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Théophile Gautier made significant contributions in several different fields. His importance as a literary critic was established by his 1844 book Les Grotesques (The Grotesques, 1900). He also wrote several works of long fiction, including Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835-1836; Mademoiselle de Maupin: A Romance of Love and Passion, 1887), Le Roman de la momie (1856; Romance of the Mummy, 1863), and Le Capitaine Fracasse (1863; Captain Fracasse, 1880).
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Théophile Gautier’s interests extended well beyond France. In his poems, short stories, and novels, he made judicious use of aspects of Spanish and North African cultures and thus enriched the French literary landscape. He composed in 1841 the libretto for the ballet Giselle: Ou, Les Wilis (Giselle: Or, The Wilis, 1970), which has become part of the canon of classical ballet. He wrote the first truly successfully fantastic short stories in French by combining elements of realism and the marvelous. He received the French Legion of Honor in 1858.
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Théophile Gautier was an immensely prolific writer with a widely diversified range of interests and concerns. Although he considered himself primarily a poet, he earned his living as a journalist for some forty years, contributing art, theater, and literary criticism to various newspapers and journals. Gautier’s art criticism is often eloquent and perceptive, anticipating the achievement of Charles Baudelaire. As an art critic, Gautier is notable for his early and passionate defense of such contrasting contemporary painters as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and for introducing the French public to the works of such Spanish masters as Bartolomé Murillo, Diego de Velázquez, Jose de Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Francisco de Goya. Gautier’s theater criticism is especially voluminous, and, although only a small part of it is of continuing interest for its wit and stylistic verve, it is a remarkable quotidian document of the Parisian theatrical scene of the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to theater criticism, Gautier wrote a number of plays—some as a collaborator—none of which holds the stage today, even as a curiosity. More successful were his scenarios for a number of popular ballets, including the enduring favorite Giselle: Ou, Les Wilis (1841; Giselle: Or, The Wilis, 1970).
Of greater interest are Gautier’s works of literary criticism. Les Grotesques (1844; The Grotesques, 1900) is a collection of studies of then little-known French authors of the fifteenth through the mid-seventeenth centuries, originally published as a series of individual newspaper articles under the collective title “Exhumations littéraires.” The authors discussed (among them François Villon, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Théophile de Viau) were generally ignored or considered as naïfs in the early part of the nineteenth century, and Gautier played an important role in the rise of their reputations. Additionally, Gautier wrote several perceptive, if somewhat biased, appreciations (amounting to monographs) of such contemporaries as Gérard de Nerval, Honoré de Balzac, and Baudelaire, and he began Histoire du Romantisme (History of Romanticism, 1900), which remained unfinished because of his death but was published posthumously in 1874.
Gautier was also a passionate traveler, and he left a number of perceptive and entertaining travelogues of visits to Spain, Italy, the Middle East, and Russia. In the best tradition of travel literature, these works are more than simple guidebooks; they are accounts of the intellectual and spiritual voyages of an artist through the sometimes exotic sensibilities of foreign cultures.
The most significant literary genre to which Gautier contributed other than poetry was fiction—not only novels but also a considerable number of short stories, tales, and novellas. Many of these shorter works were originally published in newspapers and journals, and they typically deal with the fantastic (a popular subgenre of the early nineteenth century, exemplified by the tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe) or present exotic evocations of the Orient (not the Far East, as the modern reader might assume; for Gautier, the Orient was the Middle East). Of particular note is an early collection of tales, Les Jeunes-France: Romans goguenards (1833; liberally translated as “the new French generation,” a title referring to a popular name accorded to the second generation of French Romantic writers and painters). Significantly, Gautier was one of the first Romantics to cast a critical look at Romanticism, and three of the six tales in Les Jeunes-France are delightful out-and-out parodies of Romantic emotional excess and literary paraphernalia.
Gautier also wrote three novels: Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835-1836; Mademoiselle de Maupin: A Romance of Love and Passion, 1887), Le Roman de la momie (1856; The Romance of the Mummy, 1863), and Le Capitaine Fracasse (1863; Captain Fracasse, 1880). To some extent, all three are variations of the popular historical romance as exemplified by the novels of Sir Walter Scott or, in France, by Alfred de Vignyrsquo;s 1826 novel, Cinq-Mars (English translation, 1847). The Romance of the Mummy is somewhat overburdened by minute technical detail, a quality that, along with a plot of more than usual improbability, has relegated the work to almost complete oblivion. Mademoiselle de Maupin is, on the other hand, possibly the best-known title in the Gautier canon. Its titular heroine (loosely based on an actual seventeenth century personality) is bisexual, not only an accomplished singer but also an adroit swordswoman who frequently dons male attire. The novel has been criticized for the flatness of its two other major characters, Albert and Rosette, as well as for a seeming reversal in the development of the heroine. Gautier quickly divested himself of the traditional apparatus of the historical novel and used the work as a vehicle for the exploration of the problem of identity: In one sense, the union of male and female in the person of the heroine serves as a metaphor for human perfection.
Finally, in Captain Fracasse (another manifestation of the early nineteenth century predilection for the early seventeenth century, the age of Louis XIII and Richelieu), in the tradition of Vigny’s Cinq-Mars and Alexandre Dumas, père’s Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers, 1846), Gautier again appropriated the apparatus and structure of the historical romance, in which complications are typically happily resolved. Gautier endows this “literary machine” with a number of ironic twists that play with the idea of the illusions and uncertainties of human existence, undermining the assumptions of the genre even as he demonstrates a dazzling mastery of its conventions. Captain Fracasse is considered by many critics as Gautier’s prose masterpiece.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580
Théophile Gautier was one of the most influential, as well as one of the few successful, poets of the second generation of French Romantics. His early poetry clearly demonstrates his debt to the greats of the first generation, but it did not take long for Gautier to establish his own voice and develop his own aesthetic (eclectic as it was). By mid-century, Gautier had become a leading literary figure, influential in his own right. His formulation of the theory of l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake), in which the value of art is determined solely by its capacity to create beauty, regardless of ethical or utilitarian considerations, was profoundly influential and produced ramifications beyond the borders of France (a major instance being the Aesthetic movement of late nineteenth century England, represented by such writers as Walter Pater, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Oscar Wilde).
