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What Charles Baudelaire thought of French art

Every old master has had his own modernity

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a renowned poet, philosopher, and art critic. He died a virgin – from syphilis that reached his brain?? The rumours of his demise are contradictory, just as the man himself was! The French writer partied with all types of people and was influenced by many, but he maintained his own individual and original ideas on art.

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862, carbon print, British Library.

His opinion of art at the time was that it was in serious decline, in the last throes of a great tradition that was dying before a new one could be found. Attributed with coining the term ‘modernity’, Baudelaire called on artists of the day to ‘heed tomorrows wind’ and paint the heroisms of modern life. His critical writing, melancholic prose, and philosophical company inspired many artists, yet it was a tumultuous relationship, as Baudelaire’s opinions and artistic desires were habitually fickle and conflicting. A Romantic to the end, he was often unable to see the potential in the new and experimental styles and themes that were emerging in the mid-19th Century.

Baudelaire believed that beauty in art consisted of a duality; one half made up by the variables of the contemporary age, such as emotions, morals, and fashions, and the other half its potential eternality: whether it will stand the test of time and be considered ‘beautiful’ in the following generations.

While he held the hierarchical structure of genre in high regard and maintained an interest in the Old Masters talent and historical aspects, he was mostly affected by the aesthetic feeling of their time

Every age had its own gait, glance, and gesture

His main concern for contemporary artists was the painting of the present, or modernity, in a way that might live to be viewed in the same way that the masterpieces of Raphael and Veronese were: lasting depictions of their time that are more living than life itself.

While he considered it an admirable thing to study the art of the old masters to learn technique, he worried that conventional academic art was becoming a sterile imitation of the past. In order to capture the essence of their own modernity, which he describes as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”, he mentions three aesthetic principles that he considered key: the importance of colour, the necessity for ‘temperament’ as opposed to skill, and subjects drawn from modern life. He believed memory, imagination, and stimuli of modern life were essential: if a talented, hard-working, yet imaginatively lacking artist was charged with painting a courtesan of the day, taking only ‘inspiration’ from representations done by Titian or Raphael, it would be false, obscure, and a lie. Formal skill was not sufficient in itself: originality and invention were sorely sought after by the desperate poet.

Yet, when handed these things almost on a platter, he faltered!

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) is considered the instigator of the Realism movement and a disruptive force in the 19th Century French art world. In the late 1840s the young artist produced a series of large paintings that changed the history of art, one of which was The Stonebreakers.

Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers
Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 567 cm × 798 cm, destroyed/lost during World War II

This picture depicts two “very pitiable figures”, as described by the artist himself, partaking in the strenuous task of breaking stones, a common job for modern day peasants. In a letter to a friend, Courbet describes seeing the pair on the side of the road as he rode by in a carriage. He was instantly struck, and immediately planned for a painting.

In his writings Baudelaire likens inspiration to a convulsion, and admires the “painter of the passing moment and all the suggestions of eternity that it contains”. Courbet did bring these men into his studio to capture the likeness, but the scene itself is based on his memory and sentiment as he looked upon “the most complete expression of poverty.”

Highly detailed and intricately drawn, Courbet shows off his capable draughtsmanship and mastery of the earthen palette. The colours are somewhat monochrome, yet appropriately convey a mood of dry, dirty, laborious banality. Baudelaire found colour to be essential component of art, and this is one of the reasons he was so enamoured by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), whose use of bright, emotive colour is a defining feature of his works.

Though Courbet appeared eager to associate and to please him, Baudelaire remained immune to the talent of the artist, finding his subjects disappointing and preferring a more urban spread. Additionally, Courbet’s depictions of peasant life were considerably unheroic to Baudelaire, ignoring the possibility that perhaps Courbet was attempting to portray his own kind of heroism: the struggling, unrewarded kind found in menial life of the countryside, which is indicated by the canvases monumental size, perhaps as a nod to the immense adventures within the traditional historical genre. In any case, Baudelaire was inherently Romantic and did not care for Realism, incessantly prejudiced by his love of Delacroix – even though Delacroix himself praised Courbet’s initiative.

Even those he considered his close friends (of which Courbet, despite the artists admiration, was not) were not safe from his fickle nature. Though Baudelaire commented on Édouard Manet’s lively and abundant imagination, he remained suspiciously reticent when the artist faced heavy criticism for Olympia, which was rejected from the Salon in 1863.

