The Painter of Modern Life is an 1863 essay by the French poet Charles Baudelaire. In the essay, Baudelaire describes his conception of the truly modern artist, offering his friend, a painter referred to as Monsieur G, as the prime example.
According to Baudelaire, modernity is defined by the “transitory” and “fugitive,” and it is the job of the modern artist to be a “passionate spectator” and “lover of life,” with both a child’s curiosity and a journalist’s eye for detail. The flaneur, as he was known, is a “man of the crowd” who “makes the whole world his family,” a boulevard-strolling urban philosopher and “painter of the passing moment.” To Baudelaire, it’s not just Monsieur G’s painting that makes him such the epitome, or ideal, of the modern artist, but also his representation of a type of character who embodies certain qualities essential to this new evolution.
In the 1930s, German philosopher Walter Benjamin used Baudelaire’s concept of the flaneur as the central theme of a Marxist analysis of the recent history of capitalism. For Benjamin, the flaneur was emblematic of the social changes caused by industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century, because the flaneur was necessarily alienated from the city he observed so lovingly. He was not interested in participating in the newly expanding economy, but neither did he fit in among the bourgeois urban experience. Instead, he lives in cool resistance as an outsider.
Benjamin admired the flaneur as much as Baudelaire but believed that the type could no longer exist in the twentieth century: the age of mass consumption made it impossible for people to live without participating in the modern economy.