The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons

March 4 - July 10, 2005

The exhibition examines representative salons from Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, New York, and Milan, their hosts, participants, and the art that flourished as a result of the contacts and conversations that took place there.

The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons examines the significant role played by the salons of Jewish women in the development of art, literature, music, theater, philosophy, and politics in Europe and America from the late 18th century through the 1940s.

The salon was an important and radical vehicle for the “democratization of the public sphere,” providing a context in which nobility, artists and thinkers exchanged ideas across barriers of class, gender, nationality, economic standing, and religion, while society was rigidly defined along these lines. Salons enabled women and Jews—whose participation in official public life was restricted—to play a prominent role.

The exhibition probes the role that private conversations had in fostering the careers and fame of such celebrities as Felix Mendelssohn, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Gustav Klimt, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Greta Garbo, and others. Henriette Herz, the first Jewish woman to host a salon; Ada Leverson, who welcomed Oscar Wilde to her salon even after his controversial arrest; Anna Kuliscioff, an activist ardently opposed to the oppression of women; and Margherita Sarfatti, who acted as Mussolini’s political partner, are just a few of the engaging cast of characters to be introduced in the exhibition. A total of 197 objects are on view including portraits of the salonières and their guests, as well as letters, manuscripts, musical scores, political treatises, sculpture, paintings, plays, novels, poems, photographs, furniture, fashion, and film. The exhibition examines representative salons from Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, Milan, New York, and Los Angeles.

The Power of Conversation focuses on 14 of the most powerful women who hosted these salons. Included are: the first Jewish salonières, Henriette Herz and Rahel Levin Varnhagen in 1780s Berlin; Fanny von Arnstein and her sister Cäcilie von Eskeles in Vienna; the famed music salons of Amalie Beer and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (the sister of Felix) in Berlin; the 1890s literary salons of Ada Leverson in London and Geneviève Straus in Paris; the subversive political salon of Anna Kuliscioff in Milan; the modernist art salons of Berta Szeps Zuckerkandl in Vienna and Margherita Sarfatti in Milan; the avant-garde gatherings of Gertrude Stein in Paris and Florine Stettheimer in New York; and the salon of Salka Viertel in 1930s Los Angeles.

Conversation, literature and music play an integral part in the experience of the exhibition through a specially created audio guide/audio theater. Visitors hear conversations, memoirs, letters and performances of the hostesses and their salon guests. Produced by the Jewish Museum in association with Antenna Audio, the audio theater will be available to exhibition visitors for free.

The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons was made possible through leadership grants from the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and the Dorot Foundation, and from the Leo and Julia Forchheimer Foundation, The Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, Sara Lee Schupf and Tillie K. Lubin, and the Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation. 
Major support was also provided by Susan and Roger Hertog, The Donald and Barbara Zucker Foundation, The Richard J. and Joan G. Scheuer Family Foundation, The Nash Family Foundation, the New York Council for the Humanities, the Austrian Cultural Forum, Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, The Abby and Mitch Leigh Foundation, Leni and Peter May, and other generous donors.
The catalogue was made possible by the Dorot Foundation publications endowment. 
Special thanks to Susan Lytle Lipton, Sara Lee Schupf, Ellen Katz, Carol Saper, and Dayna Langfan.