Théophile Gautier made significant contributions in several different fields. His importance as a literary critic was established by his 1844 book Les Grotesques (The Grotesques, 1900). He also wrote several works of long fiction, including Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835-1836; Mademoiselle de Maupin: A Romance of Love and Passion, 1887), Le Roman de la momie (1856; Romance of the Mummy, 1863), and Le Capitaine Fracasse (1863; Captain Fracasse, 1880).
Théophile Gautier’s interests extended well beyond France. In his poems, short stories, and novels, he made judicious use of aspects of Spanish and North African cultures and thus enriched the French literary landscape. He composed in 1841 the libretto for the ballet Giselle: Ou, Les Wilis (Giselle: Or, The Wilis, 1970), which has become part of the canon of classical ballet. He wrote the first truly successfully fantastic short stories in French by combining elements of realism and the marvelous. He received the French Legion of Honor in 1858.
Théophile Gautier was an immensely prolific writer with a widely diversified range of interests and concerns. Although he considered himself primarily a poet, he earned his living as a journalist for some forty years, contributing art, theater, and literary criticism to various newspapers and journals. Gautier’s art criticism is often eloquent and perceptive, anticipating the achievement of Charles Baudelaire. As an art critic, Gautier is notable for his early and passionate defense of such contrasting contemporary painters as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and for introducing the French public to the works of such Spanish masters as Bartolomé Murillo, Diego de Velázquez, Jose de Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Francisco de Goya. Gautier’s theater criticism is especially voluminous, and, although only a small part of it is of continuing interest for its wit and stylistic verve, it is a remarkable quotidian document of the Parisian theatrical scene of the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to theater criticism, Gautier wrote a number of plays—some as a collaborator—none of which holds the stage today, even as a curiosity. More successful were his scenarios for a number of popular ballets, including the enduring favorite Giselle: Ou, Les Wilis (1841; Giselle: Or, The Wilis, 1970).
Of greater interest are Gautier’s works of literary criticism. Les Grotesques (1844; The Grotesques, 1900) is a collection of studies of then little-known French authors of the fifteenth through the mid-seventeenth centuries, originally published as a series of individual newspaper articles under the collective title “Exhumations littéraires.” The authors discussed (among them François Villon, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Théophile de Viau) were generally ignored or considered as naïfs in the early part of the nineteenth century, and Gautier played an important role in the rise of their reputations. Additionally, Gautier wrote several perceptive, if somewhat biased, appreciations (amounting to monographs) of such contemporaries as Gérard de Nerval, Honoré de Balzac, and Baudelaire, and he began Histoire du Romantisme (History...
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Théophile Gautier was one of the most influential, as well as one of the few successful, poets of the second generation of French Romantics. His early poetry clearly demonstrates his debt to the greats of the first generation, but it did not take long for Gautier to establish his own voice and develop his own aesthetic (eclectic as it was). By mid-century, Gautier had become a leading literary figure, influential in his own right. His formulation of the theory of l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake), in which the value of art is determined solely by its capacity to create beauty, regardless of ethical or utilitarian considerations, was profoundly influential and produced ramifications beyond the borders of France (a major instance being the Aesthetic movement of late nineteenth century England, represented by such writers as Walter Pater, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Oscar Wilde).
As the doctrine of art for art’s sake eliminated ethics and social function as criteria for the making and criticism of art, it also tempered the vague notion of “imagination” with a concept of art as craft and discipline. In one literary review, Gautier was to state: “Art is beauty, the eternal invention of detail, the correct choice of words, the painstaking care of execution; the word ‘poet’ literally signifies ‘maker.’. . . Everything which is not well made does not exist.” As the prime spokesman for this reexamination of aesthetic...
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Bowman, Frank. French Romanticism. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. A thoughtful study which explores the importance of religion, eroticism, and psychological instability in numerous French works of short and long fiction written during the first half of the nineteenth century. Bowman’s remarks are very relevant to Gautier’s short stories.
Gordon, Rae Beth. Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. A solid analysis which examines the representation of obsessive behavior and sexual fantasies in fiction by Gautier and other nineteenth century French writers.
Gosselin Schick, Constance. Seductive Resistance: The Poetry of Théophile Gautier. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994. Schick’s exhaustive study begins with an analysis of the intextual repetition of Gautier’s poetry, the citations, imitations and transpositions which make evident the poetry’s displacement of the significant and the personal into aesthetic simulacra. The study covers each of Gautier’s five major collections and deals with the contextuality, the fetishism, and the eroticism revealed in a miscellany of poems.
Gosselin Schick, Constance. “Théophile Gautier’s Poetry as ‘Coquetterie posthume.’” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 20, nos. 1/2 (1992): 74-84. Insightful study of the treatment of death in Gautier’s late...
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