Tag Archives: Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) – Bio by Bernard Howells

Charles Baudelaire – one of my favourites and faithful followers to my blogs know I quote him often. Found this luscious biography on him specifically on his works (I am tired with those that write on their relationships and mistresses and babies and blindness, those are sometimes best reserved for Marilyn Monroe!) and I think Howells writes awfully well especially on his ideal of ‘pure poetry’.

Charles Baudelaire is chiefly known as the author of Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861) The Flowers of Evil) and of a collection of experimental prose poems, Le Spleen de Paris (1869; Paris Spleen). But he is also important as a critic of painting and, to a much lesser extent, of literature and music. The essays on art are usually published under the collective title Curiosités esthétiques (Aesthetic curiosities), those on literature and music under the title L’Art romantique (Romantic art; a title not chosen by Baudelaire). The Salon de 1846 (Salon of 1846) first established his reputation as a writer and aesthete, and he is now judged one of the greatest art critics of 19th-century France. Over the last 50 years his critical essays have come to be considered an extension of his creative work because of the insights they provide into his aesthetics as a poet. The best exhibit the qualities one might expect of a poet—imaginative and emotional investment in his subject, allusive intellectual density, sensuous evocativeness—in keeping with Baudelaire’s conviction that the only aesthetics worthy of the name are a posteriori, the subsequent analysis of a richly sensuous lived experience, and not a matter of “principles” or abstract preconceptions about the beautiful. We can see this exemplified in “Richard Wagner et ‘Tannhäuser’ a Paris” (1861; Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris). Baudelaire’s musical experience was limited, but a concert of excerpts from Wagner’s music and the premiere of Tannhäuser in Paris in 1861 produced an overwhelming impression, evoked in the essay in terms of the poetic theory of correspondances (mystical correspondences) or synesthesia (in this case, sound suggesting qualities of light and color). Baudelaire referred to experience of this kind— sensation carried in the imagination to a point of almost preternatural intensity—as le surnaturalisme (supernaturalism). Wagner was to Baudelaire in music what Delacroix had been 15 years earlier in painting. A series of essays on drugs, published together under the title Les Paradis artificiels (1860; Artificial Paradise), explore similar states of heightened consciousness produced by alcohol, hashish, and opium, but Baudelaire’s celebration of their poetic effects is counterbalanced by his condemnation of drugs in terms of irresponsibility, delusion, and moral disintegration.

The literary criticism does not have quite the same intensity, though Baudelaire’s passion for Delacroix and Wagner was matched by his enthusiasm for Poe, whom he translated extensively. Poe provided not so much the revelation of a new experience as the confirmation of a theory of poetry toward which Baudelaire’s own intuition was guiding him. His most important collection of essays on literature, Réflexions sur quelques-uns de mes contemporains (1861; Reflections on some of my contemporaries), was commissioned as a series of prefatory essays for an anthology of French poetry produced by Eugène Crépet. Many of the poets discussed would now be considered minor and do not engage Baudelaire’s imagination in the same way as music or painting, the essays on Gautier and Hugo being exceptions. In these essays, Baudelaire, reflecting on the work of his contemporaries and thinking back over his own best poetry, comes closest to formulating his own ideal of a “pure poetry.”

The “Salon”—a critical account of the annual exhibition of contemporary painting held in Paris—became, in the wake of Diderot, an essay subgenre in the 19th century. They were commissioned by leading Parisian papers and journals and often published separately as brochures. They were often written by established or avant-garde writers (Musset, Heine, Champfleury) and were typical of the cross-fertilization between literature and the fine arts that was a feature of the intense artistic life of Paris from the Constitutional Monarchy onward. The aim in the first place was to offer an intellectual tour of the paintings on view and to act as a guide and stimulus to bourgeois buyers.

