The salon hostess Sophie de Condorcet was born Marie Louise de Grouchy but known more frequently as Madame de Condorcet. She was a prominent and charming Parisian who maintained her own identity and remained influential before, during, and after the French Revolution. She was also known for her beauty, kindness, and indifference to a person’s social status or origins. Perhaps, this indifference was because she was born in 1764 to a page who worked for Louis XV named Francoise Jacques Marquis de Grouchy, and her mother was an intellectual named Marie Gilberte Henriette Fréteau de Pény.
Madame de Condorcet had been lucky enough in 1786 to marry a famous mathematician and social philosopher. His name was Marie-Jean Antoine Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. They were a striking couple but nearly opposite, as demonstrated in the following description:
“[The Marquis was] middle-aged, grave and cold, concealed a burning enthusiasm beneath his calm aspect, and has been characterised … as a volcano covered with snow. Madame de Condorcet, on the contrary, young, beautiful, excitable, abandoned herself without reserve to her political prejudices, and to every passion of the moment.”
Yet, for all their differences, the couple embraced the same political views and assumed an active political life. Over time their political leanings tended towards the Girondin’s views. On 3 October 1793, after the Marquis opposed the execution of the King and then criticized the Montagnard’s Constitution, he was branded a traitor and went into hiding. During this time, Madame de Condorcet relied on the same skills and charms that had made her salon successful.
One biographer wrote of Madame de Condorcet that “her great beauty and her rank would have enabled her to become a leading lady of fashion, but she preferred a quiet home life.” This, however, did not mean that she welcomed no guests to her home because, in fact, after her marriage, she started a famous salon at Hôtel des Monnaies in Paris, opposite the Louvre. She later lived in the Rue de Lille, and there her salon was inundated with many foreign guests, including the Scottish moral philosopher and pioneer of political economy Adam Smith, the pamphleteer Olympe de Gouges, the writer and hostess Madame de Staël, the American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, and many French philosophers.
Madame de Condorcet was also considered a consummate hostess. For instance, when the annual celebration of the Fête of the Federation, was held in 1791 to honor the events that culminated in a new form of government, one writer noted:
“[B]etween the 20th of June and the 10th of August … Mme de Condorcet … received some four hundred delegates from Marseilles, who had come to Paris … [and] as we might expect, she … completely bewitched them.”
Madame de Condorcet forged a livelihood that was demonstrated “when her house at Auteuil was invaded by Republican soldiers, Madame softened their hearts and earned a pittance by taking their portraits.” She also disguised herself as a peasant and went to Paris twice a week to the Place de la Révolution where she painted miniatures “of the condemned in the prisons, of proscribed men lying hidden in strange retreats, or of middle-class citizens,” and by these means she supported herself and daughter.
The Marquis de Condorcet was eventually captured and imprisoned for treason. He mysteriously died on 28 March 1794. Some people believe he poisoned himself, while others maintain Jacobin opponents murdered him. Either way, his death forced Madame de Condorcet to petition for divorce from him in order to ensure the safety of her and her child. Her petition was granted, and it was around this same time that she “took a fine linen shop in the Rue St. Honoré, and in the entresol set up her little studio where she continued her portrait-painting.”
After the end of the Jacobin Terror in July of 1794, Madame de Condorcet translated Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a translation that has been said to be “the third and best French translation of Smith’s work.” But, moreover, Madame de Condorcet commented on Smith’s work by adding eight letters on sympathy. Historians today note that her comments “provide criticism … add depth … and add an important dimension to Smith’s somewhat superficial analysis of sympathy.”
Five years later, in 1799, Madame de Condorcet arranged to publish her husband’s Éloges des Académiciens. She was also able to revive her salon at the former home of another salon hostess, Madame Helvétius, nicknamed “Minette.” Her revived salon reflected her husband’s political viewpoints and became an important meeting place for those opposed to the autocratic regime. In addition, with help from her sister’s husband, a philosopher and doctor by the name of Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, Madame de Condorcet published her husband works — 21 volumes — between 1801 and 1804.
One interesting anecdote published in the late 1800s that provides a glimpse into the independent and liberal character of Madame de Condorcet involves Napoleon Bonaparte. It was reported that Napoleon once said to her, “‘I do not like women who meddle with politics.’ To which impudence she instantly replied: ‘Ah, mon general, as long as you men take a fancy to cut off our heads now and then, we are interested in knowing why you do it.'”
Until the end of her life Madame de Condorcet continued to support the ideals of her husband. She also worked to preserve his memory. In addition, she remained an active salon hostess until she died on 8 September 1822 in Paris. For her exemplary example and devotion to her husband, many people lauded her at her death and one insightful biographer wrote:
“Through every stupendous change which France experienced, between the fall of Robespierre and the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, [Madame de Condorcet] remained faithful to the principles to which her husband had devoted his genius and his life. Yet … [she] had been, and had counted herself, a happy woman. Wrung with such sorrows as do not fall to the lot of many of her sex, she had a blessing which is the portion of far fewer of them; she had inspired a great devotion, and had been worthy of it.”
- “Condorcet,” in Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 26 January 1825
- Kavanagh, Julia, Woman in France During the Eighteenth Century, 1864
- Lippincott’s Magazine, Volume 35, 1885
- Macmillan’s Magazine, Volume 92, 1905
- “Selected Anecdotes,” in Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 5 December 1874
- Tougas, Cecile Thérèse and Sara Ebenreck, Presenting Women Philosophers, 2000
- Whales, Winifred Stephens, Women of the French Revolution, 1922