New Baudelaire self-portrait illuminates face of dark poet

PARIS Thu Apr 18, 2013 6:16pm IST

PARIS (Reuters) - The discovery of a lost self-portrait of Charles Baudelaire has rekindled interest in the 19th century French poet, revealing a lighter, painterly side to a literary "enfant terrible" known for his dark, erotic poetry.

The drawing, overlaid with pale brown watercolours, shows a three-quarter view of Baudelaire with what appears to be a red scarf tied around his neck. Sketched in the background are a naked woman, silhouettes of men and a dog.

The drawing surfaced when curators at the Cite de l'Architecture museum were looking through a collection of art objects found in the workshop of French sculptor Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume, a contemporary of Baudelaire's.

Museum curator Carole Lenfant was digging through the Geoffroy-Dechaume stash for an upcoming exhibition when the loose sheet caught her eye.

"There was something about the eyes and the way it was painted," she said.

Convinced it was by Baudelaire, she began a quest to confirm that it was indeed a self-portrait.

She found the answer with the help of Baudelaire expert Jean-Paul Avice from France's Bibliotheque Historique, who told Reuters he was convinced the face was that of the dandyish, at times decadent poet, and was drawn by his own hand despite the lack of signature and date.

Avice believes the drawing corresponds to a mysterious self-portrait cited by the Nouvelle Revue de Poche magazine in 1868 as belonging to the collection of French caricaturist Honore Daumier, a close friend of