The Eye of Baudelaire


Arts & Culture

A new exhibition looks at the upheaval in the visual culture of Baudelaire’s Paris.

François Biard, Four Hours at the Salon, 1847.

In puritanical America, the intellectual tradition is in exile from the luxury of the senses: Americans hold steadfast to the idea that the right kind of knowledge comes from the Word of books. Harold Bloom’s omnipresent theory of the anxiety of influence would have you think that writers did nothing else but read the work of their forefathers in Oedipal distress, ignoring the sensual theater which makes a part of any lived life. In post-revolutionary Paris, where the optic regime underwent a series of explosive changes as the Romantics and post-Romantics pressed against all limits of language, to ignore the visual influence on literature is to misread it. Images flooded homes in books, keepsake albums, lithographs, small paintings, and photographs; they plastered the streets with, as Baudelaire described it, a “monstrous nausea of posters,” and crowded shop-windows and studios. They covered museums like doilies covered the bourgeois interior; they were in the dark rooms of stereoscopes, erotic printers, and panoramic theaters. It comes as no surprise that the theories of literature of the era made metaphoric use of mirrors (Stendhal), decals (Sand), and screens (Zola).

At the Museum of Romantic Life, in Paris, curators have set about trying to capture this flurry of imagery. “The Eye of Baudelaire,” commemorating the 150th anniversary of his death, recreates the visual culture in which he was immersed with a collection of paintings, photographs, sketches, and frontispieces. The museum, a stone’s throw from Pigalle, occupies the house where George Sand lived, wrote, and wore her men’s clothes. The rooms, painted in rich, warm colors of burgundy and deep red, replicate the look of an old salon; the architecture, virtually untouched, requires that you cross the courtyard and climb several spiral staircases to enter. 


Baudelaire spent his childhood visiting artists’ studios; his father, a priest by profession, sketched and painted in his spare time. “When I was young, I couldn’t feed my eyes with enough printed or engraved images,” Baudelaire wrote of this picture-drunken reverie. “I thought these worlds would have to end and their ruins strike me before I would ever turn into an iconoclast.” But iconoclast he would become. Though he hated the press for its thoughtless dogmatism (a Satanic “black beast,” he called it), he took up his first job as a journalist and art critic in the 1840s, and the experience of looking hard at paintings shaped his aesthetics just as much as the experience of translating Edgar Allen Poe. Ingres, whose realism he likened to the new false positivism, he didn’t like; nor did he like the “ever so pretty” portraits of bourgeois housewives by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin. He enjoyed Eugène Delacroix, whose fury of brushstrokes escaped the “tyranny of straight lines.” In his small exile of an apartment on the Île Saint-Louis, Baudelaire hung Femmes d’Algers dans leur appartement, an allegorical head representing Pain, and the series of Hamlet lithographs (with whom, if it wasn’t already obvious, Baudelaire self-identified)—all by Delacroix, who he deemed “the poet of painting.”

Frontispiece for Les fleurs du mal, by Félix Bracquemond. Baudelaire didn’t like the image and chose to publish the book with his photograph instead.

The difference between Baudelaire and the generation before him was the loss of hope (“Hope, vanquished, weeps”) and the general sense that material improvements for some did not make for the good of all. The revolution of 1848 destroyed the belief in the bourgeois-middle class as progressive, along with the illusion of language as a realist reflection of the world. Baudelaire ridiculed Victor Hugo, godhead of French Romanticism, and his “belief in progress, the salvation of mankind by the use of balloons, etc.” But even as he founded the tradition that Wallace Stevens dubbed “the poetry of the poor and dead,” Baudelaire—something of a military milksop—remained “physiquement dépolitiqué,” as he put it. His only direct action during the turmoil was to fire one shot, at random. Later he tried to siphon off revolutionaries for the collaborative murder of his stepfather. (The plan was not successful.)

This was a time when new democratic ideals, social mobility, and a succession of ideologically conflicting regimes overthrew the visual status quo, upsetting the given meaning of physical cues and gestures. The way one interpreted this semiotic chaos—the way you looked at the world—took on profound political import. In this context, a gaze—or the gaze, I should say, as it was pretty much ubiquitously upper-class and male—came to constitute authority. Visual description—of the woman’s body, of the workman’s hands—was thought to be one and the same with moral and medical prescription. Sociologists claimed that prostitutes could be expected to behave themselves only if they were kept under vigilant watch. The destruction of the old Paris and its replacement with broad, straight boulevards was implemented not only under the pretense of improving hygiene and sanitation, but so that the maintenance of such could be properly surveyed by those that lived in the apartments above them.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1865.

Baudelaire’s self portrait, 1860. “Here the mouth is better,” he wrote in the margin.

