Charles Baudelaire

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Student Question

In "The Painter of Modern Life" (1863), is Baudelaire's portrayal of Guys an example of modernity or is his concept of modernity based on Guys? Why is Guys seeking modernity?

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In his essay "The Painter of Modern Life," Baudelaire uses Guys as an exemplar of the Modern, the painter who comes closest to the criteria he has laid down for aesthetic Modernism. He sees Guys as searching for the essence of modernity in his preoccupation with transient fashions and other ephemeral subjects.

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Charles Baudelaire has often been criticized for choosing a minor painter as his representative Modernist genius for “The Painter of Modern Life,” particularly given that he was the intimate friend of such a major artist as Manet. He initially writes that Guys is so self-effacing that he takes the mere mention of his name in the public press as an affront to his modesty. He therefore concludes that it will be best for both writer and reader to “proceed as though M.G. did not exist.”

Given this context, the reader may wonder whether there is any point in mentioning Guys at all. Baudelaire’s ideas on Modernism were the result of long years of study, thought, and aesthetic contemplation. He certainly would not have selected Guys to illustrate his ideas unless he thought that Guys fitted into the very precise idea of the Modern artist he had formulated better than any of the more famous names at his disposal.

The search for modernity which he identifies in Guys also helps to explain Baudelaire’s surprising selection. In section four of the essay, Baudelaire describes the artist’s quest “to distil the eternal from the transitory.” What art critics have seen as Guys’s second-rate preoccupation with fashion and other ephemeral matters appears to Baudelaire in a quite different light as a determined search for the essence of the Modern.

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