World Literature

Theophile Gautier

 

BORN: 1811, Tarbes, France

DIED: 1872, Paris, France

NATIONALITY: French

GENRE: Fiction, poetry, drama

MAJOR WORKS:

Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835)

Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems (1852)

History of Romanticism (1874)

 

 

Theophile Gautier. Imagno / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Overview

Gautier’s extraordinary worship of beauty—physical, tangible, intellectual, and even moral—colors his work across a multitude of genres. Gautier’s importance as a writer comes from his strong belief that an artist should concern himself or herself only with portraying, to the best of his or her ability, the beauties of the art form itself. That belief became known in English as ‘‘art for art’s sake’’ and influenced an entire movement of writers in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Boarding School, Artistic Studies, and Meeting Victor Hugo. Gautier was born in Tarbes, in southwestern France, on August 30, 1811. When he was three years old, the family relocated to Paris, where his father, Pierre, took a post as a government official. At the age of eleven, the boy enrolled in the College Louis-le-Grand; then, after an unhappy experience as a boarding student there, he moved as a day student to the College Charlemagne. There, he met Gerard Labrunie, later known by his pen name, Gerard de Nerval, who became his lifelong friend. During this period, Gautier began to study painting and to write poetry. In 1829, Gerard introduced Gautier to the already-famous Victor Hugo. Dazzled by Hugo’s presence and position as leader of the new Romantic school, Gautier enthusiastically supported Hugo’s theatrical endeavors with his flamboyant behavior at the premiere of Hugo’s play Hernani (1830), a performance that marked victory in the campaign to gain critical respect for Romantic drama.

Shocking the Bourgeoisie. Gautier was now part of the Parisian literary and artistic bohemia. With Nerval, Petrus Borel, and other would-be artists and writers, Gautier formed the Petit Cenacle, delighting in a boisterously defiant campaign to ‘‘shock the bourgeoisie.’’ This group gradually merged into the so-called Groupe du Doyenne. New members joined in their free-living ways, their eager quest for critical recognition—on their own terms—and their continuing efforts to unsettle the middle class. Gautier was not above exploiting his bohemian associations. In The Young-France, Stories in Jesting Manner (1933), he evoked their escapades and their assaults on middle-class values, all the while poking fun at their more absurd eccentricities.

Career as a Critic. In 1836, having already displayed a solid knowledge of art and artistic technique in occasional critical articles, Gautier found a post as an art critic for Emile de Girardin’s new daily newspaper, the Presse. In 1837, with Nerval, he also began to share the duties of theater reviewer for the Presse. Gautier soon took over full responsibility for the theater column; every week for nineteen years, except for periods of absence now and then from Paris, he turned in to Girardin a review of current theatrical offerings.

Every spring, he produced a series of articles in which he critiqued the paintings and sculptures being exhibited in the annual Salon. Gautier held the two positions on the Presse until 1855, when he left his sometimes bumpy association with Girardin to take over the art and drama columns of the Moniteur Universel, the official newspaper of the French government. Here he remained until 1869, when he joined the new government-sanctioned daily, the Journal Officiel. His tenure there was short. With the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the French empire fell and the Journal Officiel ceased publication. Two independent dailies, however, the Gazette de Paris and the Commonweal, were happy to employ Gautier; he was able to pursue his journalistic work until a few months before his death in 1872.

Strained Familial Relations, Civil Strife, and Nostalgia. During Gautier’s last years, journalism became ever more tiresome. His refusal to approve his daughter Judith’s marriage in 1866 resulted in severely strained relations in his family. The Prussian siege of Paris in 1870 and the subsequent civil strife in 1871 brought physical trials, domestic displacements, fears for the safety of family members, and uncertainties in his professional life. His health was deteriorating. He sought escape not in exoticism, but in a nostalgic return to his festive days as a young partisan of the Romantic cause. He was writing his recollections of this happy time when he died on October 23, 1872. The unfinished History of Romanticism (1874) remains one of Gautier’s most precious legacies.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Gautier's famous contemporaries include:

Mark Twain (1835-1910): American author, best known for his novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).

