Théophile Gautier Gautier, Théophile (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Théophile Gautier 1811-1872

French poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, travel writer, and dramatist.

For further information on Gautier's works and career, see .

One of the most highly respected literary figures of his time, Gautier played a prominent role in the Romantic movement of the 1830s. Although primarily a poet and a novelist, Gautier made many other contributions to nineteenth-century literature. He was a leader in the "art for art's sake" movement, and his preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835-36) stands as the manifesto of this doctrine, which claims that art has no other aim and no other morality than the creation of beauty. Gautier also wrote highly praised travel books, ballets, and plays, and was an influential critic of literature and the arts.

Biographical Information

Born in 1811 in southwestern France, Gautier moved with his family three years later from Tarbes to Paris, where he would live for the rest of his life. While a student at the Collège Charlemagne, Gautier met his lifelong friend, French poet Gérard de Nerval. It was Nerval who introduced him to Victor Hugo, a French novelist who had a great influence on Gautier's life and work. During this time Gautier gave up his early ambitions as a painter and began writing poetry. He became part of the Petit Cénacle, a group of artists and writers—which included Nerval, Pétrus Borei, and Auguste Maquet—who delighted in shocking the middle class. Gautier earned his scandalous reputation during this period with the publication of his first novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, which not only celebrates a pagan ideal and an ambiguous morality, but contains erotic elements as well. Gautier soon found that the income from his creative writing could not support his lifestyle, and he turned to journalism for financial help. Even though he was never happy as a journalist, his theater and art columns at the Presse and the Moniteur Universel, among others, placed him among the most influential critics of the period. Also, it was as a journalist that Gautier was able to travel throughout Europe. These journeys not only gave him the inspiration to write his highly praised travel books, but also provided material for his poetry and fiction. Gautier's downward spiral began in 1870, during the political and civil strife caused by the Prussian siege of Paris. The combination of financial problems, professional uncertainties, domestic displacements, and deteriorating health all contributed to Gautier's death in 1872.

Major Works

Gautier wrote during a time marked by inventive diversity. Many authors were experimenting with different genres, and Gautier stood out among them. He wrote travel literature, criticism, and dramas in addition to his fictional works (which included novels, novellas, and short stories) and poetry. His most unusual achievement was Giselle, ou les Wilis (1841), one of the most popular ballets of all time. Gautier wrote Giselle for the dancer Carlotta Grisi, in whom he saw both the perfect dancer and the perfect woman. However, like most of the heroes in his fictional works, he never gained her affection or realized his ideal. The conflict between the ideal and reality is a recurring theme in Gautier's writing. His heroes are constantly reaching for the unattainable, but reality stands in the way of their goals. In his first novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, D'Albert seeks an ideal beauty, while Madelaine de Maupin seeks the ideal of unswerving love. The story ends unhappily, with both characters failing to achieve their ideals. This theme also plays out in Gautier's "fantastic" works, which depict the intrusion of supernatural phenomena into a fictional universe. The fantastic beings in Gautier's works often serve as symbols of his heroes' ideals. For example, in "Arria Marcella" (1852), the hero finds himself in love with a ghost, the beautiful Arria Marcella, who died in Pompeii during the eruption of Vesuvius. Although Gautier had many achievements in a variety of genres, it is his poetry that created a niche for him during his own time. His famous poem "L'art" (1857) became the creed of the Parnassian poets, and his most celebrated volume of poetry, Emaux et camées (1852), went through an exceptional six editions in twenty years.

Critical Reception

Early critics were slow to recognize Gautier's works. In fact, he gained little recognition until the controversy over the immorality of his series of articles (later to be collected in Les Grotesques, 1844) and the success of his first novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, brought him into the spotlight. Once there, Gautier began to earn a reputation based purely on literary merit. His writing attracted praise from his peers; Charles Baudelaire, in his dedication of Les Fleurs du mal (1857), revealed the veneration in which Gautier the poet was held: "To the impeccable poet, to the perfect magician in letters, to my dear and revered master and friend Théophile Gautier, with the deepest humility I dedicate these sickly flowers." As a journalist, Gautier acquired an even greater reputation as one of the major critics of his day. It was this combination of success as journalist, novelist, and poet that positioned him as a key figure in mid-century France. Today, however, Gautier is one of the least read of all the great nineteenth-century French writers. He has been criticized for neglecting plot and character, and many commentators have felt his use of extensive description often caused his narratives to lack cohesion. André Gide has asserted that Gautier's poetry had no depth and was "blind to everything but the exterior world." William C. Mead has similarly argued that Gautier had no originality and "contented himself for the most part with other peoples' ideas, and in particular with the ordinary 'romantic' ideas." However, not all modern critics agree with such assessments. Many scholars have claimed that Gautier is undervalued and that his work possesses an intrinsic and historical significance. Marcel Voisin, for example, has contended that Gautier deserves a place among the major authors of French literature, stating, "Thanks to his literary achievements, Théophile Gautier, by revealing himself to us, all of himself, speaks to us about ourselves, our anxieties and our hopes, about human beings eternally divided between the sunlight and the night.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Poésies (poetry) 1830

