Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 244
Théophile Gautier was born on August 30, 1811, in the southern French city of Tarbes, where his father Pierre was a civil servant. In 1814, Pierre, his wife Antoinette, and their son Théophile moved to Paris, where Théophile lived until his death on October 23, 1872. Gautier had two sisters: Émilie, born in 1817, and Zoé, born three years later. He attended school in Paris and then studied painting in 1829. That same year he met writer Victor Hugo, who persuaded Gautier to become a writer.
During the 1830’s, Gautier earned his living as a journalist. He also began his literary career by writing in several different genres, including fiction, poetry, plays, ballet librettos, and art criticism. He never married, but he did have three children out of wedlock. A mistress named Eugénie Fort gave birth to his only son, Théophile, in 1836. For many years he lived with his mistress Ernesta Grasi. Together they had two daughters: Judith, born in 1845, and Estelle, born two years later. Unlike many French writers of the nineteenth century, Gautier earned his living solely from his writings. He developed the argument that art existed only for art’s sake. He stressed that the value of a literary work should be determined solely by aesthetic criteria. He was very interested in foreign cultures. He undertook extensive trips to Algeria, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Greece, Constantinople, and Russia and then published books on these trips. He died from heart problems in Paris on October 23, 1872.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1140
Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier was born on August 30, 1811, in Tarbes, a small town in southern France at the foot of the Pyrenees. His father, a minor government official, was transferred with his family from this provincial home on the frontier of Spain to the cosmopolitan bustle of Paris in 1814, when Gautier was not quite three years old. Tarbes made an indelible impression upon Gautier, who himself traced his wanderlust and his perpetual fascination with the exotic to a desire to recapture the idealized world of his early life at Tarbes.
In Paris, after an unsuccessful attempt to conform to the regimen of a boarding school, Gautier was enrolled as a day pupil at the Collège Charlemagne. There, his scholastic career prospered. His parents, particularly his father, were strongly supportive of their son’s interests, and Gautier was encouraged to develop an early talent for sketching by studying art in the studio of the painter Louis Édouard Rioult. Gautier’s years of study in the studio were to be of the greatest importance in his development as a writer.
While enrolled at the Collège Charlemagne and simultaneously studying with Rioult, Gautier met and befriended the precocious young writer Gérard de Nerval (who published his first collection of poetry at the age of seventeen and, in his twentieth year, published a translation of Faust much admired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). Nerval was one of the chief organizers of the pro-Romantic claque that was to attend the premiere of Victor Hugo’s drama Hernani at the Théâtre-Français on February 25, 1830, and he enlisted Gautier’s assistance as the head of a subsquad of Hugo supporters. The evening was destined to become a watershed in French theatrical history; it served to mark the “official” recognition of the Romantic movement in France. Gautier left a warm and lively account of that evening, which the French refer to as the “battle of Hernani.” The long-haired, outrageously attired young Romantics (Gautier would be known throughout his life for the gilet rouge, or red waistcoat, he wore that evening) applauded and cheered their hero, Hugo, while the old-guard neoclassicists hissed him down. The performance could barely proceed for the noise and interruptions, but somehow the new Romanticism triumphed.
Gautier and Nerval soon became involved with a group of young literary hopefuls who together formed a literary club, the petit cénacle (so called to distinguish it from the original Cénacle of the first-generation Romantics: Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Vigny, and Alfred de Musset). This “little club” was a flamboyant and colorful group, most of the members of which are now forgotten. In July, 1830, under the influence of his fellow members, Gautier’s first collection of verse, Poésies, appeared, containing poems which were clearly imitative of the established poets of the first generation. It was not long, however, before Gautier began to write poetry and fiction critical of Romantic excess, and both Albertus and the short-fiction collection Les Jeunes-France are examples of this ironic, satirical vein.
The life span of the petit cénacle was quite short, but another, even more Bohemian and intellectually stimulating, “club” developed around a group of writers and artists who took up communal living in a slum area near the Louvre, in a cul-de-sac called the Impasse du Doyenné. Among Gautier’s comrades there were Nerval, Delacroix, Dumas, and Arsène Houssaye (the future director of the Théâtre-Français). It was among these artists that Gautier composed The Drama of Death, Mademoiselle de Maupin, and Les Jeunes-France, and his years among them were to mark the end of the more carefree, youthful stage of his career.
It soon became necessary for Gautier to take on the burden of providing for the financial security and comfort not only of himself but also of a number of dependents (including, at one time or other, his father and two sisters, two mistresses—Eugénie Fort and Ernesta Grisi—and three illegitimate children). In 1836, he accepted the post of art and theater critic for the Parisian newspaper La Presse (his first article was devoted to some paintings of Delacroix), thus inaugurating a long and often wearisome career as a journalist. Over the years, he contributed to several leading newspapers and journals, including Le Figaro, Le Moniteur universel, and Le Revue des deux mondes. Although he became a highly influential critic, Gautier never really enjoyed the work, ever resenting the time lost from the composition of poetry.
In 1840, Gautier made a trip to Spain on a quasi-business venture to buy rare books and artifacts to be resold at higher prices in France. The enterprise turned out to be a financial disaster, but it proved to be an inspirational gold mine for the poet—the travel book Voyage en Espagne (1843; Wanderings in Spain, 1853) and a collection of verse, España, were derived from this experience. The trip tempered Gautier’s rather idealistic vision of Spain, but it failed to cure him of his desire to travel. Future travels took him to Italy, the Middle East, North Africa, and, twice, to Russia. Each major trip resulted in a travel book, which, besides serving the purpose of a guidebook, served as a record of Gautier’s perceptions and personal development.
During the last twenty years of his life, Gautier was involved with a number of mistresses, most seriously with Ernesta Grisi, the famous contralto, who was mother of his two daughters. Gautier had earlier become infatuated with Ernesta’s sister, the celebrated ballerina Carlotta Grisi. His love for Carlotta was unrequited, but they remained lifelong friends; for her, he created the title roles in the ballets Giselle and La Péri (1843). It was Ernesta, however, who provided the background of domestic peace in which Gautier could work freely. He soon became a Parisian literary lion and received the title of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. He became a favorite of the literary salons, particularly those of Madame Sabatier, of the actress Rachel (Elisa Felix), and of Princess Mathilde. The last named was to prove a most generous friend and benefactor, appointing Gautier as her personal librarian at a time of great financial difficulty for the poet, who was nearly destitute and suffering from the privations of the Franco-Prussian War. Over the years, Gautier developed many binding friendships both within and outside the literary world and became well respected for his affection, concern, even-temperedness, and generosity. Rarely has a literary figure received such tributes for both artistic and personal qualities. The most important artistic endeavor of his last twenty years was the composition of a final collection of poems, Enamels and Cameos. After contending with a variety of illnesses, including several heart attacks, Gautier died in Paris at the age of sixty-one and was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre.
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