Edouard Manet, Olympia
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 130.5cm × 190cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Though this could have been due to his own suffering at the time, from illness and melancholia, many historians have found it odd and problematic that he did not offer any defence on behalf of the man he was apparently close enough to call for in his last days. Additionally, this painting is often considered the most inspired by Baudelaire, as much through his poetry as his art criticism, as it shares the same tone and ambience of Baudelaire’s Les Bijoux poem, found in Fleurs du Mal (published 1857). Furthermore, in the modernisation of Titian’s Venus of Urbino theme whilst retaining an acute originality, it effectively works as a vehicle of transition from the old tradition to the new one that Baudelaire so fervently desired, the beginnings of which had been set in to motion by Courbet and Manet years earlier.

Manet was very interested in the ideas presented by Baudelaire in his Salon reviews of 1845 and 1946, and was even encouraged by him personally to paint scenes of contemporary life. As it were, Manet offered many of the qualities that Baudelaire sought in his imaginative Music in the Tuileries, depicting a contemporary gathering at the Tuileries gardens.

Edouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries
Édouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries, 1862, oil on canvas, 76cm x 118cm, National Gallery, London, United Kingdom.

This painting was true la vie modern, with the variables of modernity such as dress, activity, and a well thought out facture, colour, and composition. It also retains an obvious eternality (as we are consequently aware of it today), in denoting a passing moment (albeit an imaginary one), capturing the essence of a place and time, and rendering it in a permanent flux. This painting also, in contrast to Courbet’s realistic poverty, portrayed the brighter side of modern Parisian life, one of intellect, music, philosophy, and dandyism. Surely Baudelaire could find no fault with this work!

Yet, while applauding Manet’s temperament, he disapproved of its supposed photographic stillness and, of all things, its lack of misery. Regardless, art historians consider Manet to have met Baudelaire’s requirements for modern art far better than Constantin Guys, of whom Baudelaire based his Peintre de la moderne. In fact, it remains an unanswered question as to why he did not write on Manet for the essay. Nonetheless, their friendship remained strong, and Baudelaire apparently struck such a chord with Manet that it has been suggested that the unfinished painting L’Enterrement (1867-70) was inspired by his funeral in 1867, thereby proving the poet’s own impact and eternality in French art.

It has been suggested that Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) also fulfilled Baudelaire’s requirements for the modern painter, and certainly he was impressed by the artist, calling him one of the most important men in caricature and in modern art. Daumier has an immense oeuvre, consisting of several thousand lithographs, over eight hundred watercolours, and some three hundred oil paintings. Living in the midst of working class Paris, he depicted urban life and leisure, believing “il faut être de son temps”: one must be of one’s own time, which coincides agreeably with Baudelaire’s views of modernity as previously discussed.

Baudelaire was impressed by Daumier’s draughtsmanship, considering him (and Ingres) to be the only ones on the same level as Delacroix in terms of drawing. Baudelaire’s views on beauty in art requiring the artist to be present, and in the moment as an observer, and with the capacity to artistically capture the rapidity of life’s moments in an equal speed. Daumier certainly had this ability, as can be seen by his numerous sketches and even in his lithographs, which Baudelaire also admired in their ability to produce a sense of colour in black and white.

These two modern men shared a fascination of the melancholy, both revealing the tragic quality of the human condition in their respective mediums. Les Saltimbanques by Daumier in 1880 is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s poem Le Vieux Saltimbanque published in Fleurs du Mal, with the tragic clown imagery drowning in isolation and misery, though this is much later in his career and well after Baudelaire’s death.

One of Daumier’s most revered paintings is The Third Class Railway Carriage, and it is a subject that occupied his attention over several years, with many different versions.

Honoré Daumier, The Third Class Carriage
Honoré Daumier, The Third-Class Carriage, 1862-1864, oil on canvas, 65cm x 90cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

Most readings take this scene to be a symbol of the heroic dignity of the working class – much like Courbet’s realistic canvases. This, of course, was not the type of heroism that Baudelaire approved of, though as his melancholy deepened in his later years, it may have been more in his taste. In an 1878 exhibition of Daumier’s paintings, The Third Class Carriage was hailed as masterpiece, described as drawing the “true aspect of things; [in] a style of nearly classic grandeur but above all with an entirely modern reference”.

Baudelaire was part of a ‘post era’: post-Romantic, post-Revolution, post-Bourgeois. He claimed he wanted to see the heroism of modern life, yet what he really sought was the nostalgia of what he did not get to experience – the heyday and prime of Delacroix’s’ Romantic generation. Thus, as artists perpetually presented what he supposedly desired, he remained unsatisfied.

Art historians now consider Courbet, Manet, and so many others, to be forerunners of avant-garde and vastly successful in shaking up traditional approaches, yet Baudelaire continuously found flaws so as to make their works seem imperfect. While it would no doubt take many years to fully catalogue and understand Baudelaire’s inclinations and preferences (and certainly many have done just that), from my comparably fleeting weeks of research it seems these artists only downfall was simply not being Eugene Delacroix.

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