Théophile Gautier, by Nadar.
Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier (August 30, 1811 – October 23, 1872) was a French poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, and literary critic. His life envelops a major part of the 19th Century, a tumultuous political and social era in France that rendered many great works and artistic creativity.
While an ardent defender of Romanticism, Gautier's work is difficult to classify and remains a point of reference for many subsequent literary traditions such as Parnassianism, Symbolism, Decadence and Modernism. He was widely esteemed by writers as diverse as Baudelaire, the Goncourt brothers, Flaubert and Oscar Wilde.
Life and times
|French literary history
16th century - 17th century
18th century -19th century
20th century - Contemporary
Writers by category
Novelists - Playwrights
Poets - Essayists
Short story writers
Théophile Gautier was born on 30 August 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) where he attended for three months before being brought home due to illness. Although he completed the remainder of his education at Collège Charlemagne (alumni include Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve), Gautier’s most significant instruction came from his father, which prompted him to become a Latin scholar by age 18. While at school, Gautier befriended Gérard de Nerval and the two became lifelong friends. It is through Nerval that Gautier is introduced to Victor Hugo, a well-known, established leading dramatist and author of Hernani. Hugo became a major influence and is credited for giving Gautier, an aspiring painter at the time, an appetite for literature. It is at the legendary Hernani premiere that Gautier is remembered for wearing his infamous red vest.
In the aftermath of the 1830 Revolution, Gautier’s family experienced hardship and were forced to move to the outskirts of Paris. Deciding to experiment with his own independence and freedom, Gautier chose to stay with friends in the Doyenné district of Paris, living a rather pleasant bohemian life.
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 irresponsible version of Hugo’s Cénacle. The group, which 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 of 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. Throughout his life, Gautier was well-traveled, taking trips to Spain, Italy, Russia, Egypt and Algeria. Gautier’s many travels inspired many of his writings 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 being some of the best from the nineteenth century, often written in a more personal style, it provides a window into Gautier's own tastes in art and culture.
Absorbed in his work after the 1848 Revolution, Gautier wrote almost one hundred articles, equivalent to four solid books, within nine months in 1848. Gautier experienced a prominent time in his life when the original romantics such as Hugo, François-René de Chateaubriand, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Vigny and Alfred de Musset were no longer actively participating in the literary world. His prestige was confirmed by his role as director of Revue de Paris from 1851-1856. During this time, Gautier left La Presse and became a journalist for Le Moniteur universel, finding the burden of regular journalism quite unbearable and "humiliating." Nevertheless, Gautier acquired the editorship of influential review L’Artiste in 1856. It is through this review that Gautier publicizes Art for art's sake doctrines through many editorials.
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 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 Commune, eventually dying on October 23, 1872 due to a long-standing cardiac disease. Gautier was sixty-two years old. He was enterred at the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris.
Early in Gautier’s life, he befriended Gérard de Nerval, who influenced him greatly in his earlier poetry and also through which he was introduced to Victor Hugo. He shared in Hugo’s dissatisfaction with the theatrical outputs of the time and the use of the word “tragedy.” Gautier admired Honoré de Balzac for his contributions to the development of French Literature.
As Gautier started off as a painter before he was a writer, he found many artists to be influential in his view of art itself. Painters such as the French artist, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who chose only to paint when inspired, and Spanish painters such as Murillo, Velasquez and Ribera.
Gautier was influenced greatly by his friends as well, paying tribute to them in his writings. In fact, he dedicated his collection of Dernières Poésies to his many friends, including Hérbert, Madame de la Grangerie, Maxime du Camp and of course, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte.
Gautier spent the majority of his career as a journalist at La Presse and later on at Le Moniteur universel. He saw journalistic criticism as a means to a middle-class standard of living. The income was adequate and he had ample opportunities to travel. Gautier began contributing art criticisms to obscure journals as early as 1831. It was not until 1836 that he experienced a jump in his career when he was hired by Emile de Girardin as an art and theatre columnist for La Presse. During his time at La Presse, however, Gautier also contributed nearly 70 articles to Le Figaro. After leaving La Presse to work for Le Moniteur universel, the official newspaper of the Second Empire, Gautier wrote both to inform the public and to influences its choices. His role at the newspaper was equivalent to the modern book or theatre reviewer.
Gautier’s literary criticism was more reflective in nature, criticism which had no immediate commercial function but simply appealed to his own taste and interests. Later in his life, he wrote extensive monographs on such giants as Gérard de Nerval, Balzac, and Baudelaire, who were also his friends.
Art Criticism Gautier, who started off as a painter, did not contribute much to the world of art criticism. Instead of taking on the classical criticism of art that involved knowledge of color, composition and line, Gautier was strongly influenced by Denis Diderot’s idea that the critic should have the ability to describe the art so as the reader can “see” the art through his description. Many other critics of the generation of 1830 took on this theory of the transposition of art – the belief that one can express one art medium in terms of another. Although today Gautier is less well known as an art critic than his great contemporary, 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 (National Society of Fine Arts) with a board which included Eugène Delacroix, Edouard Manet, Gustave Doré and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. .
Literary Criticism Gautier’s literary criticism was more reflective in nature; his literary analysis was free from the pressure of his art and theatre columns and therefore, he was able to express his ideas without restriction. He made a clear distinction between prose and poetry, stating that prose should never be considered the equal of poetry. The bulk of Gautier’s criticism, however, was journalistic. He raised the level of journalistic criticism of his day.
Theatre Criticism 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. He suggested that the normal five acts of a play could be reduced to three: an exposition, a complication, and a dénouement. Having abandoned the idea that tragedy is the superior genre, Gautier was willing to accept comedy as the equal of tragedy. Taking it a step further, he suggested that the nature of the theatrical effect should be in favour of creating fantasy rather than portraying reality because realistic theatre was undesirable.
In much of Gautier's works, the subject is less important than the pleasure of telling the story. He favored a provocative yet refined style.
Poésies (1830) 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 it was eventually withdrawn. In 1832, the poems were reissued along with twenty new ones under the name 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 forums. These poems show that Gautier attempts to imitate other more establish Romantic poets such as Sainte-Beuve, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Hugo, eventually finding his own way by becoming a critic of Romantic excesses.
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 tells 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.
Les Jeunes-France (1833) Les Jeunes-France: romans goguenards (“The Jeunes-France: Tales Told with Tongue in Cheek), published in 1833, was a satire of Romanticism. In 1831, the newspaper Le Figaro featured a number of works by the young generation of Romantic artists and published them in the Jeunes-France.
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, which was then expanding rapidly to accommodate the many deaths from epidemics that swept the country. Gautier translates death into a curiously heady, voluptuous, almost exhilarating experience which diverts him momentarily from the gruesome reality and conveys his urgent plea for light over darkness, life over death.
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 reflects Gautier’s abandonment of the romantic ambition to create a kind of ‘total’ art, one that involves the emotional participation of the reader, in favour of a more modern approach which focuses more on the form instead of content of the poetic composition. This started off as a collection of 18 poems in 1852 but further editions contained up to 47 poems.
Dernières Poésies (1872) Dernières Poésies is a collection of poems that range from earlier pieces to unfinished fragments composed shortly before Gautier’s death. This collection is dominated by numerous sonnets dedicated to many of Gautier’s friends.
Between the years 1839 and 1850, Gautier wrote all or part of nine different plays:
- Un Voyage en Espagne (1843)
- La Juive de Constantine (1846) — text unavailable
- Regardez mais ne touchez pas (1847) — written less by Gautier than his collaborators
- Pierrot en Espagne (1847) — not certain if Gautier wrote it
- L’Amour soufflé ou il veut (1850) — begun, never completed
Théophile Gautier did not consider himself to be dramatist but more of a poet and storyteller. His plays were limited because of the time in which he lived. During the French Revolution, many theatres were closed down and therefore plays were scarce. 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 plays were never published or reluctantly accepted.
'Une Larme du diable (1839)' Une Larme du diable (“The Devil’s Tear”) was written shortly after Gautier’s trip to Belgium in 1836. The play is considered an imitation of a medieval mystery play, a type of drama that was popular in the 14th Century. These plays were usually performed in churches because they were religious in nature. Gautier’s play is about a bet between God and Satan and ends with God winning the bet with a little bit of cheating. The play is humorous and preaches both in favour of and against human love.
Le Tricorne enchanté (1845) Le Tricorne enchanté (“The Magic Hat”) is a play set in the 17th Century. The plot includes an old man named Géronte who wishes to marry a beautiful woman who is in love with another man. Through much scheming, the old man is duped and the lovers are married. It is a charming play that ends in the characters living happily ever after.
La Fausse Conversion (1846) La Fausse Conversion (“The False Conversion”) is a satirical play written in prose. It was published in the Revue Des Deux Mondes on March 1, 1846. This play, like many others that were written by Gautier, was not performed in his lifetime. It takes place in the 18th Century, before the social misery that preceded the French Revolution. La Fausse Conversion is highly anti-feminism and expresses Gautier’s opinion that a woman must be a source of pleasure for man or frozen into art.
Pierrot Posthume (1847) Pierrot Posthum is a brief comedy that is a true piece of fantasy. It is inspired by the “comedia dell’arte” which entered France from Italy during the 16th Century and remained popular for at least 200 years. Once again, it involved a typical triangle and ends happily ever after.
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.
Gautier instead turned the plot into a simple love triangle between a man, d'Albert, and his mistress, Rosette, who both fall in love with Madelaine de Maupin, who is disguised as a man named Théodore. The message behind Gautier’s version of the infamous legend is the fundamental pessimism about the human identity, and perhaps the entire Romantic age.
The novel consists of seventeen chapters, most in the form of letters written by d'Albert or Madelaine. Most critics focus on the preface of the novel, which preached about Art for art's sake through its dictum that “everything useful is ugly.”
La Capitaine Fracasse (1863) This book was promised to the public in 1836 but finally published in 1863. The novel represents a different era and is a project that Gautier had wanted to complete earlier in this youth. It is centered around a soldier named Fracasse whose adventures portray bouts of chivalry, courage and a sense of adventure. Gautier places the story in his favourite historical era, that of Louis XIII. It is a typically described as a cloak-and-dagger fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after.
Chronology of Works
- 1830: Poésies(Volume I)
- 1831: First article in Le Mercure de France au XIXe siècle
- 1832: Albertus
- 1833: Les Jeunes France, roman goguenards
- 1834-5: Published articles which will later form Les Grotesques
- 1835-6: Mademoiselle de Maupin
- 1836: Published "Fortunio" under the title "El Dorado"
- 1838: La Comédie de la mort
- 1839: Une Larme du diable
- 1841: Premiere of the ballet, "Giselle"
- 1843: Voyage en Espagne | Premiere of ballet, "La Péri"
- 1845: Poésies(complete) | First performance of comedy "Le Tricorne enchanté"
- 1847: First performance of comedy "Pierrot posthume"
- 1851: Premiere of the ballet, "Pâquerette"
- 1852: Un Trio de romans | Caprices et zigzag | Emaux et camées | Italia
- 1853: Constantinople
- 1851: Premiere of the ballet, "Gemma"
- 1855: Les Beaux-Arts en Europe
- 1856: L’Art moderne
- 1858: Le Roman de la momie | Honoré de Balzac
- 1858-9: Histoire de l’art dramatique en France depuis vingt-cinq ans
- 1861: Trésors d’art de a Russie ancienne et moderne
- 1863: Le Captaine Fracasse | Romans et contes
- 1865: Loin de Paris
- 1867: Voyage en Russie
- 1871: Tableaux de siée
- 1872: Emaux et camées | Théâtre | Histoire du romantisme