As the doctrine of art for art’s sake eliminated ethics and social function as criteria for the making and criticism of art, it also tempered the vague notion of “imagination” with a concept of art as craft and discipline. In one literary review, Gautier was to state: “Art is beauty, the eternal invention of detail, the correct choice of words, the painstaking care of execution; the word ‘poet’ literally signifies ‘maker.’. . . Everything which is not well made does not exist.” As the prime spokesman for this reexamination of aesthetic principles, he evolved a concept in which literature might emulate the plastic arts (particularly sculpture) by being “chiseled,” “polished,” and “objective.” This notion was strongly advocated in Gautier’s final verse collection, Enamels and Cameos, but it was more consistently developed and perfected by the generation of poets who succeeded Gautier, the Parnassians (particularly Charles-Marie Leconte de Lisle and José-María de Heredia).
No major poet was more generous in acknowledging a debt to Gautier than was Charles Baudelaire. The latter’s masterpiece, Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil, 1909), was dedicated to Gautier: “the impeccable poet, the perfect magician . . . my very dear and most venerated master and friend.” Certain of Baudelaire’s concepts of the feminine ideal, death, and the “spleen of Paris” are easily traced back to the poetry of Gautier. There are similar debts in the works of such poets as Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Valéry.
Not the least of Gautier’s accomplishments was purely personal, for he was renowned for his friendships with many of the leading cultural and artistic personalities of his day, including Victor Hugo, Delacroix, Nerval, Baudelaire, Hippolyte Taine, the Goncourt, and Maxime Du Camp. At Gautier’s death, more than eighty poets from all over Europe contributed to a commemorative volume of poems in recognition of his place in French letters and his passionate commitment to art and beauty.
Assessing Gautier’s poetic achievement is problematic. If he was overpraised by his contemporaries and no longer seems the “impeccable poet” of Baudelaire’s dedication to Gautier in Flowers of Evil, he is surely underestimated today. His place as a transitional figure is clear; the influence of both his poetry and his ideas upon the course of French literature is undeniable; his influence outside his native country in the nineteenth century was not inconsiderable. In the history of Western culture, few have argued as eloquently as Gautier the notion that art is man’s supreme achievement, ennobling him, lifting him above the petty pursuits and scarring disappointments of human existence.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485
Bowman, Frank. French Romanticism. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. A thoughtful study which explores the importance of religion, eroticism, and psychological instability in numerous French works of short and long fiction written during the first half of the nineteenth century. Bowman’s remarks are very relevant to Gautier’s short stories.
Gordon, Rae Beth. Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. A solid analysis which examines the representation of obsessive behavior and sexual fantasies in fiction by Gautier and other nineteenth century French writers.
Gosselin Schick, Constance. Seductive Resistance: The Poetry of Théophile Gautier. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994. Schick’s exhaustive study begins with an analysis of the intextual repetition of Gautier’s poetry, the citations, imitations and transpositions which make evident the poetry’s displacement of the significant and the personal into aesthetic simulacra. The study covers each of Gautier’s five major collections and deals with the contextuality, the fetishism, and the eroticism revealed in a miscellany of poems.
Gosselin Schick, Constance. “Théophile Gautier’s Poetry as ‘Coquetterie posthume.’” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 20, nos. 1/2 (1992): 74-84. Insightful study of the treatment of death in Gautier’s late poetry. Describes the maturity that was generally lacking in his early poetry.
Grant, Richard B. Théophile Gautier. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Albeit somewhat dated, this book still remains one of the best introductions in English to the writings of Théophile Gautier. It includes an annotated bio-bibliography of primary works in French, English translations, and critical studies in both French and English.
Henry, Freeman. “Gautier/Baudelaire: Homo Ludens Versus Homo Duplex.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 25, nos. 1/2 (1996/1997). Baudelaire dedicated his 1857 book of poetry Flowers of Evil to Gautier. This essay examines how both poets created complex poems that permit several levels of interpretation.
Majewski, Henry F. “Painting into Text: Theophile Gautier’s Artistic Screen.” Romance Quarterly 47, no. 2 (Spring, 2000): 84-102. Examines one important aspect of the complex intertextual signs informing Gautier’s poetry. He proposes to study the function of painting in Gautier’s poetry as a kind of artistic screen.
Marino, Virginia M. “The Devil’s Discourse: The Meeting of Allegory and the Fantastic.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 31 (1997): 331-346. An insightful analysis of several short stories in which Gautier leaves it to the reader’s imagination whether there is a real or a supernatural explanation for strange occurrences.
Smith, Albert B. Théophile Gautier and the Fantastic. University, Miss.: Romance Monographs, 1977. A book- length study on the various types of seemingly inexplicable occurrences depicted in works of both short and long fiction written by Gautier. Includes a clear discussion of what the notion of the fantastic meant to Gautier.
Smith, Nigel E. “Gautier, Freud, and the Fantastic: Psychoanalysis avant la Lettre.” In Functions of the Fantastic, edited by Joe Sanders. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. A Freudian analysis of obsessive behavior and sexual fantasies in several short stories by Gautier.
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