May 19, 2020

Charles Baudelaire – An Art Criticism by Amanda Grafe

Charles Baudelaire – An Art Criticism by Amanda Grafe

Editor’s Note: This work was borne from a conversation about art criticism between Amanda, an artist and Fictional Café’s fine arts barista, and myself over lunch in a Chinese restaurant last winter in Providence, Rhode Island. (The restaurant shall remain nameless, as the conversation was much better than the food.) We tended to agree that contemporary art criticism, as well as literary criticism, had both lost much of their moorings as expressions of Aristotelian criticism.  We resolved to study this anachronism further.  

We decided to read and write about the art criticism of the French poet, essayist and libertine Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Our source was the book Charles Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature (New York: Penguin Classics, 2006). Baudelaire is best remembered for his highly controversial poetry collection, Les Fleurs du Mal, and for translating Edgar Allen Poe into French, yet while alive he was also highly regarded for his incisive writing about art. He favored Romanticism in the arts and attended many annual art exhibits in Paris known as Salons. “The Salon of 1846” was the second salon Baudelaire wrote about. What Amanda and I set out to do, individually, was to write critiques of Baudelaire’s art criticism.  

Amanda has finished hers, and what you read here is the result. It is, in my opinion, a work that embodies a great deal of thoughtful analysis. It is not derivative for being a critique of a critique and in that regard, it is an exemplary work of art criticism that stands on its own.  — Jack 


Before Charles Baudelaire’s “The Salon of 1846,” or any creative expression (art, literature, music, etc.) of the mind, can be reviewed, the reviewer must know certain elements which are not easily discerned. The more the reviewer understands these elements, the more valid the review becomes. The reviewer must be aware of the following if the review is to be regarded as authentic: one, the subject’s social, political, and economic environment; two, the genetic predisposition, or temperament and personality, of its artist/creator; and three, the sensory and mental interaction between subject and reviewer which shed light on observations, opinions or philosophies of the artist/creator.  

Within these three criteria lie factors that are unknown to both the reviewer and the creator, or known only  to the reviewer, or known only to the artist/creator. Each of these are likely colored by the uniqueness of either party. With this in mind, a review of most works of art can only be as pure as the reviewer’s understanding of it. If no reviewer is omnipotent, the review must be written within the best of the reviewer’s capabilities, keeping in mind things within the reviewer’s control such as those things known to the reviewer.  A review—meaning a formal assessment or examination with the intention of alteration or a critical critique—its very definition further complicates the idea of a review. The reviewer must consider all these aforementioned criteria and prerequisites and turn them on the system in which the reviewer is choosing to critique. It then must be decided whether such a critique is a suitable match for what is being critiqued. Since a reviewers’ biases are carried throughout ages and are impossible to completely shed, one must always consider their inclination toward or away from the reviewer’s intent.  

The reviewer cannot know all factors which contributed to the creation of a work and the full purpose it was intended to serve,  or whether the system being used to critique it is inherently flawed and if so to what extent.  Even when all these concerns have been dealt with as best one can, it is incumbent on the reviewer to attempt a critical analysis, as in the case of Baudelaire’s “The Salon of 1845.” The work is entitled “To the Bourgeois” and structured into sections (this review covers only the first three). This critique is written as a synopsis and a dissection of each section, followed by a conclusion.  

Baudelaire as Baudelaire 

Before delving into the critique itself, our attention must first focus on the climate in which Baudelaire wrote this salon.  France, 1846: The Salon was a a special event intended to give credibility to an artist whose paintings were on display. Art was curated based on the merit ascribed to it by those who considered themselves art authorities. For an artist, achieving entry into this show might be, in the worst case, a life or death situation. These self-apointed critics were not always particularly kind, especially to impressionists such as Eugene Delacroix, whom Baudelaire believed deserved the highest praise.  

Since the Salon had established itself as the highest recognition that could be bestowed on an artist, it is not unreasonable to see why Baudelaire would write under the title “The Salon of 1846” in an attempt to alter the current hierarchy. Baudelaire himself had a long history fighting against authority. He clashed with his stepfather, who was a military man and would later fight in the French Revolution. Some themes throughout “The Salon of 1846” were anti-establishmentarianism, the use of emotion in the evaluation of art, beauty and pleasure, praise for impressionism, and criticism of technique. Therefore, it was no surprise to which social group Baudelaire dedicated this essay. 

 To The Bourgeois  

To critique this portion of “The Salon of 1846” is unproductive as it accomplishes what it sets out to with ease. For this reason, To The Bourgeois will be summarized with limited analysis.  

