The Eyes

The Eyes

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Poet, His Muse, and the Artist

Jeanne Duval, a Haitian-born actress and dancer of mixed French and black African ancestry, was the undeniable muse of French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire. Duval met Baudelaire in 1842, after he saw her in a cabaret show in Paris and became obsessed with her. They maintained a turbulent and passionate relationship for the next two decades. Duval is said to have been the woman whom Baudelaire loved most, in his life, after his mother. 

Baudelaire paid homage to Duval in numerous poems, naming her the "mistress of mistresses" and calling her his Vénus Noire (Black Venus). Duval invoked in him feelings of pity, despair, lust, and betrayal—the commanding themes of his masterwork of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal. That slim volume of 140 poems, which was seized and destroyed on the grounds of obscenity when first published in 1857, is now recognized as the finest poetry in the French language and the first modern poetry in any language.

In every other respect Duval was the poet’s ruination. They quarreled constantly. She continually begged for money and sold his possessions when he failed to provide. She took lovers, including many of his friends. Baudelaire suspected that sometimes she sold herself on the streets to raise money.

Artist Édouard Manet, a friend of Baudelaire, depicted Duval in his 1862 painting Baudelaire's Mistress, Reclining.  By this time, Duval was going blind and dying from syphilis.  Five years later, Baudelaire would be dead from the same affliction.

Baudelaire's Mistress, Reclining | 1862
Édouard Manet
Oil on Canvas | 35.43 in. x 44.49 in.
Szepmuveszeti Museum | Budapest, Hungary

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