Charles Baudelaire

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Why is Constantin Guys chosen as "the painter of modern life" by Baudelaire?

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

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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