Charles Baudelaire and Important Artists and Artworks
The Death of Marat (1793)
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.
Oil on canvas - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium
Grande Odalisque (1814)
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".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Louvre, Paris, France
28 July: Liberty Leading the People (1830)
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.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Louvre, Paris, France
Portrait of Charles Baudelaire (1844)
Émile Deroy's portrait of Baudelaire shows his sitter staring directly out at the viewer; his left hand resting and one finger extended pressing on the side of his head. According to author Frederick William John Hemmings, Deroy painted his portrait "in four sittings in the reception room of his apartment, at night and by lamplight, with Nadar and three other artist friends looking on and making suggestions [...] This is Baudelaire posing as Mephistopheles, with his carefully trimmed beard and moustache and the thick black eyebrows of which one is slightly raised to give a quizzical, sardonic look as he gazes straight at the spectator".
Deroy played an important role in Baudelaire's life. According to Hemmings it was "thanks to Deroy [that] Baudelaire was able to visit the studios of painters and sculptors in the neighbourhood and engage them in talk, imbibing in this way much of the technical information put to good use in his later writings on art. Indeed, Deroy introduced Baudelaire to the Café Tabourey where he was "able to meet and listen to some of the leading art critics of the day". According to Hemmings, Deroy was angry that his portrait was not being accepted into the Paris Salon of 1846. This did not deter Baudelaire from treasuring it for many years. Sadly, Deroy died only two years after completing his heroic portrait of his friend.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Musée national du château de Versailles, Versailles, France
Portrait of Charles Baudelaire (1847)
In Gustave Courbet's portrait, Baudelaire is pictured with the tools of his trade. He is reading a book (perhaps reviewing something he has just written) his feather quill and ink stand await his attention on the table at which he sits. Bedecked in a brown coat and yellow neck-scarf, he is placed in the sparse surroundings that convey the reduced financial circumstances in which he lived most of his adult life.
Baudelaire and Courbet were good friends and yet Baudelaire rarely wrote about the artist. Courbet was to Realism what perhaps Delacroix was to Romanticism and the former movement did not conform to Baudelaire's idea of modernism. According to the records of the Musée d'Orsay, since he "considered 'the imagination to be the queen of faculties', Baudelaire could not appreciate Realism". The d'Orsay records how Badelaire referred to Corbet as no more than a "powerful worker" in an August 1855 issue of Le Portefeuille stating further that "the heroic sacrifice that Monsieur Ingres makes for the honour of tradition and Raphaelesque beauty, Courbet accomplishes in the interests of external, positive, immediate nature ". Courbet's portrait speaks most then of the men's mutual respect; a friendship that easily transcended aesthetic and ideological differences of opinion.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France
Pont-Neuf, Paris (1853)
One of a series of etchings of which Paris landmarks are the theme, this etching by Charles Meryon features the Pont-Neuf bridge. According to text from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the focus of this work is, "the semicircular stone boutiques lining the bridge, which were actually in the process of being removed when Meryon chose this subject for his print".
Baudelaire liked to write about the artists whose work he most admired and spent a portion of his Salon de 1859 publication focusing on Meryon's city etchings, stating that, "through the harshness, refinement, and sureness of his drawing, M. Meryon recalls the excellent etchers of the past". But it was more than just his technique that Baudelaire admired, writing "I have rarely seen the natural solemnity of a vast city represented with more poetry. The majesty of massed stone, spires 'pointing to the sky', the obelisks of industry vomiting to the firmament their accumulations of smoke, the prodigious scaffolding of monuments under repair, applying to the solid body of the architecture their own open-work architecture with its highly paradoxical beauty, the turbulent sky, freighted with rage and rancor, the depth of perspectives increased by the thought of all the drams that have unfolded within them, none of the complex elements that make up the grim and glorious decour of civilization has been forgotten". For a man who loved Paris and loved the idea of modernity as Baudelaire did, Meryon's image, which effectively captured their city in a state transition, served as the visual embodiment of the poet's own heartfelt views of the fleeting qualities of the age.
Etching and drypoint - Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Boy with Cherries (1859)
Manet's realist portrait shows a young blond-haired boy leaning on a stone wall cupping a bowl of cherries. Manet's control of composition is revealed here through his use of vivid red color which matches the boy's cap with the fruit. That he is happy is abundantly evident in his sweet smile, yet there is a terribly sad irony behind the painting. The subject of this painting is a boy named Alexandre who had, in Baudelaire's words, an "intemperate taste for sugar and brandy", and was given to bouts of melancholy. Coming from a poor family living near the artist's studio, Manet used the boy as a model for several paintings and he earned extra pocket money from the artist by doing chores around Manet's studio. But this painting was especially personal to Manet who only completed it after discovering the boy's hanged body in his studio.
A friend of Manet's, Baudelaire had heard of this tragedy and memorialized the incident in one of his last prose poems, La Corde (The Rope) (1864). The poem is dedicated "To Édouard Manet" and is written from the artist's perspective. In Baudelaire's somewhat misanthropic re-telling of events Manet visits Alexandre's mother to inform her of the tragedy. She duly accompanies Manet to his studio where the artist notices "with a disgust born of horror and anger, that the nail had remained fixed in the wall with a long piece of rope still trailing from it". The boy's mother implores Manet "Oh, sir! Let me have it! Please! I beg you!" leaving the artist to surmise that the incident had "so distressed her" that she wanted to keep the rope "as a horrible and cherished relic" of her son's death. However, according to local superstition, rope of a hanged person brings luck and Alexandre's mother plans to sell pieces of the rope to her neighbours: "And so, suddenly, a light came on in my mind, and I understood why the mother had insisted on ripping the rope from my hand and the commerce with which she meant to console herself".
It is easy to read an element of cynicism towards the callous mores of commerce in Baudelaire's tale but more telling is the introduction to his poem which can be read of a thinly veiled reproach of Baudelaire's own mother whom (it seems) he never forgave for abandoning him for his stepfather: "It is as difficult to imagine a mother without motherly love as light without heat; is it not thus perfectly legitimate to attribute to motherly love all of a mother's actions and thoughts pertaining to her child? And yet, listen to this little story, where I was singularly mystified by the most natural illusion".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, Portugal
Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862)
Manet's landmark painting shows a selection of characters from Parisian bohemian society, and Manet's own family, gathered for an open-air afternoon concert. It caused uproar when first exhibited in 1863, drawing criticism for its unfinished surface and unbalanced composition (such as the tree in the foreground which dissects the picture plane). The "crude" modern subject matter did not sit well with the Parisian art establishment either. Indeed, urban scenes would not be considered suitable subject matter for serious artists for another decade or so.
Although the illustrator Constantin Guys emerged as the main protagonist in Baudelaire's "Le Peintre de la vie moderne" ("The Painter of Modern Life") in reality it was Manet who rose to the challenges laid down by the poet. According to Baudelaire, the artist who wishes to truly capture the bustle and buzz of this new Parisian society must first adopt the role of the flâneur; a man at once a part of, and removed from, the crowd (and by placing himself in the far left of his crowd Manet would seem to self-consciously identify with the figure of the flâneur). For Baudelaire, moreover, modernity was all about "the transient, the fleeting, the contingent" and the "painter of modern life" must be one who is capable of capturing this spirit through a shorthand style of loose brush work and lucid coloring.
There is a spontaneity to Manet's painting that captures the fleeting expressions and mannerisms of individuals in his crowd. The lack of order to the painting - some figures are more defined than others and colors and shapes lose clarity as they merge into the background - conforms to Baudelaire's idea of the "contingent" and thereby offered a new painterly perspective that was at once focused and impressionable. Though it is thought that Manet used photographic portraits as a visual aid when composing his painting in the studio, his painting achieved what the new technology could not: the fleeting passages of time.
Oil on canvas - National Galley, London