Charles Baudelaire: The Tortured Soul Who Inspired Modernism

I’ve never been into the arts.

I have always been far more interested in history. In the course of my research, I have become increasingly convinced that each age of history is dominated by its zeitgeist which is the creation of a small group of elites who dream a big idea. It can be artists, poets, novelists, theologians, philosophers, psychologists. They are the creators of culture. They create the idea and the sensibility which enchants and dominates entire centuries or longer which gradually works itself out over time and trickles down to the masses.

The name that continues to pop up the most as the inspiration of Modernism is Charles Baudelaire who first used the term modernité to describe “the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility of artistic expression to capture that experience.”


“In his essay The Painter of Modern Life,Charles Baudelaire defines modernity by examining the interrelations of beauty, fashion, and lifestyle through the eyes of an artist. He sees beauty and modernity as intertwined, defining beauty as “made up of an eternal, invariable element…and of a relative circumstantial element.” Modernity is this inconstant element, the “ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is eternal and immutable.” Baudelaire believes that an artist can learn technical skills from old masters, but to make art beautiful, he or she must understand the nature of “present-day beauty.” The beauty of modernity, comes from “its essential quality of being present.” In other words, its inconsistency, its variableness in each moment. The ability to capture the beauty of the present day, Baudelaire claims, will ultimately make art “worthy of antiquity.” He suggests that artists break away from the academic style of painting (i.e. classical scenes in classical clothes), for the reason antiquity resonates with us today is that it was able to capture the beauty of its time. He claims that late 19th century artists cannot secure their place in history by painting someone else’s present. …”

To every age its own art.

This is straight from Baudelaire.

The Conversation:

“In fact, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) could easily qualify as the template goths (and other bohemians) aspire to. He often dressed in black, dyed his hair green, and rebelled against the conformist, bourgeois world of mid-19th century Paris in both his personal life and his art.

His first collections of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), was prosecuted for offending public morals, challenging its audiences with its startling treatments of sex, Satanism, vampirism and decay. No wonder his words would one day be set to music by The Cure.

Aside from his writing, Baudlaire’s dissolute life was a checklist of boho credentials. He fell out with his family. He went bankrupt. He pursued reckless sexual experiments and contracted syphilis. He developed a drug habit. He associated with artists, musicians, writers and petty criminals rather than “respectable” people.

He outraged his family by having a mistress who was mixed race and probably illiterate. He refused conventional employment and made a precarious living as a writer, critic and occasional art dealer.

He wrote poetry which was prosecuted for obscenity and was adored by like-minded souls throughout Europe while being hated, even feared, by “straight” society. And then he died young, after years of serious illness and addiction, at the age of 46.

The following excerpt comes from American Salons: Encounters With European Modernism, 1885-1917:

“Modernism in the arts had its first stirrings in France. As romanticism ran its course, various individuals developed certain of its tendencies to extremes. In the 1830s, Théophile Gautier extolled the connections between beauty and uselessness and dismissed much of common existence as unworthy of existence. In the 1840s, Henri Murger first gave shape to the notion that true fulfillment only came in bohemian groups of friends, living for the moment and heedless of bourgeois norms of religion and morality. In the 1850s, Charles Baudelaire made poetry and criticism the central focus. He rejected the assumption that material progress would lead to moral progress, insisted on his right to see beauty in evil and to make art of corrupt material, defended the use of drugs that would heighten consciousness, and made the artist and his relation to the world a primary theme of art.”

Charles Baudelaire was a complex figure.

He has more to do with the spirit of our own times than John Locke. He translated Edgar Allan Poe into French and later became obsessed with Joseph de Maistre. What do you know about him?

Modernism isn’t a system. It is a sensibility and way of life. Baudelaire’s irresponsible libertine lifestyle is certainly familiar.

About Hunter Wallace 12366 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. “He fell out with his family. He went bankrupt. He pursued reckless sexual experiments and contracted syphilis. He developed a drug habit. He associated with artists, musicians, writers and petty criminals rather than “respectable” people . . . He outraged his family by having a mistress who was mixed race and probably illiterate. He refused conventional employment” – In other words, he would have fit in well with today’s Antifa and all the pierced, blue-haired freaks who are parading about on America’s streets.

    God, I despise these type of people.

    • Ambrose- you’re missing one thing. Baudelaire had talent. Today’s freaks have nothing but their Freakishness, and that’s it. As a friend of mine once trenchantly observed, “Just because you are a man who commits fellatio on another man, doesn’t make you an ‘artist.’ It merely makes you a pervert.’

  2. In Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow there is an hallucinatory character called Kenosha Kid. Well worth a read. Given the literary references.

  3. Baudelaire is at best a fringe character. Only the University of Chicago could find him of interest.

    A more interesting French early modern would be Claude Monet.

  4. Though I can’t find it via Google now, I’m pretty sure I read, somewhere on the internet–more than a decade ago, probably–a piece in which pop singer Donovan observed that, in the ’60s, the “modern art lifestyle,” as he put it, spread to the masses. He himself had more than a little to do with that:

    As I’ve mentioned here, at Occidental Dissent, my high-school and undergraduate years extended from 1967-75, which is to say, I came of age as America and, indeed, all Western Civilization seemed to change each time one turned the car radio on (no pun intended). My coevals and I entered adolescence in one America and emerged into manhood in another.

  5. Significant hint above, when Hunter speaks of the fascination of Baudelaire (1821-1867) with the writings of the ultra-Roman-Catholic-papist Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), the latter an early promoter of the idea that the Vatican Pope was ‘infallible in matters of faith’ as the Vatican declared in 1870.

    Despite the seeming paradox of common ground between the ultra-Catholic de Maistre and the ultra-modern Baudelaire, both were deeply obsessed with a lot of gory disturbing things about ‘evil’, perversions of mind, and horrible sin and its consequences

    It is noteworthy that this kind of ‘satanic’ thematic can be carried on either as a Bible-reading church guy promoting civic or religious authority, or a loose-living degenerate

  6. I enjoy the discussion on the origins of modernism, and although I can agree with Baudelaire’s sickness, I still enjoy his poetry. He’s like verse on LSD, and such arresting images. The French is especially beautiful, but here’s verse two from The Cats:
    ‘The friends of learning and of ecstasy,
    They seek the silence of forbidding shades;
    Hell would have chosen them as sombre steeds,
    If they were not too proud for slavery.’

    or Sorrows of the Moon:
    ‘Takes in his hand this pale and furtive tear,
    This opal drop where rainbow hues appear,
    And hides it in his breast far from the sun.’

    Or The Albatross:
    ‘The Poet’s like the monarch of the clouds
    Who haunts the tempest, scorns the bows and slings;
    Exiled on earth amid the shouting crowds,
    He cannot walk, for he has giant’s wings.’

    Baudelaire also had a lot to do with bringing Poe to France and Europe, and Poe’s morbidity found sa kinsman in Baudelaire. That we remember Poe as much as we do is partly thanks to Baudelaire.

    Our own modernist verse is pretty bad. Ginsberg is disgusting, but you can argue he’s only the end result of Baudelaire. Certainly the romantic spirit began this inner desolation. As Goethe said, what is classical is healthy, and what is romantic is sick.

    I’d rather say this century is like the Hellenistic age, where we changed from civic duty and societal good to imperial desires and comfort, urban growth, and a love of exoticism.
    certainly you look at much of Picasso, for example, and see worship of African art and mentality, and a dozen other such artists.

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