Charles Baudelaire: The Painter of Modern Life

[Praise for Constantin Guys, first published in 1863]

"I have already said that M. Guy's brush, like that of Eugène Lami, was wonderfully fitted to depict the glories of dandyism and the elegance of society lionesses. In this particular series of drawings we are presented with sporting, racing, hunting occasions in their innumerable aspects, with horse and carriage exercise in the woods, with proud dames or a delicate miss controlling, with practised hand, steeds of impeccable contour, stylish, glossy, and themselves as capricious as women. For M.G. not only knows about the horse in general, but applies with equal success to expressing the individual beauty of horses. Some drawings depict a meeting, a veritable encampment, of numerous equipages, where, perched up on the cushions, the seats, the boxes, shapely youths and women, attired in the eccentric costumes authorised by the season, are seen watching some solemn turf event, the runners disappearing in the distance; another shows a horseman cantering gracefully alongside an open light four-wheeler, his curveting mount bowing, it might seem, in its own way, whilst the carriage follows an alley streaked with light and shade, at a brisk trot, carrying along a bevy of beauties, cradled as in the gondola of a balloon, lolling on the cushions, lending an inattentive ear to compliments, and lazily enjoying the caresses of the breeze.
Fur or muslin wraps them to the chin and flows in waves over the carriage door. The domestics are stiff and perpendicular, motionless and all alike...
Another merit which is not unworthy of mention here is the remarkable knowledge of harness and coachwork. M. G. draws and paints a carriage, and every kind of carriage, with the same care and the same ease as a skilled marine artist displays over every kind of ship. All his coachwork is correct, every detail is in its right place, and does not need to be gone over again. In whatever position it is drawn, at whatever speed it may be going, a carriage, like a vessel, derives, from the fact of motion, a mysterious and complex gracefulness which is very difficult to note in shorthand. The pleasure that the artist's eye gets from it comes apparently from the series of geometric that the object, already so complex in itself, vessel or carriage, describes successively in space.
We are betting on a certainty when we say that in a few years the drawings of M.G. will become precious archives of civilised life. His work will be sought after by discerning collectors, as much as those of Debucourt, of Moreau, of Saint-Aubin, of Carle Vernet, of Lami, of Devéria, of Gavarni, and of all those exquisite artists who, although they have confined themselves to recording what is familiar and pretty, are nonetheless, in their own ways, important historians... Less skilful than they, M.G. retains a profound merit, which is all his own; he has deliberately filled a function which other artists disdain, and which a man of the world above all others could carry out. He has gone everywhere in quest of the ephemeral, the fleeting forms of beauty in the life of our day, the characteristic traits of what, which the reader's permission, we have called "modernity." Often bizarre, violent, excessive, but always full of poetry, he has succeeded, in his drawings, in distilling the bitter or heady flavour of the wine of life.

The Walk, by Eugène Guérard, engraving, 19th century.

National Car and Tourism Museum, Compiègne © RMN-Grand Palais / Stéphane Maréchalle