Charles Baudelaire

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Why does Baudelaire choose Constantin Guys over Manet as his "painter of modern life"? Why does he choose a "minor" artist?

Baudelaire chose Guys as his representative painter of modern life partly because Guys was known to dislike publicity and would not contradict any of Baudelaire's aesthetic ideas. Baudelaire examines the works as though they are historical artifacts, quite separate from the personality of the man who created them. This would have been impossible in the case of Manet, both a major, highly controversial artist and a personal friend of Baudelaire.

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In "The Painter of Modern Life," Baudelaire stresses that his choice of Constantin Guys as the representative painter of modernity is nothing to do with the artist's personality or his own personal feelings. He begins by observing that Guys "loves mixing with the crowds, loves being incognito, and carries his originality to the point of modesty." He then recounts a story of William Makepeace Thackeray, who was much interested in art and drew the illustrations for his own novels, mentioning Guys's name in a London review. The artist was apparently so irritated by this that Baudelaire promises to proceed with his critique as though Guys did not exist, examining his work in the same spirit as "historical documents which chance has brought to light, and the author of which must for ever remain unknown."

"The Painter of Modern Life" is a philosophical essay on aesthetic principles Baudelaire had formulated over many years. Since he decided that he must choose an actual painter to illustrate those principles, it makes perfect sense that he would select a relatively obscure one who was unlikely either to contradict Baudelaire's appraisal of the principles on which he worked or, in later years, to be reappraised by art historians. Manet was both too well-known and too personally close to Baudelaire for him to be able to serve this purpose in the essay. There was also the potential for their friendship to be affected by any fundamental aesthetic disagreements which the essay might have uncovered.

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