Victor Hugo (1802-1885): French novelist and dramatist known for works like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1832) and Les Miserables (1862).

Emily Bronte (1818-1848): English novelist whose Wuthering Heights (1847) remains a popular choice for film adaptation.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859): French historian who documented and commented upon the rise in equality among the classes and focused specifically on democracy in America.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): British philosopher who championed the rights of women, in addition to writing extensively in defense of his philosophical system, utilitarianism, which emphasizes the importance of providing the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884): Austrian chemist whose study of pea plants ultimately led to our understanding of genetics.

 

Works in Literary Context

Gautier holds an important place in French letters as a transitional figure between Romanticism and realism. Beginning his career as an impassioned partisan of Victor Hugo, he ended his career as a close friend of Gustave Flaubert. Gautier’s proximity to other artists within the Groupe du Doyenne and other literary circles significantly influenced the trajectory of his work.

‘‘Art for Art’s Sake’’. Gautier’s rejection of an ideological mission in art and his call for a nonutilitarian outlook in the artist made him recognized as a leader in the ‘‘art for art’s sake’’ movement. His preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin stands as the principal manifesto of l’art pour l’art, with its uncompromising claim that art in whatever form has no other aim and no other morality than the creation of beauty.

Exoticism in Attention to Detail. Indeed, one of the most evident features in Gautier’s writings is exoticism defined by an incredible attention to detail. It may be contemporary, as in his evocations of the countries that he visited, or may involve an imaginative reconstruction of earlier times, like the world of ancient Greece or the age of Louis XIII. Whatever the time or place, Gautier situates his reader in a palpable world. He uses his background as an artist to describe cities, with their buildings, their monuments, and their street scenes, in minute detail. He celebrates ceremonies, processions, and crowd scenes, not forgetting to pay close attention to the smallest seam on his characters’ clothing. In his language, he is careful to correctly employ the technical vocabulary particular to the specific time, milieu, or activity he is trying to effectively represent.

Influence of Art for Art’s Sake. Gautier’s collection Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems went through an exceptional six editions in twenty years. Because of its visual inclination—its dedication to art for art’s sake— the collection inspired Charles Baudelaire to write his famous Flowers of Evil, released in 1909. Baudelaire dedicated his collection of poems to Gautier: ‘‘To the impeccable poet, to the perfect magician in letters, to my dear and revered master and friend Theophile Gautier, with the deepest humility I dedicate these sickly flowers.’’ When, at Gautier’s death, the editor Alphonse Lemerre invited contributions to a memorial volume honoring the author of Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems, no fewer than eighty contemporaries sent poems, among them the acknowledged greats of the day—Hugo, Charles-Marie-Rene Leconte de Lisle, Stephane Mallarme, and the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Further, his doctrine of ‘l’art pour l’arf—art for art's sake—is probably better known than Gautier himself.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The art for art's sake movement in literature was a reaction against the then-popular belief that art, both visual and literary, must contain some kind of moral or religious message to be meaningful. The adherents of the doctrine believe that art should be produced simply for the sake of art itself and emphasize the beauty of the art form over its social usefulness. Gautier's extensive critical and creative output helped popularize this view, but he was neither the first nor the greatest producer of art created for art's sake. Here are a few examples of work produced by likeminded artists:

''The Poetic Principle'' (1850, posthumous), an essay by Edgar Allan Poe. In this work, Poe argues that what people respond to most in poetry is not its message but the beauty of the poem itself,and that the best poem is written only for the poem's sake—a kind of precursor for the broader assertion that art should be produced for art's sake only.

Flowers of Evil (1857), a poetry collection by Charles Baudelaire. In this collection of poetry, as with many Baudelaire pieces, he conveys not the beauty of the world around him but rather vividly describes some of the vilest aspects of his subjects. As such, the text represents a different understanding of art for art's sake, one which strays into an overlapping literary movement called Decadence.

Whistler's Mother (1871), a painting by James Whistler. Whereas Gautier was often criticized for the excessive nature of his descriptions, this painting by Whistler, a strong proponent of art for art's sake, shows that beauty can consist of a simple portrait of one's mother.

