The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Baudelaire: The Painter of Modern Life

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
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The Painter of Modern Life written by Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) in the winter of 1859–1860 and published in 1863 as a series of newspaper pieces (feuilletons) in the November 26 and 28 and December 3 editions of the Figaro makes essential and seminal reading, for several reasons. It has profound implications for art criticism (turning it away from the tourist’s study of acknowledged masterpieces), and for discussions of beauty – the existence of which, and perception of which, becomes a kind of transgressiveness, rather than a Platonic ideal – and for analysis of modernity. Further, it gives a sense of a shift which has happened in ways of living and of seeing the city, which has implications for how a person perceives his or her own identity: it produces a new kind of “self-fashioning.” A significant influence on Walter Benjamin in the Arcades Project, the essay rethinks the topics of absolute values in art versus the modern, where values are fleeting, nature and art, and throughout, the relationship between beauty and fashion.


Paris Modernity Dandy Walter Benjamin Beauty Flâneur Edgar Allan Poe Prostitution Allegory Constantin Guys Fashion 

The artist he considers is Constantin Guys (1802–1892), whom he introduces in the third section, noting his modesty and desire not to be called an artist, more someone “who takes an interest in everything the world over” (Baudelaire 1972: 397). Guys remained obscure and unknown, though he was photographed by Nadar (Mayne 1964: 10), and his use in the essay confirms the sense that modernity works with what may often be ignored or thought of as a minority interest. This article uses Charvet’s translation of Baudelaire, with some modifications.

Beauty, Fashion, and Happiness

Baudelaire had a reputation as an art critic as well as being the author of the poems Les Fleurs du Mal: he had reviewed the various Paris “Salons” (exhibitions of art) in 1845, 1846, and 1859, and he deeply admired Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). These Salons were held at the Louvre, until 1857, when they began to be held at the Palais de l’Industrie, in the Champs Elysées, where the 1855 Exposition Universelle had been held. He wrote, too, on caricaturists, French and English, on whom he was an authority. (It should be said that Guys was not a caricaturist. If caricature starts by having a sense of what it wants to present, and what it thinks of its subject, Guys, as Baudelaire presents him, is much more open, suggesting possibilities in his work, not showing something complete.) Baudelaire begins with discussion of those who think that the Louvre enshrines the eternal values of art and who go to museums to fact-check recognized masterpieces. He contrasts this with a series of fashion plates, popular images, which encourage thinking about the historical differences which changes in fashion show up, changes, for example, since the French Revolution. Such changes indicate that while beauty has always been desired, ideas of what is beautiful change, so we need “a rational and historical theory of beauty” as well as the sense of “a unique and absolute beauty” (392). He argues that these two things, this “duality of art,” respond to the duality of man; further he quotes Stendhal (Henri Beyle, 1783–1842), from his study L’Amour (“Love,” 1822), saying that “the beautiful is the promise of happiness”: in other words, there is nothing disinterested within the perception of beauty (as Kant claimed, the issue is developed by Nietzsche, using Stendhal (1996: 83)). For Baudelaire, the need for both types of beauty is satisfying, and the beautiful is not an add-on in art but essential in any approach to it.

This leads Baudelaire in the second section, “Manners and Modes,” to a second point, that a contemporary “speed of movement” imposes on the artist an equivalent “speed of execution.” Lithography, an invention at the end of the eighteenth century, enabled speed in reproduction (it will be noted that Baudelaire never discusses photography, which obviously gives speed in capturing manners and modes in everyday life). He mentions Gavarni and Daumier as supplementing the presentation of such manners in Balzac’s Comédie humaine, the novel being another way of capturing such speed. The artist of modern life, as opposed to things of an eternal nature, such as heroic or religious subjects, will be an observer of the present and a flâneur.

Artist, Man of the World, Man of Crowds, and Child

Constantin Guys, impoverished and obscure, presents himself as “a man of the world,” rather than calling himself an “artist,” which would separate him from the world, or from certain parts of it (“if he [i.e., the artist] lives in the Bréda quarter [of Paris], he knows nothing of what goes on in the Faubourg Saint-Germain”) (397). The then new Bréda quarter was “the upper end of the Faubourg Montmartre, around the then new church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, today divided between the Rue Henri-Monnier and Rue Clauzel” (Hazan 2010: 143–144). It was then an area of prostitution, so that a “lorette” became slang for a prostitute. The Faubourg Saint-Germain was, of course, the aristocratic part of the Left Bank. Baudelaire respects his desire for anonymity, which he notes Thackeray, another caricaturist about whom Baudelaire was interested in, had not; and he simply calls him M.G. (i.e., Monsieur G). Baudelaire thinks that M.G. did not start drawing and making watercolors until 1847: he associates, then, with the changes in France which belong with the post-1848 failed year of revolutions.

