Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier (August 30, 1811 – October 23, 1872) was a French poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, and literary critic whose life spans two major phases in the development of French literature. Gautier was born in the height of French Romanticism; he was a friend of Victor Hugo, and in his early years he wrote poems that effused the highly sentimental and overwrought style of the Romantics. In mid-life, however, Gautier made a dramatic about-face; he became one of Romanticism's fiercest critics, spending most of his time in the middle-period of his career satirizing Romantic poets. By the time he had come into his own as a poet and completely outgrown his youthful Romantic tendencies, Gautier had evolved into an entirely unique voice in French literature. Famous as one of the earliest champions of "Art for art's sake," Gautier's aesthetic attitudes and lean style—reminiscent of Balzac's—would herald a number of developments in late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, among them the development of the schools of Naturalism and Modernism, as well as French Symbolist and Surrealist poetry.
Gautier's eclectic output and changing opinions makes him one of the most protean figures in French literature. He left behind no single magnum opus—whether play, poem, novel, or essay—that defined his opinions and solidified his position amidst his contemporaries. Having lived in a period of major transition in French artistic and literary tastes, it is difficult to characterize Gautier in any of the typical historical periods. Although his output may be in some degrees uneven, Gautier's sheer prolificness, as well as his endless creativity and iconoclasm, makes him one of the most engaging, beguiling, and important literary figures of his era.
Théophile Gautier was born on August 30, 1811, in Tarbes, capital of Hautes-Pyrénées département in southwestern France. His father, Pierre Gautier, was a fairly cultured minor government official, and his mother was Antoinette-Adelaïde Concarde. The family moved to Paris in 1814, taking residence in the ancient Marais district.
Gautier’s education commenced at the prestigious Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris (alumni include Charles Baudelaire and Voltaire), which he attended for three months before being brought home due to illness. Although he completed the remainder of his education at Collège Charlemagne, Gautier’s most significant instruction came from his father, whose love of classical literature inspired Gautier to undertake the study of Latin.
While at school, Gautier befriended Gérard de Nerval and the two became lifelong friends. It is through Nerval that Gautier was introduced to Victor Hugo, one of the most influential Romantic writers of the age. Hugo became a major influence on Gautier; it is believed that Hugo convinced him to attempt a career as a writer.
Towards the end of 1830, Gautier began to frequent meetings of Le Petit Cénacle, a group of artists who met in the studio of Jehan Du Seigneur. The group was a more young and cynical version of Hugo’s Cénacle, a similar, older group of artists and writers which had a major influence over the development of Romanticism in France. Gautier's Cénacle consisted of such artists as Gérard de Nerval, Alexandre Dumas, Petrus Borel, Alphonse Brot, Joseph Bouchardy, and Philothée O’Neddy. Le Petit Cénacle soon gained a reputation for extravagance and eccentricity, but also as a unique refuge from society.
Gautier began writing poetry as early as 1826, but the majority of his life was spent as a contributor to various journals, mainly for La Presse, which also gave him the opportunity for foreign travel and meeting many influential contacts in high society and in the world of the arts. During his career as a reporter, Gautier became a well-traveled man, taking trips to Spain, Italy, Russia, Egypt, and Algeria. Gautier would later gain a good deal of fame and popularity through his series of travel books, including Voyage en Espagne (1843), Trésors d’Art de la Russie (1858), and Voyage en Russie (1867). Gautier's travel literature is considered by many as some of the best from the nineteenth century, often written in a personal style, providing a glimpse not only of the world, but also of the mind of one of the most gifted writers of the nineteenth century.
In 1848, Paris erupted in revolution; King Louis Philippe would be forced to abdicate the throne and, after a period of anarchy and a brief experiment in democratic rule, Louis Napoleon would seize control of France, founding the Second Empire. During these tumultuous days, Gautier wrote at a fever-pitch. 497 newspapers were founded in Paris during the Revolution of 1848, and Gautier participated directly in the explosive growth of French journalism; within nine months, Gautier had written four solid volumes worth of journalism. Following the revolution, Gautier's talents as a journalist would continue to be recognized. His prestige was confirmed by his role as director of Revue de Paris from 1851-1856. During these years Gautier first began to gravitate away from Romanticism; he began to publish essays and editorials that toyed with his idea of "art for art's sake." During these years he also began to develop a serious reputation as a gifted poet.
The 1860s were years of assured literary fame for Gautier. Although he was rejected by the French Academy three times (1867, 1868, 1869), Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the most influential critic of the day, set the seal of approval on the poet by devoting no less than three major articles to a review of Gautier’s entire published work in 1863. In 1865, Gautier was admitted into the prestigious salon of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, cousin of Napoleon II and a niece to Bonaparte. The Princess offered Gautier a sinecure as her librarian in 1868, a position which gave him access to the court of Napoleon III.
During the Franco-Prussian war, Gautier made his way back to Paris upon hearing of the Prussian advance on the capital. He remained with his family throughout the invasion and the aftermath of the Paris Commune, eventually dying on October 23, 1872, due to a long-standing cardiac disease. Gautier was sixty-two years old. He was interred at the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris.
Gautier spent the majority of his career as a journalist at La Presse and later at Le Moniteur universel. He saw journalistic criticism as a means to a middle-class standard of living, although he complained that his work writing for newspapers drained his creative energy and prevented him from writing more poetry. Gautier’s literary criticism is notably poetic, almost lyrical, in nature: His reviews often seem to be as much about Gautier and his own thoughts and tastes as they are about the book or person being reviewed. Nevertheless, in his roundabout way, Gautier always manages to be an insightful and generous critic of many of the writers of his generation. Later in life Gautier also wrote extensive monographs on such giants as Gérard de Nerval, Honore de Balzac, and Charles Baudelaire, which have become touchstones for scholarly work on these figures.
At a very young age Gautier dreamed of becoming a painter, an ambition he did not abandon until he met Victor Hugo and was inspired instead to become a writer. Ironically, despite his early background in the visual arts, Gautier did not contribute a great volume of essays to the world of art criticism. Nevertheless, Gautier is one of the more important figures in the evolution of art criticism in France. Gautier had a peculiar style of art criticism which was, at its time, rather controversial. Strongly influenced by Denis Diderot’s idea that the critic should have the ability to describe the art so as the reader can “see” it through description alone, Gautier wrote art criticism without any reference to the classical principles of line, form, color and so on; rather he attempted, as much as possible, to recreate or "transpose" the painting into prose. Although today Gautier is less well known as an art critic than Baudelaire, he was more highly regarded by the painters of his time. In 1862, he was elected chairman of the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts through which he became a close associate of such painters as Eugène Delacroix, Edouard Manet, Gustave Doré, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
The majority of Gautier’s career was spent writing a weekly column of theatrical criticism. Because Gautier wrote so frequently on plays, he began to consider the nature of the plays and developed the criteria by which they should be judged. His principles for the structure of drama have gone on to influence a number of playwrights and theater critics in France and abroad.
Gautier suggested that the traditional five acts of a play could be reduced to three: an exposition, a complication, and a dénouement. Gautier also attacked the classical idea that tragedy is the superior genre, arguing that comedy was, at its greatest, of equal artistic merit. In addition to this, Gautier argued strongly against "realistic" theater; he believed that theater, as a medium, was best suited to the portrayal of fantasy, and that attempting to mimic reality was simply, in his own words, "undesireable."
Poésies, published in 1830, is a collection of forty-two poems that Gautier composed at the age of 18. However, as the publication took place during the July Revolution, no copies were sold and the volume was eventually withdrawn. In 1832, the poems were reissued, printed in the same volume with Gautier's epic Albertus. Another publication was released in 1845, that included revisions of some of the poems. The most significant aspect of these early poems is that they are written in a wide variety of verse forms, documenting Gautier's wide knowledge of French poetry as well as his attempts to imitate other more established Romantic poets such as Sainte-Beuve, Lamartine, and Hugo.
Albertus (1831) Albertus, published in 1832, is a long narrative poem of one hundred and twenty-two stanzas, each consisting of twelve lines of alexandrine (twelve-syllable) verse, except for the last line of each stanza, which is octosyllabic.
Albertus is a parody of Romantic literature, especially of tales of the macabre and the supernatural. The poems tell a story of an ugly witch who magically transforms at midnight into an alluring young woman. Albertus, the hero, falls deeply in love and agrees to sell his soul, only to discover his mistake—and the hideousness of the witch—after his soul has already been lost. The publication of this poem marks Gautier's sharp turn away from Romantic sentiments.
La Comédie de la Mort (1838) La Comédie de la Mort, published in 1838, is a period piece much like Albertus. In this work, Gautier focuses on the theme of death, which for Gautier is a terrifying, stifling and irreversible finality. Unlike many Romantics before him, Gautier’s vision of death is solemn and portentous, proclaiming death as the definitive escape from life’s torture. During the time this text was written, Gautier was frequenting many cemeteries; France itself was at that time plagued by epidemics, and death was a daily reality in Paris. In the poem, Gautier transforms death into a curiously exhilarating experience that delivers the poet, however briefly, from the gruesome reality of life on earth.
España (1845) España is usually considered the transitional volume between the two phases of Gautier’s poetic career. It is a collection of 43 miscellaneous poems inspired by Gautier’s journeys through Spain during the summer of 1840. In these poems, Gautier writes of not only the Spanish language, but also the conventional aspects of Spanish culture and traditions such as music and dance.
Emaux et Camées (1852) Emaux et Camées was published when Gautier was touring the Middle-East and is considered to be his supreme poetic achievement. The title, translated, "Enamels and Camoes," reflects Gautier’s abandonment of the Romantic ambition to create a kind of "total" art in favor of a more modern approach which focuses on miniatures, and on the form of poem rather than its content. Emaux et Camees started off as a collection of 18 poems in 1852, but further editions contained up to 47 poems.
Between the years 1839 and 1850, Gautier wrote all or part of nine different plays:
Théophile Gautier did not consider himself to be dramatist, though he would dabble in the form, motivated primarily by his thoughts on drama that arose from his theater criticism. His plays, unfortunately, saw very few productions. During the Revolution of 1848, many theaters were closed. Most of the plays that dominated the mid-century were written by playwrights who insisted on conformity and conventional formulas and catered to cautious middle-class audiences. As a result, most of Gautier’s rather experimental plays were never published or performed.
Mademoiselle du Maupin (1835)
In September 1833, Gautier was solicited to write a historical romance based on the life of French opera star Mlle. Maupin, who was a first-rate swordsman and often went about disguised as a man. Originally, the story was to be about the historical la Maupin, who set fire to a convent for the love of another woman, but later retired to a convent herself, shortly before dying in her thirties. The novel was rather popular in Gautier's time for its taboo-breaking subject-matter, but modern critics consider it to be of little interest to contemporary readers. The preface to the novel, however, is considered to be of great importance by scholars, as it is in the preface that Gautier first explicitly states his philosophy of "art for art's sake." In the preface, Gautier argues that art is inherently useless and unreal: "Everything useful," Gautier famously quips, "is ugly;" and art, according to Gautier, is able to transcend the ordinary, "useful," world, thus becoming beautiful.
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