''The Soul of Man Under Socialism'' (1891), an essay by Oscar Wilde. In this work, Wilde argues that when an artist attempts to conform to what is expected from his or her art form—in this context, the moral or religious— rather than following his or her own muse, he or she thereby loses the title ''artist.''

Eraserhead (1977), a film directed by David Lynch. This cult film utilizes the peculiar ability of film to seamlessly move between the dream world and the ''real'' world of its main character and, like Gautier's work, focuses on the images it presents over its narrative. The film represents a distinctively modern interpretation of the art movement that Gautier and Poe started over a century before its creation.

 

Works in Critical Context

Because of his exceptional flair for language, Gautier became one of the best-known authors of his day; his work, on the whole, was well-received and appreciated by his contemporaries for its artistic merit. French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire praised Gautier for his imagination, style, and passion for beauty, calling him finally ‘‘a perfect man of letters.’’. Gautier put his heart into his creative works. Though sometimes criticized for ignoring plot and character, he was acknowledged as a stylist for whom the evocation of natural beauty was paramount. ‘‘I am one for whom the visible world exists,'' he said, and for many modern critics this statement defines the limits of his artistic vision: His narrative coherence often suffers in order that he may give an exact description of a setting.

Modern Criticism: Gautier’s Dehumanization of Art. Critic Raymond Giraud finds that Gautier's dedication to art for art's sake, distances the writer from some of the mundane and even painful realities of life. In his article ‘‘Gautier’s Dehumanization of Art’’ (1963), published in L’Esprit Createur he writes, ‘‘The [art for art’s sake] doctrine of impassiveness has its positive side, its strong conviction of the intrinsic value of art; but it also could be a doctrine of retreat from the painfulness of life.’’ Similarly, critic Hilda Nelson argues that Gautier’s handling of past and present in his fantastical novels serve to neutralize time, decay, and death, thus preserving in art the ‘‘dreams that men create for their salvation and happiness.’’ In her article “Theophile Gautier: The Invisible and Impalpable World: A Demi- Conviction’’ (1972), published in The French Review, Nelson writes, ‘‘Gautier, too, became aware that desires and fears, the limitations of time and space, death and disintegration, could be resolved in the creative act, art, and that art alone was capable of reproducing, in permanent form, the dreams men create for their salvation and happiness.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Gautier’s work is often criticized for losing track of plot and action and, instead, favoring beautiful descriptions. Read Mademoiselle de Maupin. To what extent does this criticism apply to this novel? Explain your response in a short essay.

2. In a discussion with a group of peers, compare Gautier’s expression of art for art’s sake with David Lynch’s in his film Eraserhead. How do the different media used to fulfill the doctrine of art for art’s sake affect the artists’ interpretation of the doctrine? In other words, what can Lynch do with film that Gautier cannot do with either his poetry or fiction, and vice versa?

3. Proponents of the art for art’s sake movement felt that there was something disingenuous about expecting a piece of art to convey social, moral, or religious messages. Yet, many of our oldest and most revered stories contain just such morals—consider Aesop’s ‘‘The Tortoise and the Hare.’’ Using the Internet and the library, research the art for art’s sake movement and some of the criticisms leveled against it. Then, in a short essay, briefly describe the opposing positions and offer your opinion about the disagreement.

4. Contrast the success of Gautier’s poetic works with that of his theater criticism. Describe your emotional reactions to both.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Dillingham, Louise Bulkley. The Creative Imagination of Theophile Gautier. Albany, N.Y.: Psychological Review Co., 1927.

Ganut, William. The Aesthetic Adventure. New York: Harcourt, 1945.

George, Albert J. Short Fiction in France, 1800-1850. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1964.

Palache, John Garber. Gautier and the Romantics. New York: Viking, 1926.

Richardson, Joanna. Theophile Gautier: His Life and Times. London: Reinhardt, 1958.

Smith, Albert B. Ideal and Reality in the Fictional Narratives of Theophile Gautier. Gainsville: University of Florida Press, 1969.

Snell, Robert. Theophile Gautier: A Romantic Critic of the Visual Arts. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

Spencer, Michael C. The Art Criticism of Theophile Gautier. Geneve: Librarie Droz, 1969.