According to Baudelaire, M.G. starts his work with his curiosity, seen here in relation to the urban, and here Baudelaire discusses Poe’s story, “The Man of the Crowd,” to speculate on the significance of the flâneur being a convalescent, convalescence being a liminal state, so that for the convalescent reality appears in brighter, more sudden forms, and there is a forgetting of the past. M.G. is like the perpetual convalescent, and Baudelaire compares that state with childhood, for “the child sees everything as a novelty (en nouveauté); the child is always ‘drunk’” (398). Childhood and convalescence consist in not only a sense of “congestion” – a point which Baudelaire emphasizes, to indicate that experiences – particularly urban ones, cannot be processed, but also in shock-experiences: “every sublime thought is accompanied by more or less vigorous nervous impulse that reverberates in the cerebral cortex” (398). There is a vulnerability connected with being at large in this urban world, where colors and sensations appear overly bright. Here, too, is a justification for the place of the child, since for the latter, “no edge of life is blunted” (399). The significance of children in Romanticism and Dickens and Dostoevsky come to mind here.

The type of artist M.G. epitomizes is not a dandy, for that implies being blasé, and the crowd is his domain. Here Baudelaire characterizes the urban writer, or artist in ideal terms, in language which breaks new ground. As the “lover of universal life,” he moves into the crowd (recalling Poe), “as though into an enormous reservoir of electricity” (400). As a mirror of that crowd, he is a “kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness” displaying constantly changing patterns of life, as the ego in search of the nonego (400). OED gives 1817 for the first use of “kaleidoscope,” from the Greek words “kalos” (beautiful) and “eidos” (form). A kaleidoscope was an optical instrument which, as it was rotated, would show numerous, and always changing, reflections of colored glass. Not just external reality, but the “artist” is in perpetual change; each illuminates the other. The clue is the crowd: Baudelaire quotes M.G. saying with an intense gaze and eloquence of gesture, “tout homme qui n’est pas accablé par un des chagrins d’une nature trop positive pour ne pas absorber toutes les facultés, et qui s’ennuie au sein de la multitude, est un sot! Un sot! Et je le méprise!” (Baudelaire 1976: 2.692): “any man who is not overwhelmed by some worry of a nature too strong not to absorb all the faculties, and who is bored in the midst of the crowd, is a fool! A fool! And I despise him!” (400). The artist cannot stand off from life, nor from the stimulation provided by the crowd, which produces a reaction which looks akin to the apparently exaggerated power of melodrama and affords a way of thinking about novelists’ responses to the city and its multitudes. The city becomes, for M.G., a place for seeing “the landscapes of the great city, landscapes of stone, caressed by mist or hit by the buffets of the sun” (400–401), and Baudelaire goes through the times of the day as the artist sees them, followed by the time of rendering those images, where everything is rendered in more bright reality, called a “fantasmagorie” (Baudelaire 1976: 2.694).

La Modernité

The artist, the flâneur, is in search of what Baudelaire calls “modernity,” which may then be defined as trying to extract from fashion the poetry within its historical envelope, to extract the eternal from the transitory. The alliance between being of the “mode” (i.e., fashionable, and literally “of the day,” which is what “modern” means) and modernity implies that for the first time, in the urban experience, the absolutely new may be seen to contain a poetry and beauty within it. Artists had previously ignored this by dressing people in pictures in fashions from the past, such as in Roman or Biblical models. Modernity is “le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent” (Baudelaire 1976: 2.695) – the transitory, the fleeting, the contingent – i.e., dependent on chance, and the other half of art, which is eternal and immovable. To capture present-day fashion is the responsibility of the artist of modernity, and if any form of modernity (i.e., of modern fashion) is going to pass into antiquity, i.e., be recognized after its time is gone, then the “mysterious beauty that human life unintentionally puts into it must have been extracted from it” (Baudelaire 1972: 404). For fashions, however modish, are not just that; they bring out something that survives after they have gone and, in that statement, lies much of Benjamin’s fascination with Baudelaire, and with what may be extracted from outmoded forms. We can see Benjamin’s refusal to let anything be lost to history. Baudelaire criticizes anyone who would go back to outmoded forms, such as the fashionable forms of a Van Dyck, for a standard of beauty: the past cannot offer that. That will require seeing the fantastic reality of life in the present. Here, and in the following section “Mnemonic Art,” Baudelaire thinks of M.G.’s active and evocative memory, in recalling what he has seen and making it speak again, “His memory says to every object: ‘Lazarus arise’” (408). That is, it makes the dead, the forgotten, speak. And there is the sense that his paintbrush or pencil is intoxicated, which returns to Baudelaire’s emphasis on speed, in order to grasp the gestures and attitudes, solemn or grotesque, of humans and “their luminous explosion in space” (409). The need for an active memory is itself a huge subject for modernity: it is Baudelaire’s subject in his poetry, and Proust’s, and Benjamin’s, and it derives from the other half of the stress on fashion, which is the tendency for everything to be forgotten as soon as it has had its moment.

