Charles Baudelaire’s Theory of Art: Is Beauty Universal?

How did Baudelaire conceive of the artistic ideal, beauty, and fashion in light of modernity?

Nov 26, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

charles baudelaire theory of art


Charles Baudelaire is one of the most important poets of all time. What was his unique perspective on art? We analyze the thought-provoking distinction Baudelaire makes between general beauty and particular beauty. Baudelaire’s deep appreciation for art lies in his exploration and defense of the latter. Additionally, the article explores the intriguing persona of the “man of the world,” one of Baudelaire’s obsessions.


Charles Baudelaire’s Aesthetic Theory: Beauty and Fashion in the Modern World

charles baudelaire portrait
Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet, 1848-9, via The Conversation.


Baudelaire’s renowned essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” begins by distinguishing between beauty in general—attributed to ‘great’ artists like Raphael or ‘great’ writers like Racine—and beauty in particular, which is more incidental (“as a matter of circumstance”) and associated with minor poets and incidental figures in our artistic canons. Baudelaire aims to overturn the truism that great art speaks universally and retains timeless appeal.


To illustrate this, he examines fashion plates from different decades, highlighting the presence of a contingent beauty rooted in the aesthetic impulses of the time. Baudelaire repeatedly poses the question: What does the male obsession with interpreting the times through women’s clothing signify? Women are seen as outward expressions of humanity, visually representing our species. Additionally, Baudelaire reminds us that something once considered outdated may suddenly become fashionable again, challenging our previous dismissals.


The seamless transition from one period to another, from one fashion to the next, with smooth and logical evolutions, enhances the appeal of the aesthetically contingent. It suggests the potential for a comprehensive aesthetic theory: “Here we indeed have a golden opportunity to establish a rational and historical theory of beauty, in contrast to the theory of a unique and absolute beauty.”

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


The Two Different Aspects of Beauty

women dancing brothel guys
Women Dancing in a Brothel, Constantin Guys, 1860, via the Met Museum.


What initially appears as a distinction between two kinds of beauty soon reveals itself as two aspects of beauty. The eternal element must be mediated through the contingent and contemporary elements. Focusing solely on the eternal aspect is essentially a personal choice, a matter of emphasis. Baudelaire’s theory does not entertain any notion of art in which the idea of the eternal aspect is more substantial than the contingent one.


Baudelaire examines Constantin Guys, a war correspondent, watercolor painter, and illustrator for various magazines and newspapers, to shed light on many of his reflections on the nature of art and modern society. Baudelaire analyzes Guys through the lens of the “man of the world,” representing a cosmopolitan ideal that encompasses international travel and a comprehensive understanding of society in all its aspects.


One intriguing aspect about Guys is that he embodies both an artist and a man of the world, defying the ordinary state of affairs where artists are often perceived as “skilled brutes” whose power lies solely in technical or artisanal prowess, lacking a broader engagement with the social context. The ideal represented by the man of the world should not be understood merely as a vital, muscular, or masculine ideal.


Baudelaire on the Figure of the “Wanderer” and Modern Life

linen factory
Engraving illustrating the manufacture of linen in Ireland, 1783, via the British Library.


Baudelaire emphasizes that the relationship between “the man of the world” and “the crowd” must be one of passivity—a perceptive resistance exhibited by the wanderer. The crowd is seen as an embodiment of universal life, as close as one can get to manifesting the Christian ideal of Judgment Day, with all souls suddenly rushing in one direction.


What was once witnessed once or twice in a lifetime (such as in a great battle) and often not witnessed at all has become a daily occurrence. This is a common characteristic of modern experience—rendering the exceptional or impossible completely mundane.


Baudelaire seems to suggest that the best available response is to this state of affairs is, essentially, not to flinch, to seize the opportunity presented by modernity with an energy and a genuine love for life itself. Naivety becomes an approach, both in life and in art. In life, it entails embracing the absence of boundaries, if not chaos. In art, it brings forth the reorganization and the placement of things in their proper order, invigorated by naive consciousness.


Baudelaire’s initial attempt to define modernity portrays it as contemporaneity in general rather than a specific historical moment. Walter Benjamin interpreted Baudelaire’s work as a response to many of the same stimuli—technological and social developments—as that of Marx and Engels. Perhaps this is where a significant point of divergence can be found.


Artistic Ideals: Two Approaches to Making Art

guys carriage three gentlemen
Carriage and Three Gentlemen, Constantin Guys, via Wikimedia Commons.


The first and greatest practical problem with art, as Baudelaire sees it, is the failure to regard the classics merely as methodological ideals and points of reference of a technical nature, instead allowing them to encompass all artistic production as a reproduction of their virtues.


The alternative to this attitude, exemplified by Guys, is to first understand life and then endeavor to determine the most effective way to represent it. At the core lies a philosophical point: the best draughtsman, the best artist, is one who possesses self-consciousness when drawing from a mental image that they have (to some extent) constructed. This self-consciousness is valuable as it frees the artist from the paralysis of adhering to a specific model by which nature should be reconstructed, enabling the artist to approach their own subjectivity with confidence.


Baudelaire compares two contrasting approaches to artistic production in the modern world. The first approach treats artistic ideals as formal ideals and attempts to handle the vast range of stimuli encountered in a modern setting by fitting those experiences into an existing formal system.


The second approach relies on non-formal artistic value and is closer to what Baudelaire is interested in. The non-formal values that Baudelaire praises must be carefully expressed since they appear to contain two conflicting elements. On one hand, there is receptiveness to the widest possible range of phenomena—a relentless observation, an acceptance of things as they are, and a search for beauty in unconventional places. In this sense, formal or technical imperatives exert a limiting effect, narrowing the perspective by designating certain subjects as appropriate or inappropriate for true art. However, Baudelaire also emphasizes the significance of emphasis, discouraging the attempt to portray everything as having equal importance. Therefore, meaning and visual reality should be clearly distinguished.


Self-Consciousness and Lived Experience

charles baudelaire photo
Woodburytype of a portrait of Charles Baudelaire by Étienne Carjat, 1862, via Wikimedia Commons.


Art that solely records what can be seen, without distinguishing between significant and insignificant details, reflects unguided formal or technical skill. Baudelaire presents an artistic ideal wherein the artist is self-conscious about the role of memory as a mediator. There is a middle ground between strict adherence to a model and complete invention; it is this middle ground where the best artists thrive.


Baudelaire emphasizes Constantin Guys’ extensive range of experiences, from ordinary to extraordinary, both in domestic and foreign settings. Being a “man of the world” is crucial in artistic pursuits, not only because of what this experience includes but also for what it excludes. Significance is developed through experience and an understanding of the spirit of the times; the underlying moral and aesthetic conditions one lives in make certain symbols important.


Baudelaire views the artist as a guide to the essential aspects of the depicted subjects, rather than a mere replicator of reality. Replicating reality does not signify artistic success; it signifies a lack of interpretative imagination, which is fatal to modern artists.

Author Image

By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.