‘The Painter of Modern Life’ and ‘A World of Our Own’: a Text Comparison

(Left) Baudelaire, C. (1863). The Painter of Modern Life. III. An Artist, Man of the World, Man of Crowds, and Child (M.G.).
(Right) Borzello, F. (2001). A World of Our Own: Women as Artists. Thames & Hudson.

Exploring history through another person’s eyes allows the reader to loose themselves in the author’s journey. In the passage from “The Painter of Modern Life,” by Charles Baudelaire you awaken after a short introduction alongside M G, a flaneur, by the sun shining through his window before being pulled through the streets of Paris on a wave of passion. In contrast, the extract from Frances Borzello’s “A World of Our Own,” could not be any more direct; we have no protagonist to follow, we are simply given a historical context for women in art in the 1870’s.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Paris had become the epicentre of the art world. Students flocked to the city for what were the best art schools in the world. This was an exciting new world for those who had left their homes to begin their studies; however the women who wished to become artists had many challenges to face. The extract from “A World of Our Own,” explores this journey, quoting various female artists who studied and taught during this period.

“All Paris, however, is apt to strike a newcomer as being but one vast studio particularly if seeing it for the first time of a morning, either in summer or winter, between seven and eight o’clock, when students, bearing paint-box and toile, swarm in all directions, hurrying to their course…”

(Alcott-Nieriker, 1890: p.132)

This extraordinary epicentre is proven once again by the exhilaration it provokes in Baudelaire’s writing. It is obvious he relishes all Paris has to offer, turning the mundane into beautiful scenes.

“…Each hurries to his favourite haunt to drink the cup of oblivion… glories of daylight linger, where poetry echoes, life pulsates, music sounds… human passion offers a subject to his eye where the natural man and conventional man reveal themselves in strange beauty…”

(Baudelaire, 1863: p.2)

The importance of Paris during this time is a prominent theme in both texts. Baudelaire overwhelms the reader with wonderful imagery while Borzello repeats the value of Paris to young female artists. The reason Paris was held in such high esteem by these artists was because of the freedom it offered; women had a chance to receive the same standard of education in the field than their male counterparts, thought it was not without hurdles. While a male artist could go and sit outside without a worry, female artists could be harassed and “made to feel self-conscious” for working in public.

“What I long for is the freedom of going about alone, of coming and going, of sitting on the seats in the Tuileries, and especially the luxury of shopping and looking at the artistic shops, of entering the churches and museums, of walking about the streets at night. I’ll get myself a bourgeois dress and wig and make myself so ugly that I shall be as free as a man.”

(Bashkirtseff, 1880: p.135)

Compared with the joyous, carefree style of Baudelaire’s journey through the Parisian streets, Bashkirtseff’s account strikes a contrast between the lives of male and female artists. “And off he goes! And he watches the flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling. He admires the eternal beauty and the astonishing harmony of life in the capital cities…” (Baudelaire, 1863: p.1).

“The Painter of Modern Life,” using poetic language to express Baudelaire’s emotions, so much so that in some places it may take more than a casual glance to understand exactly what is being said. However once understood, the passion and urgency is conveyed well to the reader. “A World of Our Own,” is factual and straight forward thought there is a journey; beginning with worried parents, thinking of their daughters’ studies abroad and following those daughters as they work their way through the hurdles of the art world. “The women even found ways to save on fees. Kathleen Bruce won a competition at Colarossi’s within months of arriving… In order to make some money, the English artist Gwen John began to work as a nude model in 1907.” (Borzello, 2001: p.138)

Though the texts vary greatly in perspective parallels mutual fondness for Paris is clear in both accounts. Living in this exciting city during the end of the nineteenth century was a unique experience and comparing the perspectives of those breathing at the time gives a varied insight into a world of noise, colour and laborious love.

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