The following section looks at renderings of war (Bulgaria, Turkey, the Crimea, and Spain), and now it becomes clear that Baudelaire is using M.G. as a type of the artist he has in mind, the “painter of modern life”; many artists dispatched sketches of the war front to journals such as The Illustrated London News, a weekly which began circulation in 1842, which would then make an engraving for the magazine. Guys himself worked for The Illustrated London News, particularly during the Crimea, and here, and in the next sections are the only times when Baudelaire discusses his actual work, noting, for instance, his interest in those on the fringes of society – the forgotten and the dying on the battlefields, and in the hospitals. Journalism, then, is part of “modern life,” as a new perception of the instantaneity of things. So too, in the following section, “Pomp and Ceremony,” heavy with Orientalist detail, is the perception of sexual ambiguity in noting members of “the third sex,” i.e., homosexuals (414). In Sect. 8, “The Soldier,” the subject that the artist is said to like best is “the pomp of life,” as it appears in “the capitals of the civilized world, the pageantry of military life, or high life, of loose life” (416). The artist likes especially the soldier because of “the showy apparel his profession clothes him in” and because of his mixture of calm and daring, indifference and enthusiasm, qualities which associate him with what Baudelaire finds valuable in the dandy, and which differentiate him from the bourgeoisie (416).

The Dandy and Women

Section 9 is on renderings of “the dandy,” “the man who has no profession other than elegance” and for whom delight in clothes and material elegance is “no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind” (419). He defines another type important for the city, as the person with the desire to create a personal form of originality, resisting the tendency toward anonymity and standardization also associated with city-life, and yet having a “blasé” attitude; the dandy is possible when “aristocracy is only partially weakened” and democracy is not yet all-powerful (421). The antithesis to the dandy is the woman (Sect. 19) who is spoken about in terms decidedly addressed to men, in terms of her beauty and as “an invitation to happiness” which recalls the terms of Stendhal. And she is seen as indistinguishable from her apparel, with which she forms an indivisible whole. Baudelaire is fascinated by clothing as a part of fashion, and as a way of self-stylizing: it is not intended to be seen as a trivialization of women. Baudelaire thinks of ornament, which produces the second distinction working throughout the essay: between nature and art. Hence Sect. 11 is called “Eloge du Maqillage” – “In Praise of Make-Up.” The argument rejects Nature as any kind of guide; hence Baudelaire reacts away from the eighteenth-century sense of Nature, as rational, and with it, Romanticism itself which depends on the “naturalness” of Nature as a guide to life. Instead, “everything that is beautiful and noble is the product of reason and calculation, and virtue is artificial. Crime is the product of nature” (425). Hence women are right to aspire toward an ideal through fashion, and makeup, to create a sense of surprise, and to fascinate. And this is not to embellish ugliness but to serve beauty. At that point, Baudelaire writes: “who would dare assign to art the sterile function of imitating nature?” (428). With this, he dismisses the idea that art represents nature; the rejection of mimesis as sterile implies the rejection of realism and frees art from the task of being like photography, representing what is there. (Something of this rejection of realism shows with Baudelaire’s lack of discussion of Courbet, though Courbet actually painted Baudelaire.) This movement from realism implies the course that modernist art takes, and Baudelaire leads toward it and justifies it. It also means that, given a distinction between depth and surface, and since makeup belongs to the latter category, art may be seen as presenting what is on the surface, not as studying depth of character, this latter being what realism does. And it means that if depth of character is to be set aside, what emerges is a new way of thinking, broadly called postmodern, wherein the primary duty is to “self-stylize” the life – a term associated with the late work of Michel Foucault. To think in terms of self-fashioning, rather than believing that there is some deep truth informing a person’s identity, Foucault, considering Baudelaire’s essay, identifies with dandyism (Foucault 1997: 303–319).

