Biography of Stéphane Mallarmé
Childhood and Education
Stéphane Mallarmé, christened Étienne, was the first child born into a prosperous middle class family. His father, Numa, who worked in the government's Registry office, and mother, Elisabeth-Félicie Desmolins, also had a daughter, born two years later. At the age of five Mallarmé lost his mother to what was believed to be a rheumatic illness, an affliction that would plague many of his family members.
After his father remarried a little more than a year later and the first of three half siblings was born, the eight-year-old Mallarmé was sent away to a boarding school while his six-year-old sister Maria went to stay with his maternal grandparents. Likely due to the bitterness he felt from his perceived rejection by his father, Mallarmé proved to be a poor student who acted out in class. He was also deeply affected when his beloved sister died in August 1857 of a rheumatic attack.
Mallarmé first became interested in literature in February 1859 when as a baccalaureate student he suffered his first rheumatic attack, which rendered him seriously ill for several weeks. While recovering he turned to poetry for comfort, a pursuit that displeased his father and grandparents, who hoped it would prove to be simply a passing hobby. Far from tiring of it, however, he began to write his own poems in this period.
Upon graduating, Mallarmé tried to appease his family by beginning an apprenticeship at the Registry office in Sens. Although he hated the work, it was during this period that he made friends with Emmanuel des Essarts, a poet who taught at his former school. With his new friend's encouragement Mallarmé submitted poems to journals and began writing theater reviews. It was also during this time that he met Maria Gerhard, a German governess seven years his senior who was working for a family in Sens and with whom he began a relationship, a fact he kept secret from his family as he knew they would object.
After two years, Mallarmé decided to leave the Registry office and become a teacher. He set out in November 1862 for a year of study in London so that he could become fluent in English and then teach the subject upon returning to France. Maria joined him for a time, and in August 1863 the couple married, an event dampened by the death of Mallarmé's father only a few months earlier.
In September, Mallarmé passed his exam to be a teacher and was assigned a post teaching English in the provincial town of Tournon. It was there that the couple's first child, Geneviève, was born in November 1864.
By his own account as well as that of observers, Mallarmé proved to be a poor teacher, although he continued in the profession for some thirty years. At the same time, he began to have some success in publishing his poems; eleven of his early works appeared in the poetry collection Le Parnasse contemporain in 1866, and he continued to publish steadily in the following years and earn a growing renown. The school in Tournon was not pleased with his extracurricular activity, however, and dismissed him, prompting a transfer in November 1866 to a new school in Besançon and the following year to another school in Avignon. Both he and his wife struggled with illness and, according to Gordon Millan, "during this era, he experienced moments of dark despair and great personal anguish." The year 1871 was significant for several reasons, however. Shortly after the civil unrest caused by the Paris Commune, the couple's son, Anatole, was born, in July 1871, and in the fall of that year Mallarmé was appointed to a school in Paris.
While he still did not like teaching, he was now at least able to do so in a city he loved. As Roger Pearson explains, "now aged 28 and more or less securely settled in Paris, Mallarmé was able to revel fully in the company of all the poets he had met over recent years." His first important friendships were with poet Paul Verlaine and art critic Philippe Burty, who was well connected in the Paris art world.
Of all his new artist friends, it was arguably Édouard Manet who had the most profound impact on the direction of his career. Mallarmé first met Manet, ten years his senior, at the salon of mutual friend in 1873. Since the poet lived and worked in the same neighborhood where Manet's studio was located, he began to visit the artist regularly in the afternoons after he finished teaching - "I saw my dear Manet every day for ten years," Mallarmé later recalled. The two shared an interest in challenging tradition to develop new forms of expression, and through Manet, Mallarmé met many members of the emerging avant-garde including Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, photographer Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), and writer Émile Zola.
In addition to their deep friendship, Manet and Mallarmé helped each other professionally. When the jury for the annual Paris Salon rejected two of Manet's paintings in 1874, it was Mallarmé who defended him in an article published in the journal La Renaissance littéraire et artistique in April 1874. Manet, for his part, contributed the illustrations for Mallarmé's translation of his beloved Edgar Allan Poe poem "The Raven" in 1875 and for a new edition of his 1865 poem "Afternoon of a Faun" the following year. He also painted a small but evocative portrait of the poet in 1876 (Musée d'Orsay). At about the same time, Mallarmé published "The Impressionists and Édouard Manet" in the September issue of the London journal The Art Monthly Review, one of the first overviews of the new movement and Manet's significance within it. As scholar Margaret Werth explores, Mallarmé's identification of motion and air as the Impressionists' primary subject matter parallels the poet's own efforts to convey meanings that are not fully captured by words, his desire to render "not the thing, but the effect it produces."
Manet's influence also helped shape another of Mallarmé's life decisions as, according to author Thirza Vallois, "it was Manet who urged Mallarmé to seek a country retreat, 'to forget everything'." On a vacation with his family he discovered Valvins and fell in love with the quaint village and its location near the Forest of Fontainebleau; he believed such peaceful surroundings would help nurture his writing. He and his family would spend the majority of their summers there for the rest of his life.
