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Franziska von Wertheimstein: “The vegetative existence I led could have also been led by a plant or a starfish” (© Jüdisches Museum Wien)

Arnstein’s salon gained such notoriety that the secret police kept an eye on it. An undercover police officer noted: “At Arnstein’s the day before yesterday, there was a very ornate Christmas tree.” It was Vienna’s first. He went on to list the guests, who included State Chancellor Hardenberg, Prince Radziwill, Herr Bartholdy, “and all baptised and circumcised relatives of the family”. All the guests were given presents or souvenirs from the Christmas tree. “Following the Berlin tradition, funny songs were sung. Frau von Münch sang songs from Kasperle [the equivalent of Punch and Judy]. The guests paraded through all the rooms with the objects they had received from the Christmas tree. Prince Hardenberg amused himself infinitely; Herr von Humboldt was not present.”

Arnstein promoted Mozart and was herself a highly-regarded pianist. Many salonnières were gifted poets, artists and writers. But sadly, they could rarely claim those professional descriptions for themselves. “Their lives can be described as a tightrope walk between the dazzling recognition for their achievements and the suffering that they experienced, which was above all suffering from rigid gender conventions,” argues Astrid Peterle, chief curator at the Jewish Museum.

The exhibition also introduced the salonnière Josephine von Wertheimstein. She carried out representational duties for Rothschild bank, where her husband was Vienna’s authorised representative. The 19th-century writer Felicie Ewart described the salon of the Villa Wertheimstein: “Comfortable yellow silk furniture stood around, apparently grouped randomly, every form of association, the tête-à-tête, as well as the conversation in a larger circle, fitting in casually, and beautiful flowers everywhere, at every time of the year.”

Salon guests played the piano, sang love songs together and, according to Ewart, “Ernst von Fleischl demonstrated the most striking experiments . . .  speaking in a manner far removed from all learned pedantry.” The novelist Ferdinand van Saar, a regular salon guest, wrote: “The magnificent hall, the richly adorned women, the sounds of the music, all of this set me into a rapture that was both pleasant and solemn.” He added: “A great many senior military men, bureaucrats, [and] financial bigwigs were present and I, with my threadbare 11-year old tailcoat, felt peculiar among the bemedalled gentlemen.” One admirer described Wertheimstein as a “queen” surrounded by dozens of drooling knights.  She was a talented poet and artist; in another age that is what we would know her for. But in her era, Wertheimstein despondently said: “The vegetative existence I led could have also been led by a plant or a starfish.” Like many of the intellectual women of her day, she largely lived vicariously through the men in their drawing-rooms. Whenever the novelist Ferdinand van Saar frequented Josephine’s daughter Franziska’s salon, his favourite question to her was: “Fräulein Franzi, wissen Sie mir keinen Stoff?” (Don’t you have any material for me?)

Similarly, one wonders what Proust would have written about without the salonnières of France. A large portion of In Search of Lost Time chronicles salon conversations. He frequented the Paris salon of Geneviève Straus, who supported his work, introduced him to the right people and provided him with stories. At her salon, Proust met Charles Haas who was the model for his character Charles Swann, while Straus herself inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes.
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