The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Charles Baudelaire: Life

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Living reference work entry

Life Before Les Fleurs du Mal

Baudelaire – one of the first poètes maudits (damned poets; a term Verlaine used as a title of a book in 1883, though the book’s subject was Tristan Corbière, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé) – was born on April 9, 1821, in Paris. His birthplace was in the Rue Hautefeuille in the Latin Quarter that still retained vestiges of the medieval times; his home was near Luxembourg Gardens, where the child was taken by his father. He was baptized at Saint-Sulpice Church.

Claude Pichois (1925–2004), an outstanding authority on Baudelaire, wrote along with Jean Ziegler a definitive biography of the poet. In 1993, he edited with Jean-Paul Avice a volume of photographs Baudelaire – Paris which appeared in the exhibition “Un Paris de Baudelaire: Charles Meryon, graveur, ex-marin” held at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris (2004). This volume contains among many nineteenth-century representations of Paris and reproductions of Meryon’s work, a map (Pichois 2004: 150–151) showing the locations of many of the places in which Baudelaire was to live: some on the Left Bank, in a concentrated area, some on the Right, over a wider extent, but altogether, covering a very large area, though perhaps with more concentration on the Latin Quarter and on the 9th arrondissement. A photograph by Charles Marville (the pseudonym of Charles François Bossu, 1813–1879) shows the street where the poet was born (Pichois 2004: 52). Baudelaire was the son of François Baudelaire, a former priest, and a teacher and, importantly for his son’s future, an amateur painter. François was already father of another son, Alphonse (1805–1862). Baudelaire’s mother was Caroline Defayis, who had been born at Saint Pancras in London, in 1793, as the daughter of an army officer of Louis XVI. Baudelaire’s father, born in 1759, died when Baudelaire was six.

The family moved to the Rue Saint André des Arts and later lived at the Place Saint André des Arts (see Marville’s picture, Pichois 2004: 54–55). Baudelaire would walk round the area of the Place Saint Michel, which was, again, almost unchanged since the fifteenth century and the days of Villon. Baudelaire’s family then moved to the Rue de Bac (1828) where his mother remarried, this time to the soldier, general (as he later became) Jacques Aupick (born 1789, and of Irish descent), who, on account of his army appointments, which gave him promotions and distinctions and frequent foreign postings, moved the family to Lyon, a city undergoing political unrest from underemployed silk-workers. Lyon was ravaged by riots which were met by army interventions and which Baudelaire disliked, finding it boring; he found Lyon to be a town “blackened by coal smoke” (Richardson 1994: 34).

His reaction to his mother’s remarriage was hostile, and his relation to his mother, as shown in his correspondence, deeply complex, as was hers to him. The family returned to Paris in 1836, and the boy attended school at the old (1563), prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand in the Rue Saint-Jacques, where he excelled in Latin and Greek verse, until he was expelled. He had private tuition for the baccalauréat. He attended law school in 1839 and, until he went to sea in 1841, lived in a student lodging-house, the Pension Bailly, on the Place de L’Estrapade, near the Pantheon, very much a student area, and where he learned to smoke hashish and acquired the syphilis which was to kill him. In 1840, at the Louvre, he saw “La Justice de Trajan,” his first painting by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), whom he was to know well and whom he admired.

The sea voyage, which lasted 7 months, was intended to take him to Calcutta, but after a storm, Baudelaire put off at Mauritius, went to Réunion, and returned to Paris, stopping off on his way back to Bordeaux at Cape Town, which he was later to compare to Antwerp for its architecture. He inherited, but squandered, the property at Neuilly, to the west of Paris (17th arrondissement), which he had come into when reaching his majority, and returned to the heart of Paris again, to live for the next 20 years from one lodging to another, always in debt, and incapable of managing his money. His money was indeed finally taken out of his control by his family, particularly by his mother’s legal adviser, Ancelle, who, after 1844, acted as a conseil juidicaire, as if Baudelaire was a minor.

Moving from the Latin Quarter, Baudelaire lived first in a one-room flat in the Quai de Béthune on the Ile Saint-Louis, where he kept a manservant and entertained his mother. His haunts on the Right Bank included the Boulevard de Gand (Boulevard des Italiens) (Starkie 1957: 73). After residing at the Rue Vaneau for a time, he moved back to the Ile Saint-Louis. There he met Jeanne Duval, “mulatto” actress and lover of the photographer Nadar (Félix Tournachon, 1820–1910); she, in 1859, suffering from syphilitic paralysis and in hospital, gave her age as 32 (she was probably older) and her birthplace as Santo Domingo (situated in the modern Dominican Republic; the Spanish half of Hispaniola gained independence in 1821 and was unified with Haiti during the years 1822–1844), while it seems that her mother was a native of Nantes (Pichois 1989: 102). His social life was spent at places including the Café Tabourey, a literary center next to the Odéon, opposite the entrance to the Luxembourg Gardens. Jeanne Duval had her own apartment on the nearby Rue de la Femme-sans-tête (now rue Le Regrattier). Baudelaire became known as a dandy (in opposition to the sober if not suburban style of Louis-Philippe). After October 1843, he lived at the seventeenth-century Hôtel Pimodan (Hôtel Lauzun, 17, quai d’Anjou; Pichois 1989: 100–101. The name Lauzun applies to a courtier of Louis XIV) located at Ile Saint-Louis. The hôtel had been built by Louis Le Vau (1612–1670) for Charles Grüyn, Sieur de Bordes, a financier grown rich by supplying cavalry for the Fronde. In 1779, it had belonged to the Marquis de Pimodan. The hôtel had fallen on hard times: incorporating then a dye works on the ground floor. Baudelaire moved here in October 1843 and stayed until September 1845 (Pichois, 2004: 62–63 shows a photograph of this hôtel, by Atget. Baudelaire lived in a room under the attic). He met Apollonie Sabatier (1822–1890), who held weekly dinners (and with whom he drew close in the 1850s, up to 1857). There he wrote the novella La Fanfarlo, published 1847, which was partly based on the life of the Irish dancer Lola Montes (1821–1861) (see Pichois 1989: 133–136 (drawing on research by Graham Robb)). He also formed a friendship with the poet Théodore de Banville (1823–1891), and, fulfilling the intention he had announced to his family, he began the poems which would become Les Fleurs du mal. He was fascinated with the theatre, and with pantomime, and mime – such as that of Jean-Gaspard Debauru (1796–1846), a mime at the Théâtre des Funambules in the Boulevard de Temple (Baudelaire 1972: 155) – as well as with caricature, made popular by Honoré Daumier (1808–1879).

At that time too, he began to dress in black, as if drawing attention to the melancholy (“spleen”) which marked him out (and the Paris bourgeoisie). He made a suicide attempt (June 30, 1845) when in a café with Jeanne Duval. After this, he stayed temporarily with his parents at 7, Place Vendôme, but left soon for the Hôtel Corneille opposite the Odéon theatre, a place of students and lack of furniture. This restlessness remained the pattern of his life (Pichois 1989: 124). A café he was to use frequently was the Momus, familiar from Henri Murger’s (1822–1861) Scenes of Bohemian Life (Scènes de la vie de bohème (1849); it is alluded to in Puccini’s La Bohème, which draws on Murger, a bohemian of the 6th arrondissement, for inspiration). Friends, other than those mentioned, included the very important writer on dandyism, Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808–1889) and Alexandre Privat d’Anglemont (1815–1859), author of two books on Paris, Paris Anecdotes (1854) and Paris Inconnu (1861).

Baudelaire’s poetry was written in cafés, and is marked by the influence of the streets, as suggested by the poem “Le Soleil”, the second of the “Tableaux parisiens” in Les Fleurs du Mal:
  • Le long du vieux faubourg, où pendent aux masures

  • Les persiennes, abri des secrètes luxures …

  • Je vais m’exercer seul à mon fantasque escrime,

  • Flairant dans tous les coins les hasards de la rime,

  • Trébuchant sur les mots comme sur les pavés,

  • Heurtant parois des vers depuis longtemps rêvés. (Baudelaire, 1975: 183)

(Along the old faubourg (neighborhood) where on the hovels hang shutters, shelters of secret lust …

I go practicing alone my fantastic fencing, sniffing out in all the corners the chances of rhyme, stumbling on words as on paving stones, bumping sometimes into verses long time ago dreamed of.)

Joanna Richardson’s biography names some of the cafes that Baudelaire frequented (1994: 143–145) during the 1850s. On both sides of the Seine, and widely distributed, they include the Café de Robespierre, which was to be destroyed to create the Avenue de l’Opera; the Brasserie des Martyrs, in the street of that name in the 9th arrondissement, between the Chaussée d’Antin and Montmartre; Andler-Keller, a brasserie in the Rue Hautefeuille; the Divan LePeletier, again in the street of that name in the 9th arrondissement; the cabaret Dinochau “at the heart of the quartier Breda” (Richardson 1994: 144); an English tavern in the Rue de Rivoli; Austin’s in the Rue d’Amsterdam, laid out in 1825, between the 8th and 9th arrondissements; and the Café Madrid on the Boulevard Montmartre, later to be called the Café of the Commune, and assisting in its politics (Haine 1996: 219). There was the Café de Bade in the Boulevard des Italiens, the most representative of all the boulevards in Paris, 0 and Hill’s Tavern in the Boulevard des Capucines. Further, in the Palais-Royal, he went to the Café de Foy in the Galerie Montpensier and, also there, the Café Lemblin. Haine (1996: 209–210) notes these cafés in the Palais-Royal, constructed in 1781, were places of convergence between classes and popular and high culture. There was also the Café Taboureu in the Rue de Vaugirard, Paris’s longest street, which has the Luxembourg Gardens to its south. Such cafés were to suffer under Haussmann the fate that they became more socially segregated, subjected to the rule of the boulevards which made shops more formal (in a shift from street-vendors to shopkeepers).


In 1845, Baudelaire reviewed the paintings in that year’s art salon (following a tradition set up by Diderot who had reviewed the Salon of 1759), declaring an admiration for Delacroix. In 1846, he reviewed an exhibition in a museum created at the department store, the Bazaar Bonne-Nouvelle in the present boulevard of that name, near the Porte Saint-Denis (2nd arrondissement), where he commented on Ingres and David; he also reviewed the Salon of 1846 held at the Louvre. Baudelaire’s review of the exhibition is one of his seminal documents, discussing the heroism of modern life – a constant theme for him, as clearly stated in section 18, where he declares that “Parisian life is rich in poetic and wonderful subjects. The marvelous envelopes and saturates us like the atmosphere, but we fail to see it” (Baudelaire 1972: 107). It is a theme which, going through the lens of Surrealism, has affinities with Carpentier.

Baudelaire contributed to a satirical journal, the Corsaire-Satan, edited by Lepoitevin Saint-Alme. In 1847, one of his most difficult years materially, he was painted by Courbet. 1848 saw the expulsion of Louis-Philippe, and so the end of the French monarchy; it also led to the bourgeois reaction, which, in 1851, allowed Napoleon III to become a virtual dictator and Emperor, as he was called in 1852. A photograph by Manville shows the devastation wrought by Haussmann to create the Avenue de l’Opéra (Pichois 2004: 104–105), of the type Baudelaire commented on in the poem “Le Cygne.”

Baudelaire retreated from a relatively temporary interest in political activism into reading (Hoffmann, Balzac, Edgar Allan Poe, whose work he encountered in 1847, are special influences), and writing: an essay on Poe appeared in 1852 in Revue de Paris, a journal edited by Arsène Houssaye, Maxime du Camp, Theophile Gautier, and Louis de Cormenin; here, and in another essay of 1856, he developed his interests in drunkenness (ivresse) and hashish – a short book On Wine and Hashish (Du vin et du haschisch) had appeared in 1851. (Baudelaire’s pains from syphilis, probably contracted early, and his constant debts should be remembered, as well as his complex, torturing and self-torturing relationship both with his mother, and with Jeanne Duval, to whom he returned in 1855, after a brief relationship with another actress, Marie Daubrun, Banville’s lover, who had started at the Théâtre de Montmartre, and was first met by Baudelaire at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin in 1847.) Baudelaire had another (platonic) relationship, in the 1850s, with Mme Sabatier, who was living in the Rue Frochot. But none of Baudelaire’s relationships with women followed a customary sexual pattern, and Nadar said that Baudelaire was probably a virgin (Richardson 1994: 48–49). He and Jeanne Duval finally separated in 1861.

In 1855, Baudelaire published a brilliant theoretical study “On the Essence of Laughter,” discussing the comic and the grotesque, which he had been working on since 1845, and a review of the Exposition Universelle (Palais de Beaux-Arts, Avenue Montaigne, 1855). He also published 18 of the poems of Les Fleurs du Mal, under that title, in a journal, Revue des deux Mondes. In 1856, he brought out a volume of translations, Histoires Extraordinaires, and a collection of essays, The Artificial Paradise (Paradis artificiels), the first appearing in September 1858. Les Fleurs du Mal appeared just after the death of Aupick (April 28) on June 28, 1857, and was dedicated to Gautier (1811–1872); it was, however, to be prosecuted for indecency (e.g., for writing about lesbianism), as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary had been prosecuted, the same year. Baudelaire was fined 300 francs and six poems were to be removed from the volume as offending public morality. Yet his mother, now living at Honfleur, in what Baudelaire called a “toy house,” liked the poetry.

1859 was a high-water mark for Baudelaire in his writing. He was to add to the poems, and to write the poems in prose (Les Petits Poèmes en prose), outstanding achievements which appeared in 1863, though all fifty of them were not collected until 1869. In 1864, these poems were given the title Le Spleen de Paris: poèmes en prose; this title, though it indicated the centrality of the city for the work, and had associations with “ennui” (boredom), “depression,” “anger,” and “hypochondria,” was provisional. But the title stuck: one translation of the prose-poems had the overall title The Parisian Prowler (1997): playing with the idea of the poet as a flâneur. And as if in keeping with that idea, Baudelaire produced essential work about Paris, its crowds and its modernité, “The Painter of Modern Life” (“Le Peintre de la vie Moderne,” also published 1863), inspired by Constantin Guys (1805–1892) and by the engravings of Paris by Charles Meryon (1821–1868), about whom he writes in the “Salon de 1859.” In 1860, he published his translation of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and began working on an autobiographical text, My Heart Laid Bare (Mon Coeur mis à nu) never completed but left as notes. In 1861, the year of the second edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, which included a new section, Tableaux Parisiens, mainly about Paris, and which came out that February, he published, in April, his account of “Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris,” based on the fact that Tannhäuser was booed at by the Jockey Club in Paris in February 1860: he heard Wagner’s music played in concert form at the Théâtre des Italiens early that year and met Wagner, who was staying in Paris near the Champs-Elysées.

Life Continued: Brussels, and Death

In 1845, Baudelaire was at the Hôtel de Dunkerque, in 1847 at the Rue de Provence, both north of the Boulevard des Capucines; then in the Rue de Babylone, near the Champ de Mars; between 1851 and 1852 in the Rue de Temple, above Boulevard Saint-Martin (with Jeanne Duval); in 1852 in the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle and then, until 1854, in the Rue Pigalle, where he had also been in 1846; then in the Rue Sainte-Anne, and from May 1854 to the end of 1855 – though with a break – in the Rue de Seine, north of the Tuileries, first at the Hôtel de Maroc. In 1856, he was staying in the Rue Angoulême du Temple, in the east of the city. Then, for 2 years, he was at the Hôtel Voltaire, 19 quai Voltaire. With Jeanne Duval, he lived in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, at 22 rue Beautreillis, from late 1858 to 1859. And then, with a gap when he lived with Jeanne Duval in Neuilly, he was at the Hôtel de Dieppe, 22 Rue d’Amsterdam, until 1864.

Throughout, continuing after the publication of Les Fleurs du Mal, he continued writing poetry. He became a friend of Eduard Manet, wrote an obituary for Delacroix, who died in August 1863, and though he was to dislike Belgium, and was bored by it, moved to Brussels on April 24, 1864, to recoup his fortunes and give lectures there, staying at the Hôtel du Grand Miroir (28, Rue de la Montagne). Apart from Guernsey, Brussels was the home of Victor Hugo, dedicatee of Baudelaire’s poem “Le Cygne”: a poem about exile inside the modern and alienating city; Hugo was a literal exile from Napoleon III’s regime. Baudelaire had felt premonitions of illness (“imbecility”) after he had a “strange warning” about his health, writing about this in his journal for January 23, 1862. (His half-brother also died from syphilitic paralysis.) In Namur in Belgium, he suffered a stroke in March 1866, from which he never recovered. Returning to Paris on June 29, 1866, he died a year later in Paris (August 31, 1867) in a nursing home in the Rue du Dôme, near Avenue d’Eylau, south of the Arc de Triomphe (completed 1836). He was buried at the cemetery at Montparnasse, which had opened in 1824. His mother survived him, dying in 1871 in Honfleur, and was buried with Aupick. Jeanne Duval was not supported by Baudelaire’s mother, as he had wanted, and she sunk from sight, except for a final glimpse of her in 1870 by Nadar, who mentions that he saw her painfully dragging herself along a boulevard on crutches (de Jonge 1976: 179–180).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK