Adam Smith in Paris: Madame Riccoboni

Note: this is the second post in a multi-part series.

Most accounts of Adam Smith’s extended stay in Paris (Dec. 1765 to Oct. 1766) emphasize the pivotal role that Paris’s famed philosophical and literary “salons” had on Smith’s intellectual development. In brief, the “salons” were informal gatherings hosted in private homes, often by prominent Parisian women. The invited guests discussed literature and exchanged ideas about art, science, and politics, and it was at these gatherings that Smith met the French “physiocrats” and developed revolutionary ideas that would eventually find their way in his magnum opus “The Wealth of Nations”.

But what about Smith’s social life in Paris? By all accounts, it turns out that Smith not only broke out of his intellectual shell during his Parisian sojourn; he also became something of a bon vivant, participating in Paris’s cultural life by attending many plays, concerts, and operas and making many friends among France’s leading artists. Among these artistic friends was Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (b. 1713, d. 1792).

Although Riccoboni is little remembered today, she was a highly accomplished actress in the Théâtre-Italien, located in the Hôtel de Bourgogne of Paris, and an illustrious femme de lettres, one of the best-selling novelists of her day. More importantly, Riccoboni not only became acquainted with Smith during his extended residency in Paris in 1766; she also fell in love with him!

Madame Riccoboni met Smith for the first time in May of 1766, most likely in the Parisian salon of the Baron d’Holbach, where Smith was a frequent visitor. At first, Smith did not make much of an impression on Riccoboni. In a private letter dated May 21, 1766, she describes Smith in the following unflattering terms:

“Two Englishmen have arrived here. One [David Hume] is a friend of Garrick’s; the other is Scottish; my God what a Scot! He speaks with difficulty through big teeth, and he’s ugly as the devil. He’s Mr. Smith, author of a book I haven’t read [i.e. The Theory of Moral Sentiments]….”

But by the end of Smith’s fateful visit in October of that same year (1766), Madame Riccoboni had fallen head over heels with Smith! In a letter addressed to fellow actor David Garrick and dated sometime in October 1766, she reveals her feelings for Smith thus:

“I am very pleased with myself, my dear Garrick, to offer you that which I miss very sharply: the pleasure of Mr. Smith’s company. I am like a foolish young girl who listens to her lover without ever thinking of loss, which always accompanies pleasure. Scold me, beat me, kill me! But I adore Mr. Smith, I adore him greatly. I wish the devil would take all our philosophes, as long as he returns Mr. Smith to me.”

What happened between May and October to so dramatically change Riccoboni’s attitude toward Smith? I will address this question in my next blog post …

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Adam Smith in Paris: Madame Riccoboni

  1. Pingback: Adam Smith in Paris: Le Demimonde | prior probability

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