Rossini’s Parisian Salon

In 1855, after taking an early retirement and enjoying a lengthy sojourn in Italy, Rossini returned to Paris. Here, he rented space on the Rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin to establish what would become one of the most prominent and sophisticated artistic salons in the French capital. In the 19th century, “salons” were small artistic gatherings hosted in a person’s home, a creative, intimate environment for close-knit groups of composers, writers, and other artists to socialize, entertain wealthy patrons, and share their work with each other. In addition to hosting artists in his own salon, Rossini also offered his services to wealthy aristocrats who wanted to throw an artistic party in their own house. The French writer and historian countess Marie d’Agoult (who was also mistress of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt) recalled that, for a fee of 1,500 francs, Rossini would arrange all of an evening’s entertainment, booking virtuosos like Liszt, the harpist François-Joseph Naderman, or the flutist Jean-Louis Tulou, and even accompanying singers on the piano himself.

Josef Danhauser, Franz Liszt Fantasizing at the Piano (1840), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin –
Stiffung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Alte Nationalgalerie F.V. 42

In 1840, the painter Josef Danhauser captured the atmosphere of the salon by depicting an imaginary gathering of some of the 19th century’s most celebrated artistic figures. On the left side, sitting, is Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers. To his left, also seated, is the novelist Aurore Dudevant, the longtime lover of pianist and composer Frédéric Chopin. Since female writers at the time were afforded little respect, Dudevant took a male pen name, George Sand, and often dressed as a man and smoked cigars. Behind Dumas and Dudevant is the French novelist Victor Hugo, who authored The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables. Next to him are the virtuoso violinist Nicolò Paganini (left) and Rossini (right). At the piano is the magnificent Liszt, while leaning her head against the piano is the Countess d’Agoult. By placing a white bust of Ludwig van Beethoven against the background of a cloudy sky, Danhauser reminds everyone of the enormous influence the German composer had on the younger generation of musicians, who struggled to produce works that would compete with the scope and intensity of his music. The mysterious gazes of the artists in the painting seem to suggest that they are entranced: Liszt’s playing has carried them into a transcendent realm.