“Les Femmes et les Filles”

Section 12 on women and courtesans begins with how many different types of women, in differing social situations, M.G. has portrayed, including the courtesan, and the actress as a creature “of show.” In this “extensive gallery of London and Paris life,” he says, there are many types of unattached women, and he goes through a list (428–233). There are women of “the highest social circles” (428); there are actresses from the “suburban theaters,” women seen at a café door; contemplating the crowd; women in the amusement halls; women who show “the varied image of the shadier type of beauty” which “either displays an alluring and barbaric form of elegance of her own invention, or she apes, more or less successfully, the simplicity current in higher circles” (430). Women are identified here, throughout, with art, not with nature, and all, including the highest circles, are theatrical: but this is, of course, a compliment in Baudelaire; “She has a kind of beauty, which comes to her from sin (“Mal”); always lacing spirituality, but at times tinged with fatigue masquerading as melancholy” (430). Baudelaire shows that he has been talking about the courtesan, a category which T.J. Clark says was a created category, constructed by the bourgeoisie, who could not represent prostitution to themselves (Clark 1984: 109). Baudelaire speaks of “the woman in revolt at every level”; women of the town; women “confined in hovels, often enough decorated like cafés,” with “nothing they can call their own, not even the eccentric adornments that act as condiment to their beauty” (431). But they include the woman “in whom an innocent yet monstrous sort of fatuity is only too apparent,” women who “carry in their faces and in their eyes, which look you brazenly in the face, the evident joy of being alive” (431). The type appears in Manet’s “Olympia” (1865), analyzed by Clark (79–146), where the perhaps high-class prostitute looks back at the presumably male gaze. This is part of an analysis where the woman’s eyes are said to be cast toward the horizon (430), which Benjamin discusses in the Arcades Project: saying that Guys is fascinated by backgrounds (compare Baudelaire 1972: 409). But “because these pictures … are to be viewed from close up, the magic of distance is cancelled for the viewer without his having to renounce the judgment of distance” (Benjamin 1999: J47,4). There is, in other words, nothing of the “aura” in the presentation of the woman, no sense of a beauty which is ideal or traditionally “artistic.”

Baudelaire continues the list of different types of women, concluding with the consumptive and “gruesome nymphs and living dolls” (432). But beauty takes no part in morality, and to find that true is to state a point about modernity: it is the opposite to what Plato believed. The types have all been portrayed by M.G. and illustrate “the beauty peculiar to evil, the beautiful in the horrible” (432). To associate beauty with evil of course takes it outside traditional Platonism where it points to the ideal and immaterial world. It makes beauty something other than what looking at masterpieces would suggest; it makes it a challenge to find, and to accept, perhaps; it makes its origins material, of the city; and contestatory, not part of what may be easily accepted and recognized because it is on display. It is apparent here that beauty, which emerges in situations where it would not be expected to be found, is dual, as he has said at the beginning, both real and ideal and at the same time contesting that ideality, because if it did not “the first element would be indigestible, tasteless, unadapted, and inappropriate to human nature. I challenge anyone to find any sample whatsoever of beauty that does not contain these two elements” (392). It may be said that beauty as dual, and confronting and challenging expectations, is an insight inseparable from city-existence. It is, then, not that there are two types of beauty, the eternal and the fleeting, so much as that beauty comprises both, and that makes it so difficult to locate, but that the urban allows the possibility for looking for it.

The essay winds to a close with a last section on “Carriages,” as seen in any park in big cities, where coaches and carriages, containing women, derive, from the fact of motion, “a mysterious and complex gracefulness which is very difficult to note down” (434). With urban civilization, art is bound toward representation of the fleeting. Every detail M.G. presents of coachwork “is correct, every detail is in its right place, and does not need to be gone over again. In whatever position it is drawn, at whatever speed it may be going, a carriage, like a vessel, derives, from the fact of motion, a mysterious and complex gracefulness which is very difficult to note down in shorthand. The pleasure that the artist’s eye gets from it comes apparently from the series of geometrical figures that the object … describes successively in space” (434–435). Paul de Man (1983: 160–161) discusses this passage to think of the shorthand, and the way that movement can only be rendered in geometrical forms as containing Baudelaire’s acceptance that writing cannot record the present, that modernity must rest content with allegory, being unable to capture the present as it is (another rejection of realism, of course). Beauty, then, can never be realized fully, nor modernity be captured, but it remains the project for art, and literature, confronted with the city.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK