Charles Baudelaire

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In his essay "The Painter of Modern Life," why is Baudelaire's painter of modern life "searching" for "modernity"? And what does "modernity" in this sense mean?

In "The Painter of Modern Life" Baudelaire's ideal of a modern painter searches for those rare moments of beauty in the modern world around us. In other words, he is searching for "modernity."

For Baudelaire, modernity is the inconstant element of beauty. It encompasses that which is fleeting and ephemeral. In a world of such rapid change, the modern artist somehow needs to find modernity. Artists must discover those little moments of beauty often overshadowed by the speed of modern life.

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At the time when Baudelaire wrote "The Painter of Modern Life," his native France was experiencing rapid social change. In the midst of such a dynamic society, it was all the more important for the modern artist to discover beauty. The rapid development of society and the economy often led to the ruin of man's environment. Amidst all the filth, noise, and crowded squalor, it was increasingly difficult to find anything that could be described as beautiful.

Difficult yes, but certainly not impossible. And this is where Baudelaire's notion of modernity enters into the equation. For Baudelaire, modernity is the inconstant element of beauty, that which is ephemeral—here today and gone tomorrow—as well as contingent and circumstantial. The modern element of beauty can be contrasted with the eternal element, which relates to that which transcends time and place to endure from one generation to the next.

The talented modern artist is therefore someone who seeks out and captures modernity, as defined as contingent beauty, beneath the constant flux of modern society. This is by no means an easy task, but it can be done. An example of a painter who excelled at this task was Edgar Degas. He captured the beauty of little moments, such as a ballerina adjusting her slipper in "The Dancers." Like Constantin Guys, whom Baudelaire regards as the epitome of the modern artist, Degas was able to find beauty in the transient moments of everyday life. In that sense, he was a true modern artist.

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