Baudelaire revolted against this omniscient frame of vision—what he called “the modern lantern which throws its gloom against all objects of knowledge”—with shadow. The apertures of his poems are circumscribed, with obsessively recurring images giving the sense of a narrowing line of sight, as if the speaker were going blind or close to death. There’s light there, but it’s indirect, seeping through a fog or disappearing with the day’s end, another reverie turning out to be mirage. At the exhibit, I was struck by what I could not see, the half-lit figures and sharply detailed foregrounds fading into sky or chiaroscuro. Whenever I picked out Baudelaire’s favorite paintings in a given room, they seemed to be the ones that most forcefully kept their secrets.

Because the material world was used to classify and control, to turn subjects into objects, it was the unseen which came to constitute a radical subjectivity. “When I look at a good portrait,” Baudelaire wrote, “I guess (divine) at that which is self-evident, but I also guess at that which is hidden.” An empathy rooted in the imagination was the only means of relating to the human being interred beneath the fleshy materialism and false market values of the age. “How convenient it is to declare that everything is totally ugly within the habit [dress] of the époque, rather than applying oneself to extract from it the dark and cryptic beauty, however faint and invisible it is.” Neoclassical ideals and ideas about what did and did not merit artistic treatment still ruled strong; in this context Baudelaire insisted that every culture’s signs are relative, as are its aesthetic criteria. “What is a critic schooled in the traditions supposed to do in front of a modern product from China?” he would ask.

This kind of embodied vision had its basis in Descartes, who had rooted the process of perception in the retinae’s film rather than in the “pure” senses. Goethe, whom Baudelaire read fastidiously, discovered that when he was shut in a dark room, images stayed in his eyes even when he looked away from them. The turn from emission-based, corpuscular theories to wave-motion explanations of sight further embedded the mind in the body. Baudelaire incorporated these ideas into his work, but he didn’t lose himself in the relativist inferno—“the abyss, the unbridled course”—as the Romantics had, with their extreme subjectivity. He seems to locate truth in the relationship mediated by a reciprocal gaze, between subject and object; between the painting, its painter, and the viewer; between two people walking past each other on the street. Rather than the omniscient, Minerva-like sight implicit in much of Western art, Baudelaire’s “forest of symbols” looks at you “with familiar eyes.”


This quality would characterize two of the biggest art scandals of the era. Édouard Manet was one of Baudelaire’s closest friends, and though the poet made a point never to write about his art—Manet was presumably too close of a semblable-frère—he would complete the revolution in paint that Baudelaire had started with words. In Olympia and Déjeuner sur l’herbe, it was not the nakedness of the woman deemed offensive; it was her reversal of the viewer’s gaze, reminding him that she “cannot be [visibly] understood from any point of view” as Théophile Gautier observed. Unknowable, she guards her subjectivity; only she can understand herself. Manet and Baudelaire were not feminists—I still cringe when I read the poems in which the speaker bites, scratches, or gets drunk off of a woman’s hair. But the essentially private, clouded nature of their subjects would be crucial for the idea that the flâneur-about-town maybe didn’t know all that much about what he was observing on the streets.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to look at other people in a “post-truth” world, as would be the state of things according to the recent election and confirmed by the OED’s late word of the year. Once, going uptown on the New York subway, a friend told me that he didn’t like the people-watching on public transit. The crowd was ugly; to stare was to become a voyeur, often motivated by Schadenfreude. I found this so sad, imagining a city in which everyone blindfolded themselves in public, stumbling through the streets guided by noises and banisters, removing their masks only when alone or in the presence of people they knew. This isn’t so far from the reality in our world of strangers-as-passersby, where a capitalist infrastructure prescribes most social exchanges. It’s hard to see, really see, someone else from behind the windshield of your car, in the rush from job to gym to supermarket, surrounded by people who are doing the same, all the while being comforted by the intimacies afforded by Facebook. Speaking about the Baudelairean moment, Walter Benjamin would define modernity in terms of the loss of the ability to look.

Etienne Carat, Baudelaire with etchings, 1863.

When Baudelaire was on his deathbed, speechless and in the late stages of syphilis, his mother, looking for answers in his overcoat, found two photographs of her son; apparently he’d been keeping these on his person. It’s surprising that he let himself be photographed at all; he likened the camera’s lens to “a dictatorship of opinion,” interrupting the active self-questioning required on the part of the viewing subject so as to prevent his thinking he had mastery over the perceived object. A politics of sight encrypted in the medium itself—physiquement depolitiqué. In the pictures, he seems to be trying to compensate for this perceived defect. He stares at the camera with inflamed black pupils, his eyes making him appear aggressively unhinged, as if trying to pierce through the lens itself. The escape from the mise en abime of flat images and surfaces—what Angela Merkel recently called “the dangers of digitization,” which she likened to the social disruptions of Baudelaire’s own Industrial Age—hinges on the embodied vision for which he once asked. A gaze that appears to be physically depoliticized is dangerous precisely because it is political. The way you look at the stranger who passes you on the street matters; it determines whether or not you let her look back.

L’oeil de Baudelaire” is on display through January 29 at the Le Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris.

Madison Mainwaring is a graduate student at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, where she studies the way women responded to French Romantic ballet in the early nineteenth century. She has contributed to The Atlantic, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and VICE Magazine, among others.