In one of his Romantic reveries, Baudelaire was contemplating the creation an erotic museum, of course something never realized. After all, one is a Romanticist, thus given to Sehnsucht and not so much to practicalities. In that gallery, he intended not to miss out on anything; it had to be all there. Genius hallows anything – therefore nothing in it could shame a visitor when confronted with all things erotic. Inside Baudelaire’s museum would reside only true art.
Our poet describes an etching by Tassaert, an otherwise utterly sentimental painter. One observes two transvestites on a canapé, truly at it – a woman dressed up as a man who is groping under the garments of a man dressed up as a woman. According to the caption, ‘she’ exclaims: Don’t be so heartless, my dear! Such a pedestrian image makes one fear for the quality of the poet’s intended museum of prints and what not. However, moralists should not be afraid of a want of taste… Baudelaire claims that he is perfectly fit to remain within the boundaries of what is proper. His museum dream embraced,
The immense love song, sketched by the purest of hands – the serious and cool Venuses by Ingres, the playful and elegant princesses of Watteau, the splendid pearls of Rubens and Jordaens, and the sad beauties of Delacroix. Those great, pale women – wrapped in satin!
I am not completely sure whether this gorgeous, though fathomless denominator only refers to the painted women of Delacroix, or also covers the princesses and Venuses of Watteau and Rubens. After all, pale and great are relative terms. Baudelaire’s preferences in sexualibus, however, do become clear. The nudes, depicted on an image of a Turkish harem, he found perhaps a shade too pink. In 1859, thirteen years after he wrote his ode to his great, pale women, he described some sculptures as large dolls whose monotonous whiteness must tire even the true devotee. Obviously then, large and doll enough, yet too pale for his taste. His ideal of pale seems to connote the colour of Caucasian-pale women on paintings, in contrast with those black or brown women he met in the flesh, like his lover Jeanne Duval.
Taking this interpretation as hitting a target, we may once again look at his portrait, in 1855 painted by Courbet.
In the lower right corner of the of the painting reserved for him, Baudelaire’s face may seem to be a bit more youthful than it is shown on the portrait by Deroy which was done ten years before this one on. His bodily attitude and the absorption in his book, though, do indeed fit my idea of him at this stage in his life.
Courbet has depicted himself in the middle of his Atelier. Curiously enough – given the many people on the canvas – the artist is busy painting a landscape emptied of all human presence. Absorbed in his reading, Baudelaire completely negates the rather impressive behind of a naked woman, who – again given the landscape without human life – is an odd bit of accessory on Courbet’s canvas. Perhaps, she is admiring the painting on the easel and waiting to serve her master’s lust after he is done with the job. She most surely is a beauty, perhaps serving Courbet as an image-metaphor for Pure Nature. Studying this portrait of Baudelaire, we may also understand that, after the Bonapartist coup in 1851, the poet had retired from public life. After that event, he considered himself as physically depoliticised.
What is of interest in the context of Baudelaire’s varied appetite for great pale as well as black women, is the pictorially inexplicable black rectangle behind the reading poet. New techniques have discovered that in an earlier version of the painting, this space was occupied by black Jeanne Duval, the poet’s mistress. Suddenly, we see more then what we see. We also know that Courbet did not work with the poet as a live model, but was using an earlier portrait made of him in 1844. For that very reason, the artist did not as yet know that, at moment of painting, Baudelaire had already broken with his cursed black mistress.
So, on the explicit demand of Baudelaire, Jeanne was blackened out of the Atelier, the painting suddenly portraying not one, but two absentees: our poet who was not actually present in 1855, and Jeanne Duval, now veiled by her black rectangle. By this time, Baudelaire had already begun to favour the supernatural, despising both everything herbivorous and female. Courbet’s painterly correction must have pleased him enormously.
When in 1852he broke with Jeanne, it seems as though Baudelaire also distanced himself from her body, more generally speaking: from all things corporal. Where in an earlier poem, Sed non satiata, he still spoke of the hell of your bed, with hell written without a capital H, in the introductory poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, written much later, Inferno gets its capital I, thus giving it a meaningful twist.
Each day, we descend one step into the Inferno,
Without fear, through shadows which are badly smelling…
In the infamous menagerie of our vices,
There is one which is uglier, meaner, filthier!
It is Ennui!…
You know him, reader, that delicate monster,
You hypocrite reader, who looks like me –
Brother of mine!
In the portraits of the older Baudelaire I recognize the man for whom, in the gloomy forest of language, each shiny word is secretly referring tot this Inferno, a language in which women, seen as sexual pariahs, are dressed in the simulacra of the untouchable. However, he did indeed touch them – in a way.
Apart from Jeanne Duval, in the flesh Baudelaire preferred pale, and if possible skinny women. When it came to fucking them, he was wearing white gloves. Even a genius is in context, determined by a cultural milieu, which in Baudelaire’s case was the Romanticism of the first half of the 19th century. Was he, in his intimate intercourse with this mulatto woman, cultivating a kind of cynical exotism, a relationship at the same time physical and aesthetic? Unmistakably, he wished to remain aloof from the women whom he encountered erotically. Stories were told, which depicted him as merely stroking the woman’s body, sniffing their smells, without actually sleeping with them. Thus, he sang his odes to a Platonic love for inaccessible women who were only exciting him because they remained at a distance.
This separation of sublime love and pedestrian sex can also be found in the diaries of the contemporary painter whom Baudelaire highly admired. Eugène Delacroix notes, time and again, a rather intense desire for women whom he merely considered as helping him to get rid of his sexual passions that were irritating and regarded as interfering with his more sublime artistic calling. After the act, these women were shown the door, or they took up again their position as his model. I risked syphilis with her, is how Delacroix described one of these atelier copulations.
Apart from these little obscene remarks, apart from his crafty notes on the art of painting, lyrical passages in the Delacroix diary primarily describe splendid, beautifully dressed women.
The moment Mme Caen came close to me, I had to rein in my heart – however, this only when she was completely wrapped in her evening dress which showed her arms and shoulders. When, the next morning, she was dressed again in ordinary clothes, I remained completely calm and reasonable.
Those arms and shoulders Delacroix was first of all observing in terms of their aesthetic contrast with the satin dresses the woman was wearing. And apart from this shared aesthetism, he and Baudelaire also had in common a distaste for fruitful passions. Copulating for the sake of getting children they regarded as too natural, just as it had been for other Romanticists, staining as it were The Realm of Beauty. Perhaps, they also considered it too risky. Misogyny is perhaps another word.
In his poem Sed non satiata, the consummate macho Baudelaire takes pride in the fact that he embraced his bizarre goddess, dark as the night, nine times. But it was making love in a very aloof manner. Like Rousseau and Delacroix before him, he regarded not satisfying a woman as a good thing. The woman one loves, is the one who has no pleasure in it.
Perhaps, Baudelaire may have catalogued Rubens’ full-fleshed beauties as falling within the category of great, pale women, though in Rubens’ paintings there does not seem to be much satin around. These women are pink, though – yet, in Rubens this colour is just greyish enough that it might pass for pale in the eyes of Baudelaire.
These Rubenesque women are certainly great, or large if you like. The writer and connoisseur Stendhal, an art critic who was for Baudelaire a great example, also had his ideas about the women on the canvasses of Rubens. This Prince of the Northern Nude, could only have compensated the fog of Middelburg by inventing those exuberant, exotic women.
Apart from the seductive shapes of women, Baudelaire was also interested in what he considered their exciting size. He regarded Mediterranean women as too petite, and certainly in their youth far too slender. His aesthetic sympathy aimed at the Northern format. Even though, now and then, Southern women may be pale, they are in essence too petite. Just observe this curious double portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées and her sister: two very slim young women, naked from head to navel.
While looking straight at you, her sister takes Gabrielle’s nipple between thumb and index, a symbolic gesture referring to Gabrielle being pregnant of her bastard child by king Henri IV, the famous protestant who confessed that Paris was well worth a mass – and changed his faith. This Belle Gabrielle, as she was known, is unmistakably not Baudelaire’s type of the Great, Pale Woman, even though both sisters are depicted against a background of rather shiny satin… They just won’t do.
Baudelaire’s ideal is probably approached by the marble woman in the Parc Monceau, by nature cold and barren, lying at the feet of Guy de Maupassant on his socle, at his service, without the slightest chance of becoming pregnant.
Taken the size of the sculpture, a colleague of mine said: Just imagine her ‘live’ – one and a half time the normal size! My response: At the same time, we would become both man and boy. The idée fixe of De Maupassant is great and pale indeed, then again – given Baudelaire’s rather detailed preference – perhaps too pale. Yet, as size is part of his obsession, this one might do. I quote from his poem La Géante.
How I would have liked to live, close to a young giantess,
Like a voluptuous tomcat at the feet of a queen.
It seems, that Baudelaire might have liked to chance places with the marble woman… However – and we should not forget this – his attention is directed primarily at women in art, artificial women, all those painted, poetical and sculpted versions of his great and pale women. Like Mme de Senonnes portrayed by Ingres; or women like those on Delacroix’ masterpiece Sardanapalus.
I am quite certain, that Manet’s full-pale beauty on Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) might also been asked to attend Baudelaire’s glorious love banquet in his erotic museum.
Though sharing his Romanticism with others in his time, the differences are also interesting. Negatively and sarcastically, Baudelaire describes two sculptures of black women by the artist Christophe. In his words they formed a successful endeavour to make at least something out of a flat Negroid face, with its lip-less and gum-less smile, and eyes like shaded hollows. Yet, Baudelaire’s mistress Jeanne was a dark woman…
Compared to the detached, yet practical exotism of Eugène Fromentin, the contemporary painter and writer, Baudelaire’s attitude towards black women is ambivalent, even inconsistent. Fromentin went to North-Africa, to come face to face with the completely different. In Une année dans le Sahel, in awe and admiration, he is describing the black women he saw there:
This strange race, a species apart – with a masculine gait, in the day time a mule, woman at night, with their robust rich forms, their immodest bodies with lots of breast, an elongated torso and that large waste line. Beautiful, yet repellent.
Fromentin gives one the impression that he never touched even one specimen of this feminine ‘race’. Baudelaire, on the other hand, did touch his Jeanne Duval frequently, though in his own aloof, gloved manner. Once with a woman, he certainly did not want to come. For this he produced an aesthetic pretext. To take a woman comes from the desire to penetrate the other. However, an artist never gets out of his own self. Perhaps, with the help of his dark bed mate Jeanne, Baudelaire could feel white and, first of all, intactus, which might well be an expression of that curious, as yet not all too aggressive, however already thoroughly puritanical racism of the mid-19th century, so well expressed in the works of his contemporary De Gobineau.
Artificiality, affectation and detachment were the defining traits of his character. In real life – the world existing outside his phantasy museum of erotic paintings and poems – the barren maiden, as Baudelaire called her, seems to have been his ideal kind of woman. It cannot surprise the reader that Baudelaire’s sympathies were for Marquis de Sade, in whose work satisfaction-in-phantasy was of prime importance, though perhaps accompanied by a periodical youthful onanism.
Baudelaire was a full-blown fetishist of scents, clothes and elegant gestures, considered to be more important than the woman herself as well as her sex. Aesthetism tends to see the artificial as the only thing fruitful and fertile. In the eyes of Baudelaire, a pregnant or nude woman was distasteful; he valued dressed women more than undressed – except of course, when painted beautifully. A woman undressing in his presence took away his excitement. Perhaps then, Platonism is the word. Even his mother he loved for her scent and her elegant clothes.
This is the crux of Baudelaire’s life story. Women for him were pure animal, motivated solely by their instinctive natural lust, as such incapable of making a distinction between body and soul, thus the antipode of Baudelaire himself: the male dandy-philosopher. How easily Baudelaire could have become a Roman-Catholic priest… Only men are spiritual and animal at the same time – a typical prejudice of almost any Romanticist of the period. So, how could a woman be a real artist… For poets and painters like Delacroix and Baudelaire, it is of vital importance to satisfy their animal side as efficiently as possible – that is, without emotionally binding oneself to a woman, nor to be absorbed fully in the physical contact. The ‘act’ had to remain disconnected from their artistic labour.
Thus, Baudelaire’s ode to those great, pale women wrapped in satin applies especially to the painted nudes in his love museum. In fact, for him painted women have to be nude. After all, in that case the artist’s detachment is guaranteed, the nude represented being at the same time eternal and perfect. On their canvasses their erotic bodies can never be real Medusa’s; after all, as paintings their deadly vagina dentata has lost its vicious bite. Standing, perhaps even lying in front of The Great Odalisque by Ingres, the grown-up Baudelaire would relapse in the paradisiacal condition of helpless onanism – a little boy, returned to one of the many versions of Mama.
Inside his museum he could appreciate the splendid, full-fleshed and obviously fertile beauties of Rubens and Delacroix; in vivo these same women would have scared him, as he preferred the skinnier and even sickly specimens of their race. By contrast, those full-blooded, pale women, imprisoned in their frames, are artificial per se; their nakedness is unreal, and because of this so exciting for the Baudelaires of this world.
Baudelaire’s fictitious love museum, so it seems, was a boudoir for his own impotence, even though poetically he may take pride in the nine embraces with his voracious and for ever unsatisfied mistress. He did not really need to be afraid to catch syphilis; after all, he already got the disease as a boy. However, perhaps because of this, afraid of women he always remained, merely subjugating that fear in tangential contact, copulating with gloves on, or simply smelling and touching her – or, of course, making love to them by way of pen and paper.
How different I am from Baudelaire and his fellow Romanticists, men with their Platonic prejudice. In the cathedral of Lâon, on the inside so tender and pale, on the outside dressed in dark and raw garments, I entered one of those cosy little side chapels, here provided with its own door and little curtains – a true chambre séparée.
Courbet, who sympathised with the working class, once painted his decadent bathing beauty, full in her flesh, meant as his criticism of the indolent good for nothing bourgeoisie. Criticism or no criticism, how I would have loved to take his voluptuous woman in this little chapel – fully and completely. What a delicious ritual it would be. Celebrating our origin on the altar of her body, on what a naughty Chinese author once described as the meditation mat of the flesh, where all begins and all ends.
When Courbet painted that other magnificent beauty – his L’origine du Monde – he must have known all this. Looking this splendour, wrapped in satin straight in her orifice, one feels that all criticism is doomed to evaporate.
In Lâon I lit fragile, white candles for those great, pale women with whom I have shared a bed. As a one-day Catholic did I ask for intercession with Maria, the Mater Dolorosa, the Stella Maris, to be granted her guidance, once again, into such a woman. May their aging splendour grow and grow – as I myself grow older.
Sierksma, Haarlem 2000/2020