*Albertus, ou l'âme et le péché (poetry) 1833 Les Jeunes-France, romans goguenards, suivis de contes humoristiques [The Young-France, Stories in a Jesting Manner] (satire) 1833

Mademoiselle de Maupin (novel) 1835-36 [Mademoiselle de Maupin, 1890]

L'Eldorado (novella) 1837; also published as Fortunio, 1838 [Fortunio, 1915]

La Comédie de la mort [The Comedy of Death] (poetry) 1838

**Une larme du diable [A Tear Shed by the Devil] (short story) 1839

Giselle, ou les Wilis [with Vernoy de Saint-Georges] (ballet scenario) 1841

Tra los montes (travel essay) 1843; also published as Voyage in Espagne, 1845 [Wanderings in Spain, 1853]

Les grotesques (criticism) 1844

España (poetry) 1845

Nouvelles (novellas) 1845

Zigzags (travel essays) 1845; also published as Caprices et zigzags (enlarged edition), 1852

Emaux et camées [Enamels and Cameos] (poetry) 1852

Italia (travel essay) 1852; also published as Voyage en Italie (enlarged edition), 1875 [Journeys in Italy, 1902]

***Un Trio de romans (novel and novellas) 1852

Constantinople (travel essay) 1853 [Constantinople of Today, 1854]

Les beaux-arts en Europe (criticism) 1855

Avatar (novel) 1857

Jettatura [The Evil Eye] (novel) 1857 [Jettatura, 1888]

Romans et contes (novels and short stories) 1857

Le roman de la momie (novel) 1858 [The Romance of the Mummy, 1882]

Histoire de l'art dramatique en France depuis vingt-cinq ans (criticism) 1858-59

Le Capitane Fracasse (novel) 1863 [Captain Fracasse, 1880]

Spirite, nouvelle fantastique [Spirite: A Fantasy] (novel) 1866

Voyage en Russie (travel essay) 1867 [A Winter in Russia, 1874]

Histoire du romantism (unfinished critical essay) 1872 [A History of Romanticism, 1900]

Théâtre (drama) 1877

The Works of Théophile Gautier. 24 vols, (novels, short stories, travel essays, criticism, drama, novellas, and poetry) 1900-03

The Romantic Ballet (criticism) 1908

Nouvelles (novellas) 1923

Poésies complètes. 3 vols. (poetry) 1932

Contes fantastiques (short stories) 1962

*This volume includes the material in Poésies.

**This volume also includes "La Morte amoureuse" ["The Dead Leman"].

***This volume contains "Arria Marcella."

F. C. de Sumichrast (essay date 1902)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theophile Gautier," in Captain Fracasse, by Theophile Gautier, translated by F. C. de Sumichrast, P. F. Collier & Son, 1902, pp. v-xxii.

[In the following essay, de Sumichrast examines Gautier's use of beauty, wit, picturesqueness, and realism in his works, particularly as seen in his novel Captain Fracasse. The critic also argues that although Gautier is perhaps one of the least recognized members of the Romanticist school, he is in fact "the soundest Romanticist and also the most typical Frenchman of them all."]

It is probable that to the average reader of French literature, whether in the original or in translations, the name of Théophile...

(The entire section is 5586 words.)

Horatio E. Smith (essay date 1917)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Brief-Narrative Art of Théophile Gautier," in Modern Philology, Vol. 14, No. 11, March, 1917, pp. 135-52.

[In the following essay,Smith compares the narrative processes of Gautier's short fiction to those of the short stories of Poe and of the nineteenth-century German nouvelle.]

When Maxime Du Camp affirms1 that Gautier is less of a romancier than a conteur, he is attempting to distinguish between these as between invention and imagination, arguing that whereas a roman is composed objectively, upon a deliberate plan, a conte or a nouvelle is subjective and spontaneous. This distinction, carried to its logical...

(The entire section is 7755 words.)

Aaron Schaffer (essay date 1928)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theophile Gautier and l'art pour l'art," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, October, 1928, pp. 405-17.

[In the following excerpt, Schaffer examines the aesthetic influence of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century French poets on Gautier's poetry.]

(The entire section is 2319 words.)

