Sophie de Condorcet: A French Salon Hostess

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.

The Salon Hostess Sophie de Condorcet: Sophie Marie Louise de Grouchy or Madame de Condorcet, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sophie Marie Louise de Grouchy or Madame de Condorcet, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sophie de Condorcet had been lucky enough in 1786 to marry a famous mathematician and social philosopher, 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.”[1]

Marie Jean Antoine Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Marie Jean Antoine Caritat. Marquis de Condorcet, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Biographer Henry Morse Stephens wrote of her 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.”[2] This, however, did not mean that she welcomed no one to her home. 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 guests, including the Scottish moral philosopher and pioneer of political economy Adam Smith, the pamphleteer Olympe de Gouges, and the American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, and many French philosophers.

Sophie de Condorcet was also considered a consummate hostess, like French socialite and salon hostess Madame Récamier. 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 it was 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.”[3]

Despite whatever differences in personality Sophie and her husband had, the couple embraced the same political views and assumed an active political life. Over time their political leanings tended towards the Girondin’s views like Charlotte Corday, who killed Jean-Paul Marat. On 3 October 1793, after the Marquis de Condorcet opposed the execution of King Louis XVI and then criticized the Montagnard’s Constitution, he was branded a traitor and went into hiding in the rue Servandoni at the home of Madame Vernet.

During this time, Sophie de Condorcet relied on the same skills and charms to survive that had made her salon successful. She 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.”[4] in the early years of her marriage, Sophie had learned painting skills from Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, the famed painter of Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe. Sophie de Condorcet 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,”[5] and by these means she supported herself and daughter.

In the meantime, according to an edited version of Condorcet: Political Writings that provides a timeline of events related to the Marquis:

“While in hiding, Cordorcet … [wrote] a ‘Lettre à la Convention’ in which he accuse[d] Robespierre of dictatorship. On 2 October he [was] condemned to death and ask[ed] his wife to divorce him to protect their family assets for their daughter.”[6]

Sophie de Condorcet complied with his wishes and instituted divorce proceedings. He then came out of hiding and left Madame Vernet’s home on 25 March 1794 and was arrested at Clamart. Three days later he was found dead in the prison of Bourg-de-l’Égalité. Some people believe he poisoned himself, while others maintain Jacobin opponents murdered him. Nonetheless, it was around this same time that Sophie “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.”[7]

Sophie de Condorcet - Her husband's death

Depiction of Marquis de Condorcet’s death. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

After the end of the Jacobin Terror in July of 1794, Sophie 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.”[8] Moreover, she 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.”[9]

Adam Smith, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Adam Smith. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Five years later, in 1799, Sophie 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.” Sophie’s 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, Sophie published her husband works — 21 volumes — between 1801 and 1804.

One interesting anecdote reported in the late 1800s that provides a glimpse into the independent and liberal character of Sophie de Condorcet involves Napoleon Bonaparte. It was reported that he 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.'”[10]

Napoleon. Public domain.

Until the end of her life Sophie 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. Saunders’s News-Letter noted her passing stating:

“Madame Condorcet, niece to Grouchy, and widow of the illustrious Condorcet, died a few days ago at Paris, after a long and painful illness. This lady was esteemed one of the finest women of the age, and in France none possessed more sprightliness and esprit. Madame Condorcet was particularly amiable for her domestic virtues.”[11]

For her exemplary example and devotion to her husband, one insightful article stated:

“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.”[12]

References:

  • [1] Kavanagh, Julia, Woman in France During Eighteenth Century, Volume 2, 1850, p. 93.
  • [2] Stephens, Henry Morse, A History of the French Revolution, Volume 2, 1908, p. 17.
  • [3] Whale, Winifred Stephens, Women of the French Revolution, 1922, p. 44.
  • [4] Macmillan’s Magazine, Volume 92, 1905, p. 316.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Lukes, Steven and Urbinati, Nadia eds. , Condorcet: Political Writings, xxxx, p. xii.
  • [7] Macmillian’s Magazine, p. 319.
  • [8] Tougas, Cecile Thérèse and Sara Ebenreck, Presenting Women Philosophers, 2000, p. 225.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] “Selected Anecdotes,” in Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 5 December 1874, p. 6.
  • [11] -, Saunders’s News-Letter,-20 September 1822, p. 2.
  • [12] Macmillan’s Magazine, p. 319.

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