Charles Baudelaire

Start Free Trial

How does Baudelaire’s idea of the painter of modern life relate to his understanding of modernity?

The painter of modern life is a painter who paints the fleeting details of modernity. Baudelaire says that these details include the ephemeral, the fugitive, and contingent.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his article "The Painter of Modern Life," written in 1860 but not published until 1863, Baudelaire attempts to define modernity and its relation to beauty. There is an eternal beauty, he says, which has always been captured by artists, but there is also a specific modern beauty which is...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In his article "The Painter of Modern Life," written in 1860 but not published until 1863, Baudelaire attempts to define modernity and its relation to beauty. There is an eternal beauty, he says, which has always been captured by artists, but there is also a specific modern beauty which is defined by its transience. He then gives a definition of modernity which has been highly influential for the pioneers of Modernism:

By "modernity" I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable.

The modern artist, according to Baudelaire, can learn painting techniques from the Old Masters but should not attempt to paint similar subjects, either by copying nature or by painting the biblical or classical scenes that had been popular in the early nineteenth century. Baudelaire asserts that one cannot be modern by painting a bygone age and is thoroughly contemptuous of natural landscapes, which barely change with the decades. The modern painter is a keen observer, looking closely at fleeting details.

The painter whose work Baudelaire examines most closely (indeed, the ostensible subject of the article, though it is easy to forget this when reading it) is Constantin Guys, not a particularly famous artist then or now. Baudelaire appreciates in Guys precisely what the artistic establishment of the time despised. Guys paints like a journalist, recording incidental details of costume and even cosmetics which will be quite different in six months time. For Baudelaire, this focus on the ephemeral makes Guys the quintessence of modernity in painting.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team