(l-r) Charles Baudelaire, Edouard Manet
One of the most significant friendships between an artist and a writer was that between the painter Edouard Manet and the poet Charles Baudelaire in the 1850s-1860s. It was a friendship that didn’t only influence their respective views on art and its relation to society: some historians say it influenced the development of modernism as it emerged over the next forty years from the artistic movements of the late nineteenth century.
Baudelaire and Manet met in 1858 at a restaurant in Paris which hosted regular lunches attended by artists, journalists, poets, and hangers on. After that, they saw each other almost daily until Baudelaire went to live in Belgium in 1864. Baudelaire was already known as a writer on art, and as the poet who had published ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ in 1857 – vilified at the time, just like many of Manet’s great paintings, but acknowledged by twentieth century poets such as T. S. Eliot as a significant milestone in nineteenth century literature. Baudelaire would accompany Manet on the latter’s sketching trips, and Manet painted both Baudelaire’s mistress, and Baudelaire himself (he appears on the left hand side of Manet’s ‘Music in the Tuileries’). A letter from Manet indicates that it was Baudelaire who encouraged Manet to submit his painting ‘Olympia’ to the Salon. When Baudelaire returned to Paris in 1866 to spend his last months in a nursing home, Manet’s wife would visit him and play music by Wagner to him on the piano.
Despite these connections, Baudelaire rarely wrote about Manet’s paintings. It has always been assumed that Baudelaire’s ideas about art and modern painting changed the course of Manet’s paintings, yet when Baudelaire wrote his seminal essay expressing his ideas about art – ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ - he chose as his example of the great modern painter Constantin Guys, a minor sort of illustrator. Baudelaire wrote: “The positivist says: ‘I want to represent things as they are, or as they would be, supposing that I did not exist.’ The universe without man. The man of imagination says: ‘I want to illuminate things with my mind and project their reflection to the minds of others.’ “
Baudelaire saw modernity as seeing the life on the streets, but transformed by imagination, by the introduction of personal subjectivity. It sounds like a restatement of Romanticism – the artist must start with ‘modern life’, but transcendence of nature emerges by the personal vision and technique of the artist. Baudelaire’s theory about how a painter should work led him to the statement that, in pursuit of the imagination, the poetic, the intangible, the painter should only draw from memory, in order to arrive at forms that were a pure projection of the mind. But this horrified Manet, who was already going out into the streets and drawing what he saw before he met Baudelaire. In fact Manet had become locally notorious for his sketching on the busy Place de Pigalle. He always drew from life, and when models and sitters weren’t available, he used photographs.
An aspect of Manet’s art that troubled Baudelaire, as it did some of the Impressionist painters, was its relation with art of the past. ‘Olympia’ (1863) is a perfect example:
What distressed Manet about the adverse public reaction to the painting was that they had only seen the unadorned, unidealised nudity, the hint that the woman is a prostitute, her uncomfortably confident and direct gaze – and had ignored the clear reference to paintings by Velazquez, Titian, and other past masters. It’s possible that the bourgeois Parisian public did in fact recognize this and were even more scandalized by this blatant sullying of artistic ideals. Baudelaire too seemed troubled by Manet’s dialogue with art history and past forms of painting. Baudelaire was ‘looking for a painter of modern life who would project on modern subjects that kind of imaginative impulses that had transported him in the work of Delacroix. Those impulses carry us away from reality. The thrust of Manet’s art, however, suggests that imagination underlies our perception of the real.’ (James Rubin).
Is the relationship between Baudelaire and Manet thus an argument about whether writing or painting can best represent reality and imagination? We might more reasonably ask why the poet of ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ did not fully recognize a kindred soul in Manet. For you only have to read a few of Baudelaire’s poems, even in translation, to be aware of how pictorial they are, how saturated with sights, smells, textures, and references to painting, sculpture, music, and art of the past. The sound of his poetry is also said by French speakers to possess a unique euphony:
Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!
Baudelaire’s narrative persona is also a kind of theatrical creation, that acts in a similar way to Manet’s great paintings: arranging the elements of the poem/painting to create a dramatic narrative for a spectator. Manet was certainly influenced by his conversations with Baudelaire to go further in representing contemporary life in his painting; but Baudelaire, far from changing the course of Manet’s art, probably just gave Manet further reassurance to pursue avenues that he was already exploring. There is realism in Manet, but there is also the staging of the real, a self-conscious awareness of his own act of painting and an awareness of an audience that may have come from rubbing shoulders with a great poet. It certainly became one of Manet’s central bequests to the art of the twentieth century.
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