Baudelaire’s first Salon in 1845 follows this format. A year later, electrified by his recent acquaintance with Delacroix, Baudelaire wrote the Salon de 1846 and transformed the genre from a catalogue with commentary into an essay in high aesthetics. The Salon de 1846 is intellectually taut in its construction and polemically committed. In it Baudelaire states his own convictions as an artist at the outset of his career and promotes the genius of Delacroix, seen as the representative of the Romantic movement in France. Much of the essay turns on the distinction and opposition of color (Delacroix) and line (Ingres).

Line artificially separates objects and parts of objects from each other and creates stable conceptual identities; color blurs distinctions, including the distinction between subject (the viewer) and object (the viewed) and tends toward a poetic state of coalescence. The opposition of Delacroix and Ingres, as the two main rival representatives of contemporary French painting, is repeated in the text Baudelaire devoted to the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855, which is perhaps more interesting in the brief glimpses it affords of the impact of non-European art (for example Chinese art) on Baudelaire’s sensibility. The Exposition made Baudelaire aware of the narrowness of the controversies (e.g. Romantic versus neoclassical) that were still feeding artistic debate in France.

Two essays on caricature, “Quelques caricaturistes français” (1857; Some French caricaturists)and “Quelques caricaturistes étrangers” (1857; Some foreign caricaturists), prefaced by a short metaphysical theory of the comic, “De l’essence du rire” (1855; The essence of laughter), show a Baudelaire fascinated by the moral suggestiveness of this genre, which he refused to consider as minor. On the contrary, caricature exhibits, in quintessential form, the processes of simplification and expressive generalization (what Baudelaire calls “idealization”) common to all the visual arts.

Baudelaire’s last Salon in 1859 is tightly organized around the concept of imagination, in the name of which he rejects realism as a philosophically untenable position. As a subjective idealist, he argues that we do not know nature in any objective sense; all we have are the ways in which individual imaginations totalize experience. Baudelaire’s abiding commitment to Delacroix made him hostile to Courbet and unsympathetic to the contemporary developments in French landscape painting that would lead to impressionism (he could not tolerate the erosion of compositional values). It also blinded him to the novel genius of Manet. Le Peintre de la vie moderne (1863; The painter of modern life) is the fullest development of a preoccupation announced as early as the Salons of 1845 and 1846—the necessity for modern painters to find the material of their art in the reality and lifestyle of their own historical moment. A comparatively minor illustrator of worldly life, Constantin Guys, is hailed as the artist who has opened his eyes to the bizarre beauty of Second Empire Paris, its types, its fashions, and the whole new world of nightlife made possible by gas lighting. The essay was influential in creating the climate of thought and sensibility that made possible the work of artists like Toulouse- Lautrec, Degas, and, of course, Manet himself.



It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude; enjoying a crowd is an art; and only he can relish a debauch of vitality at the expense of the human species, on whom, in his cradle, a fairy has bestowed the love of masks and masquerading, the hate of home, and the passion for roaming.

Multitude, solitude: identical terms, and interchangeable by the active and fertile poet. The man who is unable to people his solitude is equally unable to be alone in a bustling crowd.

The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself of someone else, as he chooses. Like those wandering souls who go looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man’s personality. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting.

The solitary and thoughtful stroller finds a singular intoxication in this universal communion. The man who loves to lose himself in a crowd enjoys feverish delights that the egoist locked up in himself as in a box, and the slothful man like a mollusk in his shell, will be eternally deprived of. He adopts as his own all the occupations, all the joys and all the sorrows that chance offers.

What men call love is a very small, restricted, feeble thing compared with this ineffable orgy, this divine prostitution of the soul giving itself entire, all it poetry and all its charity, to the unexpected as it comes along, to the stranger as he passes.

It is a good thing sometimes to teach the fortunate of this world, if only to humble for an instant their foolish pride, that there are higher joys than theirs, finer and more uncircumscribed. The founders of colonies, shepherds of peoples, missionary priests exiled to the ends of the earth, doubtlessly know something of this mysterious drunkenness; and in the midst of the vast family created by their genius, they must often laugh at those who pity them because of their troubled fortunes and chaste lives.

Charles Baudelaire

Another crowd passage this morning (which makes me think of Virgina Woolf’s The Waves, somewhat).