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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life”



Numbers in parentheses refer to the translation of Baudelaire’s essay readily available at http://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Baudelaire_Painter-of-Modern-Life_1863.pdf. The French text may be read at https://www.uni-due.de/lyriktheorie/texte/1863_baudelaire.html among other sites. Numbers in brackets refer to endnotes.


In “The Painter of Modern Life” Baudelaire managed to define the character of the art of his own time with sufficient acumen and aptness that much of what he said remains useful today, a century and a half later. Indeed, to many literary historians Baudelaire is the first modern poet. In his own time, Verlaine declared that he represents “puissament et essentiellement l’homme modern” [1], and this opinion has since become a commonplace. [2] Baudelaire’s exemplary painter (called in the essay M.G. but since identified as Constantin Guys) is described as self-taught, transcending earlier aesthetic standards. The artist’s peculiarly modern excellence is a result of his radical rebellion and his absorption in the modern scene, his fascination with the tumult and confusion of mass life in the present urban-centered era, redefining what has become of “the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction,” in Benjamin’s phrase. In many ways Baudelaire’s vision was prescient, extending the trajectory of artistic Bohemia beyond his own day and anticipating twentieth century concepts of hip, while in certain respects, in particular the willful facelessness of Monsieur M.G., Baudelaire’s judgement seems wide of the mark.

Going far beyond those who contributed to the Salon des Réfusés, Baudelaire chooses to champion a self-taught artist (2) who worked primarily as an illustrator and cartoonist. This choice implicitly overturns not merely the specific taste represented by the Académie des Beaux-Arts’ Salon de Paris, the most prestigious French exhibit since the middle of the eighteenth century, which Manet and the impressionists were challenging. Baudelaire’s more far-reaching critique questions fundamental aesthetic values, thus anticipating the rhetoric of the twentieth century Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists.

Indulging his taste for provocation, Baudelaire praises M.G. for not being an artist but rather a “man of the world” (“homme du monde”). He asserts that most artists are “very skilled brutes, mere manual laborers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins.” This conventional type is “tied to his palette like a serf to the soil.” On the other hand with a bias toward the irrational that has been familiar since the Romantic era M.G.’s integrity is implied when he is said to paint like a barbarian, a child, a drunk, or a convalescent. (1,3) [3]

This posture echoes the poet’s rebellious impulse to overturn values. The very title of his principal work Les Fleurs du Mal arises from a perverse wish to celebrate what the world condemns. [4] Often he does not trouble to provide justification, relying instead on the strength of his vituperation to stimulate a corrective review of values rather than straightforwardly making a case for alternatives. Who, indeed, would actually celebrate evil? What Parisian would feel only “spleen” while strolling the streets of the capital? Baudelaire’s fascination with lesbianism likewise signals more an attempt, successful as it happened, to be outré than a fetish of his own. Just as much supposed diabolism (in outlaw biker and heavy metal imagery, for instance) is not so much devil-worship as baiting the pious, Baudelaire seeks a rhetorical, not a logical, effect in his selection of the outstanding modern artist.

The man of the world exemplified by his chosen artist is a “spiritual citizen of the universe” “who understands the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons behind all its customs.” (2) How does he gain such hermetic wisdom? Baudelaire defines two types of privileged observers: the dandy and the flâneur.

Both represent observers who are at the same time detached and wholly absorbed in the urban scene. The dandy expresses in what would today be called lifestyle choice “the aristocratic superiority of his mind.” Never “a vulgar man,” he “comes close to spirituality and to stoicism.” His personal cultivation of beauty, a “form of Romanticism,” implicitly reproaches the bourgeoisie. (10) The pose of the aesthete, the apostle of beauty, of course, flourished with the aid of Pater in Wilde and Whistler and then in Saki and Ronald Firbank. The dandy remained recognizable in the crowds at San Francisco’s Fillmore, done up in beads and crystals and feathers, gowns and robes and unlikely thrift store ensembles. Whether or not Baudelaire was correct in claiming that “dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages,” representing ‘what is best in human pride,” it is quite certain that it represents “opposition and revolt.” (11)

Yet M.G.is not exactly a dandy. Though Baudelaire says he “would have a sheaf of good reasons for the word ‘dandy’ implies a quintessence of character and a subtle under-standing of all the moral mechanisms of this worlds,” he resists using the label. While “the dandy aspires to cold detachment,” his artist friend is a passionate lover of life with even an “excessive love of visible, tangible things.” (4)


