Yousif on Chagniot (2016)

Chagniot, Claire. Baudelaire et l’estampe. PU de Paris-Sorbonne, 2016, pp. 406, ISBN 979-10-231-0510-0

Claire Chagniot’s impressive Baudelaire et l’estampe examines Charles Baudelaire’s multi-faceted relationship with the medium of engraving. From Baudelaire as collector to critic to poet, from wood engraving to lithography to etching, and from caricature to illustration to frontispiece, Chagniot’s work focuses specifically on the titular “estampe.” Yet the study’s breadth equally adds to our understanding of prints in general. Indeed, by illuminating Baudelaire’s engagement with engraving, Chagniot highlights the circulation and reception of prints in the nineteenth century. As Chagniot explains, in terms of her methodology, “Il fallait donc se plonger dans cet océan d’images que le cabinet des Estampes était déjà quand Baudelaire le fréquentait” (10). And dive she does; Chagniot meticulously combs through and documents primary and secondary sources, establishing links, genesis, and the evolution of Baudelaire’s association with engraving, all the while mindful of the lacunae in information that necessitate prudence (96).

Baudelaire et l’estampe opens with an investigation of Baudelaire as a collector. Chagniot traces Baudelaire’s “iconophilie” to his childhood and to the collection of his father, Joseph-François Baudelaire, which was sold following the latter’s death in 1827 (19). Chagniot, building on work by fellow scholars, hypothesizes that the loss of both the father and the images linked to him fueled Baudelaire’s desire to collect, to “rassembler, assez indistinctement, des vestiges, ou des reliques, de l’univers enfantin” (19). Using correspondence and inventory reports from key sales, Chagniot charts Baudelaire’s collection from the poet’s first residence on l’île Saint-Louis to its eventual distribution after his death. While Baudelaire’s collection contained works by past and/or foreign artists, such as Alfred Rethel (1816–1859), the bulk of his collection consisted of works by his contemporaries, artists—in many cases—whose work he had reviewed: Constantin Guys, Édouard Manet, Alphonse Legros, Charles Meryon. In piecing together Baudelaire’s personal collection, Chagniot documents the poet’s investment in engraving; she draws initial parallels between Baudelaire’s aesthetics, his critique of specific artists, works, and engraving in general, and the images that surrounded him.

These parallels are fleshed out in the second section of Baudelaire et l’estampe: “Baudelaire critique de l’estampe contemporaine.” Here, Chagniot focuses on Baudelaire’s writings on engraving, namely works by Eugène Delacroix, Honoré Daumier, Meryon, Johan Jongkind, James Whistler, Legros, and Manet. While much has been written on Baudelaire’s art criticism, Chagniot takes a holistic approach, using engraving to trace the threads of the poet’s work. Chagniot concludes that Baudelaire emerges as a rare, uncompromised voice for engraving because his infrequent publications (in multiple venues) liberated him from any particular editorial line. In addition, Baudelaire, with the exception of his work on Meryon, was a precursor, his critiques prefiguring and often influencing the reception of engraving and artists such as Daumier, Whistler, Jongkind, and Manet (184). Above all, however, Chagniot shows how Baudelaire’s engagement with contemporary engraving evolved from a defense of the medium to a defense of one of its practitioners, and ultimately to a defense of the status of the image itself: “sa critique, qui perçoit les affinités thématiques et esthétiques entre les graveurs et surtout l’identité de chacun d’eux, n’est jamais descriptive ni technique. Elle est poétique, parce que le lexique et le rythme sont retravaillés au fils des publications, mais surtout parce qu’elle est le creuset d’interrogations sur les conditions de la création et sur le sens de l’image” (190).

Chagniot expands this line of investigation in the third section of Baudelaire et l’estampe:  “Estampes et poésie, le sens de l’image à l’épreuve.” Analyzing Baudelaire’s writings on caricature and illustration, she examines the poet’s reading of images and artists as part of his larger aesthetic, an aesthetic that was shaped by his various encounters with engraving and then projected back on his interpretation of certain images and artists. The latter consideration stands out in Chagniot’s analysis as she reconsiders traditional questions of influence and ekphrasis in order to track the ways in which engraving sparked poetic reflection and invention. Chagniot argues that while specific engravings may be directly linked to Baudelaire’s poetry, “Death on a Pale Horse” by Joseph Haynes (1784) and the poet’s “Une gravure fantastique” (Les Fleurs du mal), for example, the deliberate twists and turns from artist to author speak more to the image as inspiration rather than originator or influence. As Chagniot states, “La vérité poétique de l’image, qui n’est ni sa propre fin ni dotée d’un unique sens, consiste donc à servir tout entière le travail de l’imagination explorant l’humaine condition dans ses inépuisables archives” (291). 

Baudelaire et l’estampe closes with Chagniot’s study of frontispieces planned and/or executed for Baudelaire’s work:  Théophile Gautier (1859), a failed edition of Edgar Allan Poe, Les Fleurs du mal (1861), and Les Épaves (1866). In tracing the evolution of the frontispiece, from the author’s conception to the eventual abortive or successful execution by artist and then publisher and printer, Chagniot echoes the principal theme of her work. That is, she demonstrates the ways in which engravings, notably the planned frontispiece for Les Fleurs du mal that would finally appear as Félicien Rops’s frontispiece of Les Épaves, inspired and reflected Baudelaire’s poetics. In the case of Rops, the inspiration was reciprocal as his frontispiece, despite numerous modifications from Baudelaire’s original idea, captures the essence of the work: “cet inquiétant squelette arborescent . . . qui brandit comme une malédiction Les Épaves vers les cieux mythologico-chrétiens de la poésie, au milieu d’un Éden devenu friche botanique” (360). Chagniot’s Baudelaire et l’estampe makes a parallel statement, holding up the poet and engraving to the scrutiny of a thorough and detailed examination. Moreover, Chagniot’s book is beautifully and amply illustrated (159 reproductions in total). From analysis to illustration, Chagniot’s work allows readers to follow a similar trajectory as that of the poet, moving between and among engravings, artists, criticism, and poetry. The result is a unique, comprehensive, and cogent portrait of Baudelaire and engraving. 

Keri Yousif
Indiana State University
Volume 46.1–2