the new culture of the Enlightenment. Conversation became an exchange about the deep questions of culture, and the idea emerged that it could be used to gain access to all branches of learning. In the debates among the eighteenth-century philosophers, Sermain writes, “Conversation is thought of as a group activity aimed at favoring the progress of reason.” The best arguments, openly and attentively heard, would win out; and the conversation was to be conducted in a way that would assure social cohesion and “solicitude for the public good.” It is no surprise that Sermain takes the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the central theme of his extremely interesting study. It was Rousseau who made the most lethal attacks on Parisian conversation, and it was he, in La Nouvelle Héloïse, who laid down conditions for reviving it in a purified form.

Brilliant, elegant, witty, and seductive as it may have been, fashionable conversation was attacked for the egoism, vanity, and pretension behind its apparently flawless surface. The supreme expression of the process of “civilizing” social life, it could expect no indulgence from Rousseau, who saw the progress of “civilization” as the main cause of the corruption of man. For him the celebrated naturel of conversation—its ease of tone—was that “of men who had lost their own natures”; its exquisite courtesy was “an instrument of self-affirmation and dominion,” its intellectual suppleness was a mask for sterility and sophistry. Rousseau’s criticism was not new. Seventeenth-century writers—from Chevalier de Méré to La Rochefoucauld, from Saint-Evremond to La Bruyère—had already judged it to be an ambiguous art that relied on the often precarious balance between politeness and dissimulation. La Bruyère wrote that “the true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you.”

Brilliance, vanity, sophistry were precisely what Rousseau denounced. And if in La Nouvelle Héloïse his characters conversed with a transparent honesty of heart, and pondered at leisure the ethical problems that were raised by the conflict between romantic love and conjugal fidelity, their conversation was of an edifying kind, without raillery or wit. Some forty years before Rousseau’s denunciation of it, the civilizing power of fashionable conversation found, according to Mary Vidal, a passionate supporter in Antoine Watteau.

The pervasiveness of conversation throughout his oeuvre confirms an absorption in this theme that goes beyond an interest in conversation as social activity. Watteau shows conversation to be an aesthetic system, an ethical system, and the essence of French culture.

Vidal maintains that many of Watteau’s enigmatic and elusive compositions—his open-air concerts, his fêtes galantes, his theatrical pieces—can be read as conversation scenes (and indeed one of his paintings is called La Conversation). In Le Pèlerinage à l’isle de Cithère (1717), to take only one of the more prominent examples, the pairs of lovers who break off their amorous tête-à-tête to join the travelers beside the vessel about to set sail suggest “a departure from intimacy towards sociability,” a withdrawal from one kind of conversation to carry on another.

It is true that during the first two decades of the eighteenth century, when Watteau was working in Paris, polite conversation had reached its highest point of refinement. At the château of the Duchesse du Maine in Sceaux, at the Hôtel de Nevers of the Marquise de Lambert, the seventeenth century ideal of honnêteté was, under the influence of men such as Fontenelle, Marivaux, and Montesquieu, opening up to the free play of ideas, without however renouncing the aristocratic notion of grace and lightness. All the same, in selecting conversation as the central theme of his painting Watteau was not just describing an aspect of social life; he also, Vidal argues, revealed the raison d’être that inspired his own work, which was to release the world from the brute laws of nature and instinct and transform it by pure artistic skill at representation. “Fully capturing for the first time in art the fundamental aesthetic nature of French sociability,” Watteau made use of it as a metaphor of his own art. She might have added that it is possible to see Watteau’s paintings as portraying not speech but silence: some of the characters are caught in a still moment in which conversation seems an impending event.

Vidal suggests convincingly the analogies by which Watteau constructed his parallel between aristocratic conversation and his own artistic manner. Unlike the written word, both the spoken word and painting could establish direct communication with the listener or the spectator. In both of them the form—the modes of expression—can prevail over the narrative content; and in both of them the skill of the artistic process, the quality of the “performance” became the chief criterion of artistic merit.

This penetrating engagement with conversation as a manner of making art is what constitutes Watteau’s difference, his uniqueness as a painter. A complete absorption in his society’s most characteristic activity, an activity he recognized as a form of art, helped Watteau to create images in which the primarily descriptive, sensual, decorative, or moralizing aspects of traditional genre painting were refashioned into aesthetic commentary.

Rousseau’s and the Moralistes’ criticism of galant conversation as frivolous, vain, and hypocritical, and the arrival, with the philosophes, of a new type of conversation centered no longer on entertainment but on the confrontation of ideas—all these would not by themselves have prevented fashionable conversation from maintaining its prestige and remaining the amusement par excellence of high society. In 1789, however, the “luxury” of the private spoken word was once and for all forced to yield to the claims of public oratory. Public rhetoric had its revenge, and the “chamber music” of fashionable conversation was drowned out by the vast orchestra of public eloquence.

With the fall of Napoleon, the France of the Restoration attempted to bury the memory of the Revolution and re-establish links with the ancien régime. More than anything else, conversation came to symbolize that “delight in living” which 1789 had brought so abruptly to a close. It became, as Marc Fumaroli observes, a lieu de mémoire—a source, or realm, of memory. Nineteenth-century Paris once again had its salons and its aristocrats, its bourgeois and its intellectuals who would try to recreate the art of conversation; but in Fumaroli’s view this was a “necromantic ritual.” Once having mirrored a society made up of highly privileged classes whose main task had been to amuse themselves with “loisirs,” a society the Revolution had killed, fashionable conversation could not simply be put at the service of the political passions and egalitarian interests of the nineteenth century. It could not be revived without also resurrecting the “perfect harmony” between the voices of men and women, something that bourgeois moralism, the child of Rousseau, had now rendered impossible. Stripped of their former authority in high society, women had been relegated to the role of vestals tending the domestic hearth. The arts of seductiveness, of wit, of lightness, in which their eighteenth-century forebears had become adept were now the prerogatives of women of easy virtue, objects of rebuke and scandal.

On her return to Paris in 1802 after twelve years of exile, Madame Vigée LeBrun, the famous portraitist of Marie-Antoinette, realized at once how much the world had changed when she went to a large reception. As she wrote in her memoirs, “I was astonished on entering, to see all the men on one side and the women on the other; one would have thought them enemies face to face. Not a man came to our side, with the exception of the host, the Comte de Ségur, whom his long-seated habit of gallantry obliged to come and address a few flattering words to the ladies.”

The sinuous curve along which, in picture after picture, Watteau had arranged his couples with the two sexes taking part in the game of conversation, had been broken.

Translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh and Noga Arikha

This Issue

December 2, 1993