Édouard Manet

Baudelaire and the Impressionist Revolution

Claude Monet


Baudelaire and the Intellectual Origin of Impressionism

This profile etching of Charles Baudelaire was made by the French painter Edouard Manet in about the year 1862.  The etching was scratched into a metal plate and pressed onto Chinese paper. The plate is signed with the artist's monogram on the upper left. The above portrait of Baudelaire was painted by Gustave Courbet in the 1847-1848 time frame.  Many art critics believe that Courbet intended this painting to be a crucial testing-ground for the expressive capacities of Realism.  The portrait is deliberately made to be unlike a photograph.  The occupational symbols associated with Baudelaire (book and pen) are  given more emphasis than the simple depiction  of physical likeness. Baudelaire claimed that photography was "the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies." Nonetheless, he posed for several photos, including this one by Frenchman Étienne Carjat in 1861.

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was the greatest French poet of the 19th Century.  He translated the Works of Edgar Allen Poe into French and is the person primarily responsible for bringing this American writer to the attention of European intellectual circles.  Baudelaire was also a notable art critic.  Besides Poe, he particularly admired the works of the French painter Eugene Delacroix and the German composer Richard Wagner.  In 1863, Baudelaire published a critical essay titled Le Peintre de la vie moderne (The Painter of Modern Life).  Over time, this essay became the philosophical  manifesto of the Impressionist movement.

In my opinion, Baudelaire recognizes the basic Kantian dichotomy of the Noumenal World of unchanging existence versus the Phenomenal World of our ordinary sensory experiences.  In his essay Le Peintre de la vie moderne, he exhorts the modern painter to utilize the following concepts in creating his/her works of  art:

bulletThe painter of modern life extracts, from his observation of modern fashion and events, whatever elements they may contain of poetry within history. In other words, the artist distills the eternal from the transitory (extracts some knowledge of the Noumenal World from ordinary sensory experience).


bulletModernity is concerned with the ephemeral, fugitive and contingent half of art (the Phenomenal World of the senses).  Conversely, the other half of high art concerns the eternal and the immutable (the Noumenal World of absolute reality).


bulletThe artist should be a flaneur, i.e., a passionate spectator of modern life. The flaneur is at his best in an urban crowd.  The modern artist finds inspiration amid the ebb and flow of people moving within the city attending to their daily tasks, in the midst of both the fugitive and the infinite.


bulletThe artist flaneur is able to draw shock and intoxication through association with the crowd.  Baudelaire seems to place this shock experience at the very center of his artistic work.  The flaneur is jostled, pushed and shoved by the seething urban crowd and is bombarded by a plethora of stimuli that cannot be completely assimilated. Accordingly, the flaneur must remain alert, vigilant and constantly on guard lest he experience psychological disintegration and loss of coherence.


bulletThe artist flaneur is both an idler and  a passionate observer.  The perfect idler and passionate observer finds immense enjoyment from dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite.


bulletThe hero of modern life is someone who practices the tenants of modern capitalism, but is simultaneously engaged in an inevitably doomed struggle against them.  For Baudelaire, this hero is one who experiences the paradoxes and illusions of modern life, but who also participates and give form to these fragmented, fleeting experiences of the modern. Examples of modern heroes are:  the poet, the flaneur, the dandy, the collector, the gambler, the worker, the rag-picker and the prostitute. 


bulletThe city may be considered as a duality. The modern city is both bestial and beautiful, but it has become the essential source of inspiration for the modern artist and poet.


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