Charles Baudelaire

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Why does Baudelaire choose Constantin Guys as "the painter of modern life"?

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In aesthetic terms Baudelaire sees modernity as a synthesis of the eternal and the ephemeral; the universal and the particular; the transient and the enduring. Modern art embraces the constant flux of contemporary society, not for its own sake, but because in those fleeting moments of our ever-changing existence traces of eternal beauty can be found.

Not just anyone can discern these traces, however. It takes a very special talent to be able to see beauty in a world where everything is in a state of such bewildering, rapid change. The painter of modern life, according to Baudelaire, must capture the beauty of the present day and, in the process, make art worthy of antiquity.

The paradigm example of such an artist is Constantin Guys. For Baudelaire, Guys is the modern painter par excellence. He is a "spiritual citizen of the universe," a man with an intense curiosity and an interest in crowds. This latter quality is especially important as the modern period is the era of the crowd (or the era of the mass man), when democracy in all walks of life (art no less than politics) is becoming the order of the day.

In the crowd which he observes with a keen, painterly eye, Guys sees extraordinary beauty where others would only see hustle and bustle. Guys is a constant spectator, keenly interesting himself in all things no matter how ostensibly trivial. Like a child, he has a sense of wonder about the world, an insatiable curiosity that allows him to see beneath the often ugly surface of the modern world to behold its underlying beauty.

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