Despite his increasing professional successes, Mallarmé continued to struggle with his limited teaching salary and little income from his writing. Moreover, his son Anatole developed rheumatic illness and died in October 1879 at the age of eight. Both parents were devastated by their son's death, to which Mallarmé responded by trying to capture his son's memory in a poem, "For Anatole's Tomb," which he never finished.
Friends and society slowly drew Mallarmé out of his grief and in 1881 he resumed a practice he had begun in 1877, hosting Tuesday (mardi, in French) evening salons in his apartment. The guests included many in the Parisian art and literary world. As Pearson explains, "Mallarmé's mardi became more famous than any of its weekday alternatives, and endured for the rest of his life (when he was not at Valvins) as the one Parisian gathering to which any ambitious young writer or artist - or cultural tourist - sought admission."
Mallarmé was again deeply affected by the death of his friend Manet on April 30, 1883. The event seemed to increase his intimacy with Méry Laurent, an actress and friend of Manet's whom he had first met years before and who had worked as Manet's model for a time. The relationship hurt his wife and daughter, but they tolerated her presence at his Tuesday salons, and even her being the source of inspiration for some of his poems. While the affair eventually ended, the pair remained good friends for the rest of Mallarmé's life.
For decades Mallarmé received only limited public recognition beyond his circle of professional friends in large part because the general public found his work difficult to understand. Two key events took place in 1884 that brought him much wider renown. Fellow poet Paul Verlaine featured him as one of three writers in his book of essays Les poètes maudits (Cursed Poets), and in novelist and critic J.K. Huysmans's À Rebours (Against the Grain), the main character, aesthete Jean des Esseintes, cites Mallarmé as one of his favorite poets. He continued to maintain close friendships with numerous artists, particularly Berthe Morisot, at whose home he was a regular guest for dinners that frequently included Degas, Monet, and Renoir. It was through Monet that Mallarmé also met American artist James McNeill Whistler, with whom he developed a beneficial friendship and professional relationship. Although Mallarmé attempted further collaborations with these artists, the projects often proved difficult to complete. His 1887 proposal to produce a collection of poems titled Le Tiroir de laque (The Lacquer Drawer) with illustrations by several of the Impressionists, was never realized, and the efforts of Odilon Redon to provide illustrations for his 1897 poem "Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard" (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance) were similarly unsuccessful.
While poetry was his life's passion, Mallarmé always had to rely on teaching to support himself and his family. His health continued to decline, however, and he felt he could no longer continue, so in November 1893, at the age of fifty-one, he was granted approval to retire from teaching for medical reasons. He began his retirement years giving a series of lectures at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He also continued his Tuesday evening salon gatherings when he was in Paris. This period also saw the first performance of composer Claude Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" (inspired by Mallarmé's poem) in 1894, the publication of a poem honoring artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes on his seventieth birthday in 1895, and, after Berthe Morisot's death in March 1895, the organization of an exhibition of her work the following year, for which Mallarmé wrote the catalogue introduction. He and Renoir then became the joint guardians of Julie Manet, the daughter of Morisot and Eugène Manet, Edouard's brother.
In the last years of his life Mallarmé found the most comfort in his home in Valvins. In addition to spending time with his family, he was often surrounded by friends including Redon, who lived nearby, Rodin, and Whistler. When not entertaining friends, Mallarmé spent much of his time working on his epic work "Hérodiade" a project he had begun decades before in October 1864 but never completed. Much to his dismay he found he was growing too tired even to write. Of this feeling he noted, "it is all rather a waste of time living behind closed shutters. A lethargy settles within me which can be felt materially in the pen itself."
In early September 1898 Mallarmé developed a sore throat and was diagnosed with tonsillitis. Despite the relatively benign ailment, a few days later while in the middle of a conversation with the doctor who had come to check in on him, he fell into a violent coughing fit, asphyxiated, and died. He was only fifty-six years old.
The Legacy of Stéphane Mallarmé
Mallarmé cultivated a wide range of creative associates and friends, often resulting in mutually beneficial relationships, most notably with Édouard Manet and the Impressionist artists. His article "The Impressionists and Édouard Manet" helped to define and legitimize the emerging group, and in later years he continued to support many artists through his writing and his efforts to secure their places in the art historical establishment. In return, they produced portraits, paintings, and prints for him that he cherished throughout his life.
As a writer, he earned praise from contemporaries including poet Paul Verlaine and critic J. K Huysmans and inspired younger writers including André Gide and Paul Valéry, who left the most extensive record of the experience of Mallarmé's Tuesday salons. His work also inspired a wide range of later figures in the arts, some of whom drew directly from his writing as source material while others continued his exploration of the way language functions for their own work in the fields of philosophy and literary theory. In this sense, as writers Alex Ross and Nasrullah Mambrol note, his exploration of chance informed figures including avant-garde composer John Cage, while his linguistic experiments inspired writers including Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees
First published on 25 Jun 2021. Updated and modified regularly