"Thus the lover of universal life moves into the crowd as though into an enormous reservoir of electricity. He, the lover of life, may also be compared to a mirror as vast as this crowd: to a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness, which with every one of its movements presents a pattern of life, in all its multiplicity, and the flowing grace of all the elements that go to compose life. It is an ego athirst for the non-ego, and reflecting it at every moment in energies more vivid than life itself, always inconstant and fleeting.” (4)


This characterization becomes very nearly a definition of art in general for surely the “multiplicity” and “flowing grace,” of lived experience, even its “inconstant and fleeting” nature are not unique to modernity.

The distinction between dandy and flâneur is elucidated by Baudelaire’s use of Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd.” The narrator who had been idly observing the scene in the street in just the sort of receptive mood Baudelaire had praised as typical of the man of the world, “in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui—moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs.” Enjoying this heightened consciousness he observes various easily categorized and understood types when he notices an old man and is struck by “the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression.” Motivated to pursue this enigmatic figure in an attempt to discover his secrets, he concludes after trailing him for an entire day and night, what he had suspected from the outset. He declares, without the slightest evidence, that the old man "is the type and the genius of deep crime.” Thus it is a mercy that he remains inscrutable: "es lasst sich nicht lesen.”

The story’s narrator, then, resembles M.G. in his fascinated attachment to the outside world, while the man he is shadowing remains like the dandy, altogether beyond reach, detached, unreadable. Only the former can provide us, the readers, with a story, but the latter is similarly extraordinary, the first distinguished from the masses by his perceptive sensibility and the latter by his entire involvement in a mysterious but demanding game of engagement. One feels the “man of the crowd” sees through the charades of social life and, rather than withdrawing in reaction, submerges himself entirely in a principled but pointless act of performance art.

The notion of the anonymity of the modern city in which everyone a “a man of the crowd” doubtless influenced Baudelaire in his most striking false prediction. He maintains that M.G. who is, after all, a journalist who typically does not own his work but sells it to a publisher who may or may not even credit him, embraces this obscurity. The reader is told that he “carries his originality to the point of modesty,” that he does not even sign his drawings. Baudelaire’s modern ideal is to “be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world.” (4) Absorbed in the crowd, wholly participating in the mass experience “the observer is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes.” (4)

Many phenomena of art since his time vindicate elements of Baudelaire’s idea of the modern. Dadaists, Surrealists, and others have reinforced his displacement of earlier ideas of beauty. Modern works tend to pervasive fragmentation (evident, for instance, in collage and in such poetic epics as Paterson and the Cantos). The investment of moderns in ephemera, in conceptual and performance works is entirely consistent with Baudelaire’s definition of the modern as foregrounding “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.” The absorption of the artist in mass culture is evident in Pop Art, street art, and the crossovers into advertising by such figures as Man Ray and Andy Warhol. Indeed, in modern American culture such commercial works as Breaking Bad are often accepted as art even by highly educated people.

If modern artists have more typically sought fame than emulating M. G.’s “modesty,” traces, perhaps of a contrary tendency may be seen in Pessoa’s concealment behind personae, Warhol’s dictum that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” [6] some street and guerilla artists, the Diggers’ Communications Company and the Atelier Populaire in 1968 Paris.

With the end of the old system of patronage, artists were thrown into the marketplace, while, at the same time, their alienation and rebellion led them to resent the bourgeoisie which had become their likeliest customer base. The replacement of the old dichotomy of courtly and popular art was supplanted by a shrinking field of “fine art” and an expanding one of mass commodified art. Baudelaire’s response to the dilemma of the artist in the modern world defined trends which have remained influential to the present day.



1. Verlaine, Œuvres posthumes, p. 8.

2. Among the more influential statements of this idea are in Walter Benjamin’s essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” and Harold Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New.

3. Other maneuvers meant to evade the conscious mind have included chance operations and outsider art.

4. Baudelaire’s wish to épater la bourgeoisie succeeded so well that the book could not be printed in its entirety in France until 1949.

5. Trailing after people on the street has been packaged as a work of art by numerous artists. The best-known version is doubtless Vito Acconci’s Following Piece.

6. On the screen of a television set by Banksy is written "In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes,"

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