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Tribute to Charles Baudelaire

jeudi 31 août 2017

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  • Portrait de Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet, musée Fabre à Montpellier
    Portrait of Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet, Musée Fabre, Montpellier
    (C) RMN-Grand Palais / Agence Bulloz

To mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Baudelaire (9 April 1821-31 August 1867). let us pay tribute to this unclassifiable personality, filled with contradictions and ambivalence: A poet who defined modernity but also an important art critic with the greatest foresight of his era.

Succumbing to syphilis at the age of 46, Baudelaire experienced a life of frustration and pain. His mother's second marriage, the Flowers of Evil trial and his illness were the major challenges of his life. A profoundly complex and original personality, he lived with the excesses of his artificial paradises and lingered in the pain of his aborted loves. But it was these failures that make him an eternal and resolutely modern poet.

Baudelaire identified with dandyism: "A dandy should seek to be sublime without interruption." For this artist, it was essential to maintain a critical point of view at all times. To him, a poet was necessarily a critic.


A man of his century.

Three radical transformations punctuated his youth and determined his life and his work: the invention of modern journalism, the emergence of photography and the birth of the modern city. 

Baudelaire was the most attentive observer of the progress brought about by the industrial revolution and also the most virulent critic of progress as a symbol of moral decadence.

Although he worked with the press to publish his poems and distribute his art criticism, he manifested his hatred for the medium.

"The broadsheets make my life unbearable."
"I do not understand how anyone can touch a newspaper without revulsion". 

Photography, which developed from the first daguerreotypes in 1837, rapidly became fashionable. The poet saw photography as decadent art. Nevertheless, the fine portraits of Baudelaire made by Nadar and Carjat proved that he agreed to play the game, and he was indeed one of their finest models. Nadar became both his friend and his enemy.


Charles Baudelaire around 1863, Etienne Carjat, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paris was a city in transition: Haussmann's enormous construction sites, the replacement of oil lamps with street lighting, the development of cafés and boulevards. Baudelaire was a constant presence in public places, but his permanent dissatisfaction with all of these changes led to him moving house frequently. He expressed his deep regret at seeing old Paris disappearing, in such poems as "Le Cygne" from the Tableaux Parisiens or his prose poem Le Spleen de Paris.

The artist and his contemporaries

Baudelaire was recognised as the greatest art critic of his era and left us with a collection of his complete criticism entitled "Ecrits sur l’art". His curious, caustic, incisive, sometimes raging, sometimes admiring spirit guides us through the salons of 1845, 1846, 1859, and the Universal Exhibition of 1855.

The Musée de la Vie Romantique presented "The Eye of Baudelaire" exhibition in 2016, revealing his visionary spirit, his rebelliousness, his highly sensitive vision of art. With Baudelaire, criticism became a literary genre of its own.

Here are a few clear examples of how it was better to be his friend than his enemy.

Eugène Delacroix was his preferred master, who he discovered aged 17 at the Palace of Versailles with his admiration of "The Battle of Taillebourg". He met the artist and became a loyal visitor to the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette studio, composing moving elegies on the life and work of Eugène Delacroix published in the Opinion Nationale (1862 and 1863) and taking active part in the tributes to Delacroix.

Edouard Manet knew Baudelaire from the cafés. They had points in common: they were both bourgeois dandies who unintentionally revolutionised their art.

Manet's first work "Lola de Valence" drew Baudelaire's enthusiasm for its eroticism which inspired this quatrain:

"My friends, among so many beauties
Desire, I conceive, may hesitate
But in Lola de Valence see scintillate
Surprise! A charming jewel of black and pink"

Lola de Valence, Edouard Manet, musée d'Orsay/(C) Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Baudelaire evoked the modernity of Constantin Guys in his text "The painter of modern life", praised the militant republican Courbet, defended the caricaturists who were anything but minor artists in his eyes, especially Daumier, and discovered and skilfully translated Edgar Allen Poe. Poe was Baudelaire's kindred spirit in both his writing and his tragic destiny. He recognised the talents of Théophile Gautier, also a writer and art critic. He had a more ambivalent relationship with Victor Hugo, whose personality he found both upsetting and seductive.

His castigation of Horace Vernet was particularly ferocious:

"Mr Vernet is a soldier who practices painting. How I hate an art which is improvised to the role of the drum. daubed on the hoof, manufactured to the sound of pistol-shots, how I hate the army..."

Baudelaire was aware of his posterity, an essential observer of renewal in the arts, and the genius behind Les Fleurs du Mal, a small illustrated volume published in 1866 by Félicien Rops that remains one of the world's most famous poetry collections.


Charles Baudelaire discovers a carcass in the vegetation of the "Flowers of Evil", Félix Nadar, Bnf/(C) BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BnF


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