Charles Baudelaire, To the Bourgeois and The Heroism of Modern Life, from the Salons of 1845 and 1846


The government of the city is in your hands,

and that is just, for you are the force.

But you must also be capable of feeling beauty; for

as not one of you today can do without power,

so not one of you

has the right to do without poetry.


Baudelaire, Salon of 1845



It is true that the great tradition has been lost,

and that the new one is not yet established.


Baudelaire, Salon of 1846




Figure 1.68.  Edouard Manet.  The Concert in the Tuileries, 1862.  Oil on canvas, 30 “ x 46 ½ “ (76 x 118 cm).  National Gallery, London.

As first author of the Symbolist tradition and precursor to such celebrated poets as Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Swinburne, Rilke, and T.S. Eliot, the influence of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) on modern poetry is unsurpassed.  It is equaled and preceded, however, by his seminal role in the history of modern art. “To glorify the cult of images,” he once declared, is “my grand, my unique, my primitive passion.” We know from his poem, The Beacons, how much Baudelaire venerated the great chain of art history, the master painters, to him “the best evidence of our dignity.”  It was as art critic that the young writer first established his importance as a Parisian man of letters with reviews of the Salons of 1845 and 1846, from which the following selections are drawn. 

Although he rejected the term, “avant-garde” because of its military connotations (“a metaphor with a moustache,” he quipped), our notion of the avant-garde is rooted in Baudelaire. In his writings and in his life he is the prototype of the avant-garde critic: poet, intellectual, and friend of the artists he admired and whose alternative values and urban studio-café lifestyle he shared. Baudelaire was an artist’s critic whose school of art was the studio talk of master painters. In Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio (Figure 1.5), he is depicted reading, seated among Courbet’s supporters on the far right of the canvas. In Manet’s Music in the Tuileries (Figure 1.68), Baudelaire is depicted among the artist’s friends and elegant social set.

Figure 1.69.  Honore Daumier.  The Salon of 1859.  Lithograph from the series “L’Exposition de 1859.”  Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  The caption reads:

---Just look how the have ‘skied’ my picture!”  

---Why, my dear fellow---aren’t you pleased?  But you ought to be enchanted to see that they have hung your little things well above those of Meissonier! 

It is from daily conversation with artists like Courbet and Manet, and from the inspiration of his revered mentor, Eugène Delacroix, the great Romantic painter, that Baudelaire reformulated the Romantic aesthetic of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for the modern era. He is considered the first aesthetician of his age because he re-articulated the inherited aesthetic vocabulary of Imagination, the Ideal, and the Beautiful, to make it fit modern times and a new, modern aesthetic. You will find Baudelaire’s own art – his writing style and contentastonishingly fresh, even today. His criticism and poetry are essential reading for students of modern and contemporary culture.

The Salon review of 1845 and, more emphatically, the review of 1846, begin with an address to Baudelaire’s patrons, the middle-class visitors to the exhibition. “You, the bourgeois,” he writes, “ – be you king, lawgiver, or businessman…. You are the natural friends of the arts, because you are some of you rich men and the others scholars.”  His remarks may be edged with irony, but the overall sincerity of tone is remarkable since derision and snobbery toward the middle class were the norm for avant-garde art and criticism. Indeed, some of Baudelaire’s best readers interpret these dedications to the bourgeois as ironic. By the time he wrote “On Photography,” the next reading in this chapter, any semblance of trust in the potential of the bourgeois had clearly vanished, but in 1845-6 Baudelaire is not yet the disaffected bourgeois poete maudit.  It is possible to read the early dedications to the bourgeois as encomiums: rhetorical tribute to the powerful in the hope that they will live up to the praise. 

In “On the Bourgeois” Marx unveiled the power of Europe’s middle class on the eve of the 1848 Revolutions.  By mid-century it had achieved full cultural hegemony, and by the end of the century all the traditional institutions of elite taste – exhibitions, patronage, criticism - had been remade to conform to middle-class democratic and market values. Thus Baudelaire observes in 1846, “You, the bourgeois…have founded collections, museums and galleries.  Some of those, which sixteen years ago were only open to the monopolists [the elite], have thrown wide their doors to the multitude.”

The following selections from Baudelaire’s early Salon reviews articulate the crisis of the Académie des Beaux-Arts against an as yet unrecognized emergent modernism for which Baudelaire pleads. Both salon reviews conclude with impassioned appeals for a painter of modern life, the artist who will represent the heroism of the modern age with imagination and candor, and address “our principal and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions.”

Otherwise, except for a few moments of enthusiasm, Baudelaire’s long reviews of the Salons of 1845 and 1846 express persistent boredom and weariness with what he sees. Those pages are not included here.  They tell of the prestigious rooms, or salons, of the Musée Royal (Louvre) filled with works noteworthy to the critic for cleverness, eclecticism, imitation, triviality, sentimentality, and cliché.  With each painting Baudelaire reiterates his plea for more vitality, more candor. “Let us record that everyone is painting better and better,” he nearly yawns, “which seems to us a lamentable thing; but of invention, ideas or temperament there is no more than before. No one is cocking his ear to tomorrow’s wind; and yet the heroism of modern life surrounds and presses upon us.”  His scorn for the big crowd pleasers, like Horace Vernet’s huge Capture of the Smala (Figure 1.70), for example, is unequivocal:

Figure 1.70.  Horace Vernet.  The Capture of the Smala, Salon of 1845. Oil on canvas, 16 ‘ 6”  x 94’ 3” (5.01 x 28.74m).   Versailles Musée, Paris.






M. Horace Vernet is a soldier who practices painting.  How I hate an art which is improvised to the role of the drum…manufactured to the sound of pistol-shots…. He is gifted with two outstanding qualities – the one of deficiency, the other of excess; for he lacks all passion, and has a memory like an almanac!  Who knows better than he the correct number of buttons on each uniform…?



Figure 1.71.  James Pradier.  The Frivolous Muse, Salon of 1846.  Marble, 80 ¾  (205.01 cm).   Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nimes.

In Baudelaire’s art criticism, painting appears to be a synonym for “art.”  Painting, the preeminent modernist medium, absorbs all of his attention. Sculpture is ignored in the 1845 review, and in 1846 it is consigned to a critical ghetto entitled, “Why Sculpture is Tiresome.”  There the critic’s opinion that the great tradition has slipped into academic decadence is unequivocal.  “Proof of the pitiable state of sculpture today,” he writes, for example, “is the fact that M. Pradier is its king…. His talent is cold and academic.  He has spent his life fattening up a small stock of antique torsos and equipping them with the coiffures of kept women.  His Poésie Légere (Figure 1.71) seems all the colder as it is the more mannered….”  Chapter eight of this volume, “Exhibitions and the Rise of the Modern Art Market,” looks closer at the institutional history of modern art. Chapter three, “The Modern City,” includes the urban prose poem, The Eyes of the Poor, from Paris Spleen, and excerpts from Baudelaire’s Painter of Modern Life (1859-60), which describe the heroic modern artist in more specific terms. Baudelaire’s poem Correspondences, a manifesto of Symbolism, appears in chapter twelve, “The Symbolist Aesthetic.”

As you read Baudelaire, interpret his attitude toward the 1845-6 reader. Do you identify with either the bourgeois or the elite “monopolist of the things of the mind”? Recalling the artistes pompiers described by James Harding and the two avant-garde attitudes Linda Nochlin presents by way of avatars Courbet and Manet, what is Baudelaire’s posture toward the powers-that-be?  How does he define “modern beauty”? Does he admire the “great tradition”?  Do his ideas have relevance today?


Baudelaire’s Salon reviews of 1845 and 1846 were published as pamphlets two months after the exhibitions opened in mid-March. Our selections are from Art in Paris 1845-1862: Salons and other Exhibitions Reviewed by Charles Baudelaire. Translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965.




For Further Reading:


Ashton, Dore. “Baudelaire, Irremediable Modern” in Jeffrey Coven. Baudelaire’s Voyages: The Poet and

His Painters. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.


Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Translated by Harry Zohn.

London: NLB, 1983




A Few Words of Introduction (To the Bourgeois)

Salon of 1845


We can claim with at least as much accuracy as a well-known writer claims of his little books, that no newspaper would dare print what we have to say. Are we going to be very cruel and abusive, then? By no means; on the contrary, we are going to be impartial. We have no friends – that is a great thing – and no enemies. Ever since the days of [Salon reviewer] M. Gustave Planche, an honest fellow whose learned and commanding eloquence is now silent to the great regret of all right-thinking minds, the lies and the shameless favoritism of newspaper criticism, which is sometimes silly, sometimes violent, but never independent, have inspired the bourgeois with a disgust for those useful handbooks which go by the name of Salon reviews.

And at the very outset, with reference to that impertinent designation, “the bourgeois,” we beg to state that we in no way share the prejudices of our great confrêres in the world of art, who for some years now have been striving their utmost to cast anathema upon that inoffensive being whom nothing would please better than to love good painting, if only those gentlemen knew how to make it understandable to him, and if the artists themselves showed it him more often.

That word, which smells of studio-cant from a mile off, should be expunged from the dictionary of criticism. The “bourgeois” ceased to exist the moment he himself adopted the word as a term of abuse – which only goes to prove his sincere desire to become artistic, in relation to the art-critics. In the second place, the bourgeois – since he does, in fact, exist – is a very respectable personage; for one must please those at whose expense one means to live.

And finally, the ranks of the artists themselves contain so many bourgeois that it is better, on the whole, to suppress a word which does not define any particular vice of caste, seeing that it is equally applicable to those who ask no more than that they should cease to incur it, as to those who have never suspected that they deserved it. 

[…] We shall speak about everything that attracts the eye of the crowd and of the artists; our professional conscience obliges us to do so. Everything that pleases has a reason for pleasing, and to scorn the throngs of those that have gone astray is no way to bring them back to where they ought to be.



To the Bourgeois

Salon of 1846


You are the majority – in number and intelligence; therefore you are the force – which is justice.   Some are scholars, others are owners; a glorious day will come when the scholars shall be owners and the owners scholars. Then your power will be complete, and no man will protest against it. Until that supreme harmony is achieved, it is just that those who are but owners should aspire to become scholars; for knowledge is no less of an enjoyment than ownership.

The government of the city is in your hands, and that is just, for you are the force. But you must also be capable of feeling beauty; for as not one of you today can do without power, so not one of you has the right to do without poetry.

You can live three days without bread – without poetry, never; and those of you      who can say the contrary are mistaken; they are out of their minds.

The aristocrats of thought, the distributors of praise and blame, the monopolists of the things of the mind, have told you that you have no right to feel and to enjoy – they are Pharisees.

For you have in your hands the government of a city whose public is the public of the universe, and it is necessary that you should be worthy of that task.

Enjoyment is a science, and the exercise of the five senses calls for a particular initiation which only comes about through goodwill and need.

Very well, you need art.

Art is an infinitely precious good, a draught both refreshing and cheering which restores the stomach and the mind to the natural equilibrium of the ideal.

You understand its function, you gentlemen of the bourgeoisie – whether lawgivers or businessmen – when the seventh or the eighth hour strikes and you bend your tired head towards the embers of your hearth or the cushions of your armchair.

That is the time when a keener desire and a more active reverie would refresh you after your daily labors.

But the monopolists have decided to keep the forbidden fruit of knowledge from you, because knowledge is their counter and their shop, and they are infinitely jealous of it. If they had merely denied you the power to create works of art or to understand the processes by which they are created, they would have asserted a truth at which you could not take offence, because public business and trade take up three quarters of your day. And as for your leisure hours, they should be used for enjoyment and pleasure.

But the monopolists have forbidden you even to enjoy, because you do not understand the technique of the arts, as you do those of the law and of business.

And yet it is just that if two-thirds of your time are devoted to knowledge, then the remaining third should be occupied by feeling – and it is by feeling alone that art is to be understood; and it is in this way that the equilibrium of your soul’s forces will be established.

Truth, for all its multiplicity, is not two-faced; and just as in your politics you have increased both rights and benefits, so in the arts you have set up a greater and more abundant communion.

You, the bourgeois – be you king, lawgiver, or businessman – have founded collections, museums and galleries. Some of those, which sixteen years ago were only open to the monopolists, have thrown wide their doors to the multitude.

You have combined together; you have formed companies and raised loans in order to realize the idea of the future in all its varied forms – political, industrial and artistic. In no noble enterprise have you ever left the initiative to the protesting and suffering minority, which anyway is the natural enemy of art.

For to allow oneself to be outstripped in art and in politics is to commit suicide; and for a majority to commit suicide is impossible.

And what you have done for France, you have done for other countries too. The Spanish Museum is there to increase the volume of general ideas that you ought to possess about art; for you know perfectly well that just as a national museum is a kind of communion by whose gentle influence men’s hearts are softened and their wills unbent, so a foreign museum is an international communion where two peoples, observing and studying one another more at their ease, can penetrate one another’s mind and fraternize without discussion.

You are the natural friends of the arts, because you are some of you rich men and the others scholars.

When you have given to society your knowledge, your industry, your labor and your money, you claim back your payment in enjoyments of the body, the reason and the imagination. If you recover the amount of enjoyments which is needed to establish the equilibrium of all parts of your being, then you are happy, satisfied and well-disposed, as society will be satisfied, happy and well-disposed when it has found its own general and absolute equilibrium.

And so it is to you, the bourgeois, that this book is naturally dedicated; for any book which is not addressed to the majority – in number and intelligence – is a stupid book.



On the Heroism of Modern Life:

Concluding remarks, Salon of 1845


[…] We do not think that we have been guilty of any serious omissions. This Salon, on the whole, is like all previous Salons, except for the sudden, unexpected and dazzling appearance of M. William Haussoullier, and several very fine things, by Delacroix and Decamps. For the rest, let us record that everyone is painting better and better – which seems to us a lamentable thing; but of invention, ideas or temperament there is no more than before. No one is cocking his ear to tomorrow’s wind; and yet the heroism of modern life surrounds and presses upon us.  We are quite sufficiently choked by our true feelings for us to be able to recognize them.  There is no lack of subjects, nor of colors, to make epics.  The painter, the true painter for whom we are looking, will be he who can snatch its epic quality from the life of today and can make us see and understand, with brush or with pencil, how great and poetic we are in our cravats and our patent-leather boots.  Next year let us hope that the true seekers may grant us the extraordinary delight of celebrating the advent of the new!


On the Heroism of Modern Life:

Salon of 1846

Many people will attribute the present decadence in painting to our decadence in behavior. This dogma of the studios, which has gained currency among the public, is a poor excuse of the artists. For they had a vested interest in ceaselessly depicting the past; it is an easier task, and one that could be turned to good account by the lazy.

            It is true that the great tradition has been lost, and that the new one is not yet established.

            But what was this great tradition, if not a habitual, everyday idealization of ancient life – a robust and martial form of life, a state of readiness on the part of each individual, which gave him a habit of gravity in his movements, and of majesty, or violence, in his attitudes? To this should be added a public splendor which found its reflection in private life. Ancient life was a great parade. It ministered above all to the pleasure of the eye, and this day-to-day paganism has marvelously served the arts.

            Before trying to distinguish the epic side of modern life, and before bringing examples to prove that our age is no less fertile in sublime themes than past ages, we may assert that since all centuries and all peoples have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours. That is in the order of things.

            All forms of beauty, like all possible phenomena, contain an element of the eternal and an element of the transitory – of the absolute and of the particular. Absolute and eternal beauty does not exist, or rather it is only an abstraction skimmed from the general surface of different beauties. The particular element in each manifestation comes from the emotions: and just as we have our own particular emotions, so we have our own beauty. […]

            As for the garb, the outer husk, of the modern hero, although the time is past when every little artist dressed up as a grand panjandrum and smoked pipes as long as duck-rifles, nevertheless the studios and the world at large are still full of people who would like to poeticize Anthony with a Greek cloak and a parti-colored vesture.

But all the same, has not this much-abused garb its own beauty and its native charm? Is it not the necessary garb of our suffering age, which wears the symbol of a perpetual mourning even upon its thin black shoulders? Note, too, that the dress-coat and the frock-coat not only possess their political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality, but also their poetic beauty, which is an expression of the public soul – an immense cortege of undertaker’s mutes (mutes in love, political mutes, bourgeois mutes . . .). We are each of us celebrating some funeral.

A uniform livery of affliction bears witness to equality; and as for the eccentrics, whose violent and contrasting colors used easily to betray them to the eye, today they are satisfied with slight nuances in design in cut, much more than in color. Look at those grinning creases which play like serpents around mortified flesh - have they not their own mysterious grace? […]

Let not the tribe of colorists be too indignant. For if it is more difficult, their task is thereby only the more glorious. Great colorists know how to create color with a black coat, a white cravat and a gray background.

But to return to our principal and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions, I observe that the majority of artists who have attacked modern life have contented themselves with public and official subjects – with our victories and our political heroism. Even so, they do it with an ill grace, and only because they are commissioned by the government which pays them. However there are private subjects which are very much more heroic than these.

The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences criminals and kept women – which drift about in the underworld of a great city; the Gazette des Tribunaux and the Moniteur all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism. […]

The life of our city is rich in poetic and marvelous subjects. We are enveloped and steeped as though in an atmosphere of the marvelous; but we do not notice it.

The nude – that darling of the artists, that necessary element of success – is just as frequent and necessary today as it was in the life of the ancients; in bed, for example, or in the bath, or in the anatomy theatre. The themes and resources of painting are equally abundant and varied; but there is a new element – modern beauty.