Re-Reading Baudelaire’s “Peintre de la vie moderne”: Guys, Modernity, and Baudelaire’s “Spiritual Art”

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Baudelaire’s critical portrait of the illustrator Constantin Guys, “Le Peintre de la vie moderne” (1863: OC, II: 683-722), is arguably the best-known, most widely read of Baudelaire’s writings on visual art. As the emblematic “peintre de la vie moderne,” modern-life hero; the flâneur par excellence, bearer of artistic and cultural modernity, Baudelaire’s “Guys” has become for so many students of French literature and art, a trailblazer of nineteenth-century “modernism,” freighted with ideas of historical and artistic rupture, detachment, modernism and its legacies.1 From Walter Benjamin’s symbol of the Baudelairean flâneur’s “alienated” modernity to T.J. Clark’s modern-life artist-dandy, we think we know Guys’s creation through Baudelaire’s eyes as the consummate anti-bohemian Dandy, the substitute for Edouard Manet’s even greater modernity. But what do we really understand about the modernity of the artist and his presentation in the essay which for many scholars has become a founding text in studies of modern French literature and art? This essay explores this question through reconsidering afresh some central, yet neglected artistic contexts for and thematic interests in Baudelaire’s “ Le Peintre de la vie moderne,” including their links with his earlier and contemporary writings on art. The aim is to suggest alternative approaches to reading “Le Peintre de la vie moderne” which shed new light on the essay’s apparent binaries of “modernity” to “reaction”; romantic synthesis to “alienation”; of transcendence to banality; of form to ephemera, creating instead, fresh insights into its more complex and nuanced engagement with its central theme of a modern poetic and artistic creation as spiritual.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCritical Insights: Poetry of Baudelaire
EditorsTom Hubbard
Place of PublicationIpswich
PublisherSalem Press
ISBN (Print)978-1-61925-396-4, 978-1-61925-395-7
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014

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