Baudelaire’s “To The Bourgeois,” introduction attempts to appeal to the bourgeois, or middle class (as opposed to the highbrow art critics) by way of flattery and definition of terms. Baudelaire does this by defining criticism and what art should represent to the bourgeoisie, while allowing them, through his words, to have a sense of control and dominion over the fate of art. Baudelaire attempts to rearrange bourgeois values by offering—whether an illusion or not—the idea that art is a necessary part of a fulfilling (bourgeois) existence. It is art which evokes feeling, he suggests, which in turn leads to spiritual balance. In doing so, he portrays the monopolizers [of art], as those who have robbed the bourgeoisie of beauty and pleasure. Baudelaire continues to list the accomplishments of the bourgeois in the realm of art, and praises their contributions as they have allowed access to the arts to the masses.  For what Baudelaire’s addresssing the bourgeois is trying to accomplish, whether realistically effective or not, deigns to be a message destined to appeal to the ego of its intended recipients. The structure of his introduction is methodically and attractively laid out; Baudelaire begins with fawning, follows with instruction, then closes with gratitude. Though the flamboyancy in which it is written sacrifices sincerity, it is nonetheless attractive for those who seek reassurance of self-importance. Notably, Baudelaire does not displace himself as the authority on subjects forthcoming. His gratitude, and perhaps even humility, as mentioned above, only surface in reference to preceding deeds of the bourgeois, which are not intimately related to anticipated topics and, therefore, of no threat to the legitimacy of Baudelaire’s pedagogies. 

The entire assemblage gives the illusion that the bourgeois have mistakenly failed to take advantage of some of their power in relation to the progress and enjoyment of art and that Baudelaire, himself, is simply a whistleblower. Yet, Baudelaire’s writing is filled with subtle direction masquerading as flattery and is not quite as innocent as simply making his readers aware of their unintentional folly. To begin “The Salon of 1846” with this type of appeal could be considered a stroke of genius, as it is intended to soften the reader, rendering them more susceptible to agreeing with Baudelaire’s approaching ideals.  

“I. The Good of Criticism 

In “What Is The Good of Criticism?” Baudelaire attempts to answer this question by challenging the importance of criticism and then classifying its forms. In this instance, Baudelaire finds that cold, analytical criticism pales when compared with criticism stemming from emotion. The superior type of criticism, Baudelaire proposes, is one ultimately based in emotion. Baudelaire’s definition of criticism is as follows: “. . .criticism must be partial, passionate, political, adopt an exclusive point of view, provided always the one adopted opens up the widest horizons.” (p. 50) This definition seems to contradict itself, as each expression that seems to imply disharmony can conceivably co-exist — but to what extent? Baudelaire uses his final paragraphs to comment on beauty, morality and on the importance that the critic and artist should be passionate in both the evaluation and creation of art.  

Here can be seen more clearly the contrast between Baudelaire’s views and modern Western views on criticism. Currently, Western society holds that criticism must be void of many of the values Baudelaire stresses it must contain. As in the recent twenty-first century, acceptable criticism presents as logical and impartial. Emotion enters only in its delivery, in which the feelings of those receiving the criticism must be dealt with sensitively. It must contain also what is inherent in criticism: a goal directed at positive change, honing of skill, or improvement in idea and presentation. The validity of such criticism lies not with the passion behind it, but, contrary to Baudelaire’s belief, with how well the criticism achieves its ends. In the context of “What Good is Criticism?” Baudelaire’s definition of criticism is not without merit when tethered to the subject for which Baudelaire has set his criteria: art. If the value and purpose of the subject being evaluated lie in the emotion with which it is fabricated and evokes more of the same, then judging it as in keeping with emotion is consistent (if not logical). However, the problem that arises is Baudelaire must first convince his readers that emotion and its relation to art is indeed what he claims it to be.  

II. Romanticism 

In Baudelaire’s section “What is Romanticism,” Baudelaire’s artistic preferences become further transparent, while his contempt towards the contrary are reiterated. Baudelaire attempts to balance the idea that beauty and pleasure are the meaning of art with the more popular view that art is a representation of morality. His ideas about criticism are further explored in this section. Baudelaire insists, “Romanticism and modern art are one in the same thing: intimacy, spirituality, color, yearning for the infinite,” (p. 53) and the evaluation of either leads inevitably to the metaphysical, yet again connecting art with a higher purpose. Baudelaire, who believes that continual progress in the arts means that the world not be held back by old ideas and techniques, must consider progress synonymous with modernity. Towards the latter part of this section, Baudelaire begins to contrast the north and south of the region and reveals his favoritism toward impressionist painters.  

Though the section on Romanticism is short, it is important to Baudelaire’s overall argument. Baudelaire uses the term Romanticism and its association with idealism and emotion, and synonymously with modern art, which Baudelaire believes to be the epitome of progress in painting. This is important, because it stresses the idea that progress, the very idea that drives human evolution, is measured by emotion. Emotion, which Baudelaire assigns as art’s primary purpose, is therefore necessary if one wishes to advance. Neither one can exist without the other. Making them contingent upon one another under the definition of modern art aids Baudelaire’s agenda in his classification of accepted technique (how the draughtsman actually creates art) as past and what Baudelaire deems important as present. Enter Impressionism, and with it the legitimacy of Baudelaire’s criteria for artistic evaluation.  

III. Colour 

 In “Colour,” Baudelaire provides a rather impressive narrative of its place in art. He begins by describing a landscape as it is seen in all its hues, then moves on to the human from. Continuing to a woman’s hand, which he insists contains hues beyond the perception of the human eye, not just of white but of reds and blues. To Baudelaire, color means two tones (one warm, one cool) and their relationship to each other. He praises nature in its ability to perfectly represent these shades, but gives equal accolades to the trained colorists. The style and feeling represented in color comes from choices based within the artist’s temperament, according to Baudelaire, and leads to its melody. The melody is the color scheme, which can be best seen in its greatness when the viewer stands at a further distance. Then, a posed question: can a colorist be also a great draughtsman? Baudelaire, perhaps, attempts to be fair in his answer, though he obscures the question by differentiating the two styles of art and, as expected, exalting one over the other. The draughtsman (“with a keen eye for line”) excludes the superlatives of the colorist (“whose destiny is to express nature in colour). (p. 58.) The colorist does not exclude lines but exceeds them: the superlatives of the draughtsman. Baudelaire finishes by hailing colorists as epic poets.  

Baudelaire’s section on colour may be his most eloquent observations thus far. His background as a poet, rather than a philosopher, may better serve his writing here. His description of color and how it creates images is beautiful in style and imagination. Yet, Baudelaire does not squander this moment without further insulting the draughtsman and his technique. This is a theme continually seen in previous sections as expressed by Baudelaire in his favoring of emotion over technique. One of Baudelaire’s most intriguing and underhanded points implies that technique, as it is applied to color, will always be an abstraction because only nature can account for every molecule of color. This idea caters once again to impressionist styles, while shying away from draughtsman lines. Though Baudelaire does not expressly say that color and technique are mutually exclusive, but it is no secret to which his favor gives precedence.  


It is the opinion of this reviewer that although Baudelaire’s writing has merit for what it is, there are some flaws in his opinions and perceptions. Art cannot be evaluated based purely on a set of boxes to be checked off and universally applied. To do so would be insulting to the very practice of its creation and the subjectivity in which it exists. What art means to each individual gives birth to their own standards by which to critique, which is why some may prefer their houses filled with abstractions while others favor finely painted portraits. To restrict the criteria is to control not the reaction of the viewer, which is inherently sparked by observation, but rather to judge and condemn it so that it is shamed into conformity.   

Like many authors, Charles Baudelaire was a product of his time, attempting to further his agenda with passion within the trajectory of that which he deemed to be right. His opinions, thoughts and beliefs have been influential, or at least of interest, to many throughout history.  Whether such ideals can be collectively applied or should be adhered to is best determined within the scope of freedom of thought for those who choose to believe either or none. Regardless of which side one delights on, most would agree Baudelaire’s “The Salon of 1846” left its mark on the world of art and those who continue to study it.    


Charles Baudelaire

Amanda’s first book was published when she was just eighteen years of age. She believes in making the world a better place through understanding, kindness and access to the arts. Amanda is a member of aforementioned the Association of Rhode Island Authors and enjoys spreading the word about new and emerging artists. You can learn more about her at her website. This is her first feature on The Fictional Café.

Fictional Cafe
#art criticism#baudelaire#france#romanticism#the salon of 1846
1 comment
  • David says:

    An interesting article, thank you.
    I would like to know more about these thoughts:
    “the idea that progress, the very idea that drives human evolution, is measured by emotion. Emotion, which Baudelaire assigns as art’s primary purpose, is therefore necessary if one wishes to advance.”

    What does is meant by progress measured by emotion?
    What is meant by emotion as art’s primary purpose? Does it mean the work itself being emotionally expressive or is the work valued by the viewer’s emotional reaction? As no work could be said to be purely emotive- it depends on the viewer’s subjective reaction- wouldn’t that suggest that Baudelaire is offering a critique of art as being a subjective phenomenon rather than a checklist of elements?

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