Joanna Richardson (essay date 1958)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Afterward in Theophile Gautier: His Life & Times, Max Reinhardt, 1958, pp. 278-90.

[In the excerpt below, Richardson maintains that since Gautier "was an artist and a poet, not a conventional journalist or critic . . . he gave journalism a new significance and a new status" by making his criticism "a work of literary art."]

Gautier's criticism is indeed (in Brunet's phrase) an organ of revivification; and it not only revivifies the drama, art and literature of the past but, as Gautier anticipated, it is a vast source of information about the arts, celebrities and events of the nineteenth century. Gautier's dramatic criticism reflects the French theatre from...

(The entire section is 3786 words.)

Albert B. Smith (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Function of the Fantastic," in Theophile Gautier and the Fantastic, Romance Monographs, Inc., 1977, pp. 118-38.

[In the excerpt that follows, Smith explores the fantastic in Gautier's works, including his use of various phenomena such as impossible events, dreams and hallucinations, and heightened expressivity.]

(The entire section is 6946 words.)

Rosemary Lloyd (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Rereading Mademoiselle de Maupin" in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 41, No. 1, 1986, pp. 19-32.

[Here, Lloyd examines the "underlying structures, the associated contrasts and parallels, and the cultural allusions" in Gautier's novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, contending that traditional readings of the work which compare Gautier and d'Albert overlook the novel's complexity and tension.]

For Sainte-Beuve 'la Bible du romantisme', described by R. Jasinski in 1929 as an 'œuvre plus célèbre que connue', considered by P. Albouy 'le roman de la contradiction, de toutes les contradictions', seen by A. Bouchard as an `ouvrage pour le moins composite, qui a...

(The entire section is 5881 words.)

Joan Driscoll (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Théophile Gautier's Voyage en Italie: The Description of Experience, or the Experience of Description," in Words of Power: Essays in Honour of Alison Fairlie, edited by Dorothy Gabe Coleman and Gillian Jondorf, The University of Glasgow Publications in Language and Literature, 1987, pp. 139-61.

[In the essay that follows, Driscoll discusses Gautier's detailed descriptions in his travelogue, Voyage en Italie, and attempts to distinguish between the two voices of the narratorthe journalist and the poet.]

In its earliest version, Gautier's account of his travels in Italy appeared in instalments in La Presse, beginning in September...

(The entire section is 8048 words.)

Melanie C. Hawthorne (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dis-Covering the Female: Gautier's Roman de la momie" in The French Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 5, April, 1993, pp. 718-29.

[In the following essay, originally presented in 1988 at the Southeast Conference on Foreign Languages and Literatures at Rollins College, Florida, Hawthorne analyzes the inaccuracies found in the prologue of Gautier's Le Roman de la momie and exposes the gender bias inherent in his descriptions.]

Théophile Gautier's Le Roman de la momie, once a canonical text of the French secondary school literature curriculum, is now seldom read, and then only as an illustration of aspects of Gautier's work developed...

(The entire section is 5948 words.)

Jessica R. Feldman (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paroles Hermaphrodites: Gautier's Dandy," in Gender on the Divide: The Dandy in Modernist Literature, Cornell, 1993, pp. 25-53.

[In the excerpt that follows, Feldman discusses Gautier's exploration of dandyism and gender in his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin.]


Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) came of age as a Romantic artist not when he fought the battle of Hernani in 1830 but when he realized that, by its principles of energy and change, Romanticism required its own transformation. As a member of le petit cénacle, a second-generation circle of Romantic artists, Gautier...

(The entire section is 6205 words.)

Constance Gosselin Schick (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Introduction: Facing Textuality," in Seductive Resistance: The Poetry of Théophile Gautier, Rodopi, 1994, pp. 1-7.

[In the excerpt below, Schick examines the aesthetics of Gautier's poems, noting that "Gautier's concept of poetry stresses the preeminence of words, of craft and of beauty."]

Poetry afforded Théophile Gautier his greatest pleasure as a writer. He repeatedly expressed his delight in what he referred to as a sculpturing in verse:

Les esprits qu'on est convenu d'appeler pratiques . . . n'auront pas connu leur [the poets'] pur enchantement: contempler la nature, aspirer à l'idéal, en sculpter la beauté dans...

(The entire section is 3304 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Grant, Richard B. Théophile Gautier. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975, 179 p.

Gives a broad overview of Gautier's life and works, while examining a few of his texts in detail.

Snell, Robert. Théophile Gautier: A Romantic Critic of the Visual Arts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, 273 p.

Offers an account of Gautier's career by trying "to arrive at an inside view of the man," in part by viewing him through a historical perspective.

Tennant, P.E. Théophile Gautier. London: Athlone Press, 1975, 149 p.


(The entire section is 660 words.)