"Damned Poet": Les fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire

Émile Bernard, ‘Damned Women’, woodcut from Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal (1916)

“The charms of horror intoxicate only the strong.”

—Charles Baudelaire

The poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) was a near-contemporary of painter Gustave Doré (1832–1883), and both men found subject matter for their art in mid-19th-century Paris. In addition to being a poet, Baudelaire was a forceful art critic: his concept of the “painter of modern life” would, in fact, have a lasting influence on Doré in the artist’s unforgettable images of cities and crowds.

The two men also shared a fascination with “the dark side”: Satan is a key figure in Baudelaire’s poetry, and features in one of Doré’s classic images. Edgar Allan Poe’s famously gloomy tale, The Raven, was translated by Baudelaire, and illustrated by Doré.

When Baudelaire’s most celebrated work, Les fleurs du mal, was published in 1857, it caused an immediate scandal. He was prosecuted for an “outrage to public decency” [“outrage aux bonne moeurs”] and six of the poems were suppressed, including “Damned Women” [“Femmes damnées”], for which this illustration by Émile Bernard (1868–1941) was produced.

Émile Bernard, ‘Benediction’, woodcut from Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal (1916)

Another of Bernard’s illustrations, for the poem “Benediction” [“Bénédiction”] shows the poet targeted by the hostile stares of the bourgeoisie, who revile his work, while the poet ignores them, intent on reading a book. Ever since it scandalized mid-19th-century Paris, the inspiration of Les fleurs du mal has been acknowledged by generations of visual artists—right up to Canada’s own Jeff Wall (1946–), in works such as The Vampires’ Picnic (1991).

The artist Émile Bernard was of a later generation but grew up reading, and even imitating, Baudelaire’s poetry. In the years leading up to the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death, he was approached by Parisian art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939) to design and illustrate a new fine edition of Les fleurs du mal, including the six suppressed poems. A selection of pages with woodcut illustrations, from the unbound copy of the book in the National Gallery of Canada Library, can be seen in the Library and Archives foyer exhibition area until August 15, 2014, during Library hours.

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