French Poet, Art Critic, and Translator
Summary of Charles Baudelaire
Baudelaire is arguably the most influential French poet of the nineteenth century and a key figure in the timeline of European art history. A denizen of Paris during the years of burgeoning modernity, his writing showed a strong inclination towards experimentation and he identified with fellow travellers in the field of contemporary painting, most notably Eugène Delacroix and Édouard Manet. A rebel of near-heroic proportions, Baudelaire gained notoriety and public condemnation for writings that dealt with taboo subjects such as sex, death, homosexuality, depression and addiction, while his personal life was blighted with familial acrimony, ill health, and financial misfortune. Despite these hinderances, he managed to leave his indelible stamp on three overlapping idioms: art criticism, poetry, and literary translation. It is in respect of the former that he can be credited with providing the philosophical connection between the ages of French Romanticism, Impressionism and the birth of what is now considered modern art.
- Baudelaire saw himself as the literary equal of the contemporary artist; especially Delacroix with whom he felt a special affinity. Like Delacroix, Baudelaire was committed to testing the limits of his art in the way he sought to capture the vicissitudes of human emotions. Where Baudelaire used poetry to achieve this affect, Delacroix used color, but both men were leading a charge towards a new - modern - era in art history.
- Baudelaire's name is inextricably linked with the idea of the flâneur: the anonymous street wanderer who created a poetic record of the rapidly shifting environment to which he, and his fellow urban dwellers, were exposed. As a "man of the city", he wandered anonymously throughout the streets, embankments, and arcades of Paris observing the behaviour of crowds in this new age of window shopping and cafe culture. The concept of the flâneur became an important phenomenon for future artists and, after the writings of the philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin which introduced Baudelaire to a new twentieth century audience, for the academic development of the cultural studies too.
- Baudelaire played a significant part in defining the role both of the artist and the art critic. In his call for a more modern (more relevant) art style, Baudelaire argued that artists like Delacroix and Manet offered the best step forward in that direction. But he also helped viewers see the importance of the Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David, appreciate the talents of lesser-known artists such as the illustrator Constantin Guys and the etcher Charles Meryon, all of whom captured something of the fleeting mood of their times.
- Baudelaire became a close friend of Manet on whom he had a profound influence. Indeed, it was through Baudelaire's encouragement that Manet - a kindred spirit who was reviled for his painting Olympia just as much as Baudelaire had been reviled for his collection Les Fleurs du Mal - ultimately fulfilled Baudelaire's vision of the true painter of modern life; one who could capture the transient quality of modern Paris with a new picture perspective and energized color palette.
Biography of Charles Baudelaire
The original flâneur, Baudelaire was an invisible idler; the first connoisseur of the streets of modern Paris. "I walk alone", he wrote, "absorbed in my fantastic play [...] Tripping on words, as on rough paving in the street, Or bumping into verses I long had dreamed to meet".
Charles Baudelaire and Important Artists and Artworks
Arguably Jacques-Louis David's greatest painting, The Death of Marat, features the French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat at the moment of his death. He often worked at a makeshift desk while in his bathtub to help alleviate irritation from his chronic skin condition and it is here that he was assassinated by the federalist revolutionary C harlotte Corday. Beautifully awash in light, in this painting his white skin stands in sharp contrast to the dark background and his limp body evokes similarities to Christ's body at the time of his deposition from the cross.
A champion of Neoclassicism, Charles Baudelaire praised this painting in an article about the movement in the journal Le Corsaire-Satan in 1846. His adoration of the painting offers proof of Baudelaire's willingness to challenge public opinion. According to author Frederick William John Hemmings, at the time of publication, political public opinion was not in favor of the Revolution and so, "in praising [the painting] Baudelaire was well aware that he was flying in the face of received opinion. Today, of course, the unpopular view he put forward is the generally accepted one ".
