Biography Charles Baudelaire
- Time Period1821 - 1867
Baudelaire was born in Paris, France in 1821. His father, a senior civil servant and amateur artist, died during Baudelaire's childhood in 1827. The following year, his mother, Caroline, thirty-four years younger than his father, married Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Aupick, who later became a French ambassador to various noble courts.
Baudelaire's relationship with his mother was a close and complex one, and it dominated his life. He later stated "I loved my mother for her elegance. I was a precocious dandy". He later wrote to her "There was in my childhood a period of passionate love for you". Aupick, a rigid disciplinarian, though concerned for Baudelaire's upbringing and future, quickly came to odds with his stepson's artistic temperament.
Baudelaire was educated in Lyon, where he was forced to board away from his mother (even during holidays) and accept his stepfather's rigid methods, which included depriving him of visits home when his grades slipped. He wrote when recalling those times: "A shudder at the grim years of claustration... the unease of wretched and abandoned childhood, the hatred of tyrannical schoolfellows, and the solitude of the heart". At fourteen, Baudelaire was described by a classmate: "He was much more refined and distinguished than any of our fellow pupils... we are bound to one another... by shared tastes and sympathies, the precocious love of fine works of literature". Later, he attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Baudelaire was erratic in his studies, at times diligent, at other times prone to "idleness".
At eighteen, Baudelaire was described as "an exalted character, sometimes full of mysticism, and sometimes full of immorality and cynicism (which were excessive but only verbal)". Upon gaining his degree in 1839, he was undecided about his future. He told his brother "I don't feel I have a vocation for anything". His stepfather had in mind a career in law or diplomacy, but instead Baudelaire decided to embark upon a literary career, and for the next two years led an irregular life, socializing with other bohemian artists and writers.
Portrait by Emile Deroy (1820-1846)
Baudelaire began to frequent prostitutes and may have contracted gonorrhea and syphilis during this period. He went to a pharmacist known for venereal disease treatments, upon the recommendation of his older brother Alphonse, a magistrate. For a while, he took on a prostitute named Sara as his mistress and lived with his brother when his funds were low. His stepfather kept him on a tight allowance which he spent as quickly as he received it. Baudelaire began to run up debts, mostly for clothes. His stepfather demanded an accounting and wrote to Alphonse: "The moment has come when something must be done to save your brother from absolute perdition". In the hope of reforming him and making a man of him, his stepfather sent him on a voyage to Calcutta, India in 1841, under the care of a former naval captain. Baudelaire's mother was distressed both by his poor behavior and by the proposed solution.
The arduous trip, however, did nothing to turn Baudelaire's mind away from a literary career or from his casual attitude toward life, so the naval captain agreed to let Baudelaire return home. Though Baudelaire later exaggerated his aborted trip to create a legend about his youthful travels and experiences, including "riding on elephants", the trip did provide strong impressions of the sea, sailing, and exotic ports, that he later employed in his poetry. Baudelaire returned to Paris after less than a year's absence. Much to his parents' chagrin, he was more determined than ever to continue with his literary career. His mother later recalled: "Oh, what grief! If Charles had let himself be guided by his stepfather, his career would have been very different... He would not have left a name in literature, it is true, but we should have been happier, all three of us".
Soon, Baudelaire returned to the taverns to philosophize and to recite his unpublished poems, and to enjoy the adulation of his artistic peers. At twenty-one, he received a good-sized inheritance of over 100,000 francs, plus four parcels of land, but squandered much of it within a few years, including borrowing heavily against his mortgages. He quickly piled up debts far exceeding his annual income and, out of desperation, his family obtained a decree to place his property in trust. During this time he met Jeanne Duval, the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute from Nantes, who was to become his longest romantic association. She had been the mistress of the caricaturist and photographer Nadar. His mother thought Duval a "Black Venus" who "tortured him in every way" and drained him of money at every opportunity.
Baudelaire next worked on a translation and adaptation of Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Other works in the years that followed included Petits Poèmes en prose (Small Prose poems); a series of art reviews published in the Pays, Exposition universelle (Country, World Fair); studies on Gustave Flaubert (in L'Artiste, 18 October 1857); on Théophile Gautier (Revue contemporaine, September, 1858); various articles contributed to Eugene Crepet's Poètes francais; Les Paradis artificiels: opium et haschisch (French poets; Artificial Paradises: opium and hashish) (1860); and Un Dernier Chapitre de l'histoire des oeuvres de Balzac (A Final Chapter of the history of works of Balzac) (1880), originally an article "Comment on paye ses dettes quand on a du génie" ("How one pays one's debts when one has genius"), in which his criticism turns against his friends Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier, and Gérard de Nerval.
Jeanne Duval, in a painting by Édouard Manet
Apollonie Sabatier, muse and one time mistress, painted by Vincent Vidal.
By 1859, his illnesses, his long-term use of laudanum, his life of stress and poverty had taken a toll and Baudelaire had aged noticeably. But at last, his mother relented and agreed to let him live with her for a while at Honfleur. Baudelaire was productive and at peace in the seaside town, his poem Le Voyage being one example of his efforts during that time. In 1860, he became an ardent supporter of Richard Wagner.
His financial difficulties increased again, however, particularly after his publisher Poulet Malassis went bankrupt in 1861. In 1864, he left Paris for Belgium, partly in the hope of selling the rights to his works and also to give lectures. His long-standing relationship with Jeanne Duval continued on-and-off, and he helped her to the end of his life. Baudelaire's relationships with actress Marie Daubrun and with courtesan Apollonie Sabatier, though the source of much inspiration, never produced any lasting satisfaction. He smoked opium, and in Brussels he began to drink to excess. Baudelaire suffered a massive stroke in 1866 and paralysis followed. The last two years of his life were spent, in a semi-paralyzed state, in "maisons de santé" in Brussels and in Paris, where he died on 31 August 1867. Baudelaire is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris.
Many of Baudelaire's works were published posthumously. After his death, his mother paid off his substantial debts, and at last she found some comfort in Baudelaire's emerging fame. "I see that my son, for all his faults, has his place in literature". She lived another four years.