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.
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.
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.
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.