This painting saw the writer begin to embrace modernity. Of the painting specifically, he wrote, "the drama has been caught, still living in all its lamentable horror, and by a strange feat that makes of this painting David's true masterpiece and one of the great curiosities of modern art, it has nothing trivial or ignoble about it". In describing its impact, Baudelaire added, "there is something in this work that melts the heart and wrings it too; in the chilly air of this chamber, on these cold walls, around this cold bath-tub is also a coffin, there hovers a soul". David's depiction surely spoke to the radical spirit in Baudelaire.
A nude woman, but for the colorful scarf in her hair and bracelets on her wrist, dominates the canvas of Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres's Grande Odalisque. As the title indicates, she is a harem girl who lounges across cushions and colorful sheets in her bedroom in which also hangs a blue brocade curtain in an exotic pattern. The model is a study in contradictions in that her nudity and her direct gaze, looking back over her right shoulder, make her actions seem at once demure and bold. A controversial work, it was the subject of much debate when it first debuted at the Paris Salon of 1819. According to art historian François De Vergnette, "the nude was a major theme in Western art, but since the Renaissance figures portrayed in that way had been drawn from mythology; here [however] Ingres transposed the theme to a distant land". Ingres's willingness to push for a more modern form made him an artist worthy of analytical scrutiny for Baudelaire.
Today this work is considered a precursor to the Romantic movement. According to the art historian Rosemary Lloyd, Baudelaire believed that Romanticism was the "expression of beauty, springing from a sharp awareness of what the modern world has to offer that makes its forms of beauty unique". Baudelaire was especially impressed with any artist who could master the art of portraiture and depictions of human figures. Of the art of portraiture, he stated, "here the art is more difficult because it is more ambitious. You have to be able to bathe a head in the gentle vapours of a hot atmosphere or make it rise from the depths of dusk". According to Lloyd, Baudelaire considered Ingres to be, "'the master of line' and here in this work he shows his mastery over the human figure while simultaneously rendering it in a modern way".
In July 1830, "the People" of Paris embarked on a bloody revolt against the country's dictatorial monarch, King Charles X. On completing his commemoration of this momentous historic event Delacroix wrote to his brother stating: "I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her". The resulting painting was an archetype of Romanticism; destined to become one of France's finest art treasures, and Delacroix's greatest masterpiece. The artist's blend of classical allegory - "Liberty" as immortal and untouchable goddess brandishing the tricolour and leading her subjects into battle - with blunt realism - "Liberty" is dishevelled and flushed of face as she stands atop the bodies of the injured and dying - was brought to life by Delacroix through loose brush strokes and vivid coloring.
Baudelaire was Delacroix's most vocal supporter, describing him as "decidedly the most original painter of all times, ancient and modern" while adding that "everything in his oeuvre is desolation [...] smoking, burning cities, raped women, children thrown under the hooves of horses or stabbed by delirious mothers". Yet for all the artist's thematic preferences, Baudelaire was equally absorbed by Delacroix's handling of color since this illustrated perfectly the "correspondences" between the poet and the painter. While the poet was challenged in their ability to describe colors, the painter was equally curtailed in their ability to capture non-visual emotions and sounds. Baudelaire's higher appreciation of Delacroix was based on the idea that a Romantic painter of Delacroix's standing was the supreme colorist who could use his palette to capture and convey non-visual sensations. Color, in other words, could, if applied with great skill and verve, bring about a higher "poetic" state of bliss in the viewer.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Charles Baudelaire
- Baudelaire the Damned: A BiographyOur PickBy F.W.J. Hemmings
- Charles BaudelaireOur PickBy Rosemary Lloyd
- Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and LiteratureOur PickBy Charles Baudelaire
- The Flowers of Evil/Les Fleurs du MalBy Charles Baudelaire
- Why French poet Charles Baudelaire was the godfather of GothsThe Conversation / This article describes the influence of Charles Baudelaire on the Goth culture. It includes an embedded video of the rock band The Cure performing their 1987 song "How Beautiful You Are," which is an adaptation of Baudelaire's prose poem The Eyes of the Poor