Théophile Gautier 1811–1872
(Full name Pierre Jules Thdophile Gautier) French poet, novelist, novella writer, short story writer, critic, travel writer, and dramatist.
Gautier, or "le bon Théo" ("the good Théo"), as he was often called, is regarded as one of the most popular literary figures of nineteenth-century France. His poetic work is noteworthy both for its complete engagement with important artistic revolutions of its age—shifting from passionate Romanticism to urbane aestheticsm to Parnassian formalism—and for its singular devotion to the themes and techniques of literary decadence, including the intimate connection of death and the erotic, exoticism, self-conscious narration, and allusiveness. Opposed to philistinism and utilitarianism, all of Gautier's work displays a love for material beauty and extravagance, a love of art not for the sake of any use, but a love of, as Gautier noted, "l'art pour l'art," "art for art's sake."
Born in Tarbes, a city in the Pyrenees of southwest France, Gautier soon after moved with his family to Paris, where he would live—except for occasional travels—for the rest of his life. At age eleven, Gautier began attending the Lycée Charlemagne, where he met and befriended Gerard Labrunie, who would later become the writer known as Gerard de Nerval. During this time, Gautier studied painting and began writing poems. Although, in 1829, Gautier gave up painting and embraced the literary life after being introduced to Victor Hugo by Nerval, his passions for visual beauty and for visual description in writing—especially the "transposition d'art" ("transposition of art"), the depiction in writing of a painting or a sculpture—would become hallmarks of his literary works. As an advocate of Romanticism, Gautier—long-haired and dressed in his signature, flamboyant, "rouge gilet" ("red waistcoat")—led efforts to oppose classicists and to promote Romantic drama in the "Battle of Hernani." In 1831, with Nerval and other artist/bohemians, Gautier formed the "Petit Cenacle," and later "Groupe du Doyenne," groups dedicated to Romanticism and to unsettling the sedentary bourgeoisie with eccentric behavior. Eventually, however, Gautier realized a need for steady income and employment. In 1835, he began his career as a journalist, and was employed as an art and drama critic for various Parisian newspapers for the rest of his life. Although his reviews were held in high regard, Gautier viewed his journalism as an impediment that kept him from literature, which he believed to be his life's true work. The monotony of work
was occasionally broken by travel, including trips to Spain, Italy, Russia, and the Middle East, and was assuaged by romantic liasons and a passionate, though unrequited, love for the ballerina Carlotta Grisi. Although not actively engaged in politics, Gautier's health was adversely affected by the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870 and the turmoil which followed. Gautier died of heart disease in 1872.
Released during the July Revolution in 1830, the publication of Gautier's Poésies (1830; Poems), a collection of standard themes in standard verse, went virtually unnoticed. His next collection, Albertus ou l'ame et le péché (1833; Albertus, or the Soul and the Sin), included work from Poésies, new poems in the same mode, and a long, narrative poem, "Albertus," which parodied the satanism then fashionable in literature. Though self-referential and often humorous, "Albertus" introduces the themes of the prominence of art and the spectacle of death which would guide Gautier's writing through La comédie de la Mort (1838; The Comedy of Death) and España (1845; Spain), a collection of poems inspired by a five-month trip through Spain. In his last—and what many consider his most important—collection, Emaux et camées (1852-translated as Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems, 1903), Gautier's poetry changes profoundly, becoming compact and chiselled, treating, as Gautier said, "tiny subjects in a severely formal way."
Although Charles Baudelaire dedicated his Les fleurs du mal to "the impeccable poet, the gentle enchanter of French letters … Théophile Gautier," and although at the time of his death eighty fellow writers composed poems in honor of him, Gautier's position as one of the major poets of nineteenth-century France is currently considered questionable. While many critics note the influence of Gautier's impersonal, formal ideals on Parnassians, Acmeists, and Modernists, including T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, most believe either that Gautier's poetry simply lacks the profound intensity and spirit—as found in the work of Baudelaire—which is necessary to make poetry great, or that the poetry actively suffers from being mere stylism and escapism. Influenced by deconstructivist theory, some more recent criticism has attempted to excavate the seductive elements of Gautier's self-aware, ironic, and distanced poetry.