A salon is a gathering of stimulating people of quality under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings, often consciously following Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, “to please and educate” (aut delectare aut prodesse est). The salons, commonly associated with French literary and philosophical salons of the 17th century and 18th century, were carried on until quite recently in urban settings among like-minded people of a ‘set’: many 20th-century salons could be instanced.
Wealthy members of the aristocracy have always drawn to their court poets, writers and artists, usually with the lure of patronage, an aspect that sets the court apart from the salon. Another feature that distinguished the salon from the court was its absence of social hierarchy and its mixing of different social ranks and orders. In the 17th and 18th centuries, "salon[s] encouraged socializing between the sexes [and] brought nobles and bourgeois together. Salons helped facilitate the breaking down of social barriers which made the development of the enlightenment salon possible. In the 18th century, under the guidance of Madame Geoffrin, Mlle de Lespinasse, and Madame Necker, the salon was transformed into an institution of Enlightenment. The enlightenment salon brought together Parisian society, the progressive philosophes who were producing the Encyclopédie, the Bluestockings and other intellectuals to engage in the project of enlightenment.
Paris salons of the 18th century:
Some 19th century salons were more inclusive, verging on the raffish, and centered around painters and "literary lions" such as Madame Récamier. After the shock of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, French aristocrats tended to withdraw from the public eye. Marcel Proust called up his own turn-of-the-century experience to recreate the rival salons of the fictional duchesse de Guermantes and Madame Verdurin. Some late 19th and early 20th century Paris salons were major centres for contemporary music, including those of Winnaretta Singer (the princesse de Polignac), and Elisabeth, comtesse Greffulhe. They were responsible for commissioning some of the greatest songs and chamber music works of Faure, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc.
In England, salons were held, in the 18th century, by Elizabeth Montagu, in whose salon the expression blue stockings originated, and who created the Blue Stockings Society, and by Hester Thrale; in Germany, the most famous were held by Jewish ladies, such as Henriette Herz and Rahel Varnhagen; in Spain, by María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Álvarez de Toledo, 13th Duchess of Alba in the end of the 18th century; and in Greece by Alexandra Mavrokordatou in the 17th century.
In 16th-century Italy some scintillating circles did form in the smaller courts which resembled salons, often galvanized by the presence of a beautiful and educated patroness such as Isabella d'Este or Elisabetta Gonzaga. Italy had an early tradition of the salon; the courtisan Tullia d'Aragona held a salon already in the 16th century, and Giovanna Dandolo became known as a patron and gatherer of artists as wife of Pasqual Malipiero, the doge in Venice in 1457-1462; but this did not start a tradition as the salon-institution in France, as men and women were traditionally more separated in social life in Italy; the real pioneers were instead the abdicated Queen Christina of Sweden and the princess Colonna, Marie Mancini, who rivaled as salon hostesses in 17th century Rome.
In Iberia or Latin America a tertulia is a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones. The word is originally Spanish and has only moderate currency in English, in describing Latin cultural contexts. Since the twentieth century a typical tertulia has moved out from the private drawing-troom to become a regularly scheduled event in a public place such as a bar, although some tertulias are still held in more private spaces. Participants may share their recent creations (poetry, short stories, other writings, even artwork or songs).
In Poland, the duchess Sieniawska held a salon in the end of the 17th cenury. They became very popular there during the 18th century. The most renown were the Thursday Dinners of King Stanisław August Poniatowski in the end of 18th century, and the most notable salonnières were Zofia Lubomirska and Izabela Czartoryska.
In Scandinavia, the salon was introduced in Sweden by Sophia Elisabet Brenner in the end of the 17th century and Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht and Malla Silfverstolpe were salon hostesses in the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively, while Christine Sophie Holstein and Charlotte Schimmelman were the most notable hostesses in Denmark in the beginning and the end of the 18th century.
American "society hostesses" such as Perle Mesta have performed a function similar to the host or hostess of the European salon.
The name salon remained, even when other quarters were found and the exhibits' irregular intervals became biennial. A jury system of selection was introduced in 1748, and the salon remained a major annual event even after the government withdrew official sponsorship in 1881.
(Biographies of French salonists from Madame de Rambouillet to Madame Recamier and descriptions of salon culture from the 17th to the 19th century.)