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.
Charles Pierre Baudelaire. Born 9 April 1821 in Paris. Studied at the Collège Royal, Lyon, 1832–36; Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris, 1836–39: expelled; Pension Levêque et Bailly, Paris, baccalauréat, 1839; enrolled as a law student at the University of Paris, but led a bohemian life, contracted venereal disease, and fell into debt, 1839–40. Sent on a voyage to India by his parents, 1841, but left the ship at Mauritius and returned to Paris, 1842. Began a lifelong affair with Jeanne Duval, 1842. Lived on an inheritance from his father, from 1842: deprived by law of control over it by the Conseil Judiciaire, 1844.
Cofounder, Le Salut Public (The public salute), 1848. Fought on the barricades during the Revolution of 1848; associated with Proudhon and opposed the coup d’état of LouisNapoleon Bonaparte, December 1851, but subsequently remained aloof from politics and adopted increasingly reactionary attitudes. Involved with Marie Daubrun, 1854–55, 1859, and Apollonie Sabatier, 1857. Publication of Les Fleurs du mal, 1857, led to a trial for indecency, a fine, and suppression of six poems; extended stay in Brussels, 1864; returned to Paris and stayed in a sanatorium, 1866. Died aphasiac and hemiplagiac in Paris, 31 August 1867.
Essays and Related Prose
Salon de 1845, 1845; edited by André Ferran, 1933
Salon de 1846, 1846; edited by David Kelley, 1975
Les Paradis artificiels, 1860; as Artificial Paradise: On Hashish and Wine as a Means of Expanding Individuality, translated by Ellen Fox, 1971
Réflexions sur quelques-uns de mes contemporains, 1861
Le Peintre de la vie moderne, 1863
Curiosités esthétiques, 1868
L’Art romantique, 1869
Selected Critical Studies, edited by Douglas Parmée, 1949
My Heart Laid Bare and Other Prose Writings, edited by Peter Quennell, translated by Norman Cameron, 1950
The Mirror of Art: Critical Studies, edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne, 1955
The Essence of Laughter, and Other Essays, Journals, and Letters, edited by Peter Quennell, 1956
Curiosités esthétiques, L’Art romantique, et autres oeuvres critiques, edited by Henri Lemaître, 1962
Baudelaire as a Literary Critic, edited and translated by Lois Boe Hyslop and Francis E.Hyslop, Jr., 1964
The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne, 1964
Art in Paris 1845–1862: Salons and Other Exhibitions, edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne, 1965
Selected Writings on Art and Artists, translated by P.E.Charvet, 1972
Critique d’art; Critique musicale, edited by Claude Pichois, 1992
Other writings: poetry (including the collections Les Fleurs du mal [The Flowers of Evil], 1857 and 1861, and Petits Poèmes en prose [or Le Spleen de Paris], 1869). Also translated tales by Edgar Allan Poe.
Collected works editions: OEuvres complètes, edited by Jacques Crépet and Claude Pichois, 19 vols., 1922–53; OEuvres complètes (Pléiade Edition), edited by Claude Pichois, 2 vols., 1975–76.
Cargo, Robert T., Baudelaire Criticism 1950–1967, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1968
Gilman, Margaret, Baudelaire the Critic, New York: Columbia University Press, 1943
Hyslop, Lois Boe, Charles Baudelaire Revisited, Boston: Twayne, 1992
Lloyd, Rosemary, Baudelaire’s Literary Criticism, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981
Loncke, Joycelynne, Baudelaire et la musique, Paris: Nizet, 1975
Pichois, Claude, and Jean Ziegler, Baudelaire, New York: Viking Penguin, and London: Hamilton, 1989
Raser, Timothy, A Poetics of Art Criticism: The Case of Baudelaire, Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 1989
Richardson, Joanna, Baudelaire, London: Murray, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994
Starkie, Enid, Baudelaire, London: Faber, 1957; New York: New Directions, 1958
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