Charles Baudelaire, Author of Modernism


Every age needs its observer and every era requires an interpreter.  That individual has to be an odd cross between a poet and a reporter, to elevate the culture above mere description.  Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a renegade poet, a syphilitic art critic, and above all a disaffected and alienated student of a society under the pressure of a transition.  That Baudelaire was a marginal character who lived on the fringes of a cynical consumer society was crucial to his ability to describe and define the new phenomenon, “modernité.”  Although the poet wrote extensively on a variety of topics, he is especially significant for essays, prose poems, poetry and art criticism that articulated a new way of life. In 1947, Jean-Paul Sartre accused Baudelaire of “bad faith” due to the many contradictions in his life and work.  However, a self-destructive poet and drug addicts, who lived in debt on the run from creditors, while, at the same time, taking part in the intellectual and artistic life of Paris, can hardly be expected to be consistent.  The very times of Baudelaire were paradoxical.

The art critic straddled the divide between waning Romanticism and emerging Realism, watching Eugène Delacroix after his creative peak and not living long enough to see Èdouard Manet reach his full artistic potential.   While there may never have been an artist who coincided with the poet’s desire to describe modernité, Baudelaire addressed the unfolding of a new way of life in a dense urban environment of the “crowd” and the impact of technology upon society and art.   By the 1840s, not only was Romanticism over but the art produced by the salon system was also becoming increasingly irrelevant.  The excuse for academic art was that it portrayed the “heroic” life of the ancient world, but, for Baudelaire, it was necessary for artists to be of their own time.  But what that “their time” mean?

The industrial revolution came slow and late to France, not in small part because many of the technological changes had been developed in the homeland of their hated enemy, England.  While England was already adjusting to industry, France, by mid-century, was just beginning to cope with the transition from an agricultural society to an urban and industrial one.  It is possible to see the process of artistic adjustment to these changes in the paintings of Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet.  Millet presented the countryside as frozen in time while Courbet showed the class tensions even in small villages.  Meanwhile, the mainstream salon artists chose to ignore the present in favor of the historical past. Few artists had to ability to see their age in all its uniqueness.  To be fair, the cultural changes caused by the Industrial Revolution were so extensive and far-reaching that it was easier to look away.  The problems for the artists during this transition period were, first, content of art—contemporary or traditional? and what new artistic techniques would be appropriate for the new age?

More than anyone, Baudelaire articulated both the new content and the new way of expressing the new content.  In doing so, he impacted many of his contemporaries and influenced later generations of writers and poets.  As an art critic who had to work the salon beat, it was his job to discern a trend or a concern with each annual exhibition.  One of his most important salon statements was penned in 1846.  In an essay published as a section of “The Salon of 1846″: “On the Heroism of Modern Life,” Baudelaire argued that modern life was as heroic as ancient life and that men in frock coats were as brave in their own time as the Roman gladiators were in the arena:

It is true that this great tradition has been lost, and that the new one is not yet established.  But what was this great tradition, if not a habitual everyday idealization of ancient life—a robust and material form of life, a state of readiness on the part of each individual…?  Before trying to distinguish the epic side of modern life, and before bringing examples to prove that our age is no less fertile in sublime themes than past ages, we may assert that since all centuries and all peoples have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours. That is the order of things…But to return to our principle and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions…The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—-criminals and kept women—which drift about in the underworld of the great city; the Gazette des Tribunaux and the Moniteur all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism.  For the heroes of the Iliad are but pigmies compared to you—-who dared not publically declaim your sorrows in the funeral and tortured frock coat which we all wear today!—you the most heroic, the most extraordinary, the most romantic and the most poetic of all the characters that you have produced from your womb!

The “hero” is male but not just any male.  The poet’s hero is not the contented businessman who as prospered under the Citizen King, Louis Philippe, but the hero of la bohème, a cultivated and well-educated man who was also an outsider: the dandy.  “…a dandy can never be a vulgar man,” Baudelaire said.  The dandy wears the new uniform, the habit noir, the black suit with distinction, proclaiming middle class status.  And yet the dandy keeps himself apart from the bourgeoisie by moving with the “crowd,” without ever being part of the crowd.  Being a dandy, standing aside and watching, is a strategy of self-defense.  But a dandy, par excellence, is also a man who is able to walk the city, freely.   Baudelaire is the new man, the flâneur, the person who strolls the side streets, peruses the new arcades and watches the carriages pass down the wide boulevards.  At the same time the arcades were ushering in a new form of looking, the spectacle of window-shopping, a new nocturnal Paris sprang into being with the introduction of gaslight in the 1820s.   Here, in the darkness, is where we find the poet’s world of marginal people who live a “floating existence,” and it is here were we find the female counterpart to the dandy, the prostitute, the only kind of woman allowed to go abroad at night.  Modernism and its heroes is not for the respectable nor the faint-hearted.

Baudelaire, like many inhabitants of the changing city, felt the stresses of the transition.  The city he had been born in was vanishing before his very eyes.  According to one of Baudelaire’s greatest biographers, the German writer, Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire was part of Bohemia, la bohème. A Marxist writer, Benjamin linked Baudelaire to the territory of the dispossessed by quoting Marx on the precarious position of this social class:

…Their uncertain existence, which in specific cases depended more upon         chance than on their activities, their irregular life whose only fixed stations were the taverns of the wine dealers—the gathering places of the conspirators—and their inevitable acquaintanceship with all sorts of dubious people place them in that sphere of life which in Paris is called la bohème….the whole indeterminate, disintegrated, fluctuating mass which the French call la bohème….

By the time of the Second Empire, the chasm between rich and poor had stranded a number of middle class people on the wrong side of prosperity.   “It is bourgeois society that Baudelaire holds guilty of the suffering of the post-aristocratic period, and not the least that art has gone to rack and ruin, that poets and artists like himself now belong to the déclassés,” John E. Jackson remarked in 2005.  Thus Baudelaire wrote as an outsider, not an insider, taking advantage of an unprecedented expansion of the press.  Over the past two decades, new opportunities had emerged for writers such as Baudelaire who was able to find his unique voice and to carve out a position as an observer and witness.  The poet was a character composed of unabashed contractions who had no problem in proclaiming,  “Any newspaper, from the first to the last is nothing but a web of horrors….” As a writer (who wrote for newspapers) he tried to defend traditional art making against the onslaught of technology, mainly photography, while, at the same time, rushing out to be photographed many times.  In “The Salon of 1859,”  there was a section,  “The Modern Public and Photography,” where Baudelaire complained about the clash between art and photography:

Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place.  If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude, which is its natural ally.

These two essays, written over ten years apart, are indicative of the contradictions and confusions over the role of modern life in art.  On one hand, Baudelaire was convinced that the “heroism of modern life” was worth of depiction but on the other hand, that depiction had to be hand made, done in the old fashioned “art” way.   A machine can never replace art.  But more should be said of the difficulty of writing in a moment of social becoming, for Baudelaire, like Denis Diderot, was looking for the artist who could capture modernité or the pulse of his (or her) own time.  Courbet painted contemporary life, but this life was rural and, hence, not the “urban modern” condition that was the daily life of Baudelaire.  The poet was clearly looking for someone who expressed modern life in Paris, the city that Walter Benjamin called “the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.”

Baudelaire found his candidate, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in a fellow member of the fringes of society, an obscure illustrator named Constantin Guys.   The result of the relationship between the poet and the illustrator, both inhabitants of la bohème, was a long essay, almost book length, which described the condition that Baudelaire called modernité. That essay was the famous The Painter of Modern Life.  The poet states, “By ‘modernity,’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable…”  Guys, an illustrator and a quick sketch artist, was the outsider, who, because of his position on the fringes, was able to produce hundreds of quick studies of all that was fast-moving and fleeting in modern life.  Modernism, for both Baudelaire and for Guys, becomes defined by the concept of constant change, or what the art critic, Harold Rosenberg, would term, a hundred years later, “the tradition of the new.”

See also: “Baudelaire as Art Critic” and “Baudelaire and The Painter of Modern Life

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.


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