War and Baudelaire

There’s a throw-away line about soldiers in Anika Muhlstein’s article on impressionism in the next New York Review of Books:

The only soldier to put in an appearance here, depicted by James Tissot (Frederick Gustavus Burnaby), is shown stretched out languidly on a white couch, cigarette in hand, dress tunic and parade helmet casually tossed on a sofa upholstered in a floral fabric, and is so distinctly unwarlike that he might have been looked on approvingly even by Baudelaire, who detested the army.

How the nineteenth-century avant garde treated war is one of the topics that got cut from my dissertation for space and time, but I still have some notes on the topic.

In his criticism Baudelaire was a consistent critic of the grand French tradition of battle painting, which he called “nationalist nonsense” and the work of “soldier-painter[s].” But that doesn’t mean that he was a strict critic of the idea of painting soldiers or war. Bad war art, Baudelaire said, was bad because the art “is seldom a truth; it is nearly always a piece of cajolery addressed to the preferred caste,”  like illustrations intended to “please the soldier-bumpkin.”

Good war art, on the other hand, was a honest depiction on the battlefield – a scene naturally as interesting as any other modern topic. In The Painter of Modern Life Baudelaire praised illustrator Constanin Guys’s coverage of the Crimean War for the Illustrated London News: “battlefields littered with the debris of death” that were “tableaux-vivants of an astonishing vitality.” In Guys’s hands, the soldier and his “idiomatic beauty” was as interesting as the dandy and the beautiful woman.

Tissot, who painted Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, loved painting dandies and ladies. But he also sketched wounded soldiers in wartime Paris. For him, painting the vitality of life couldn’t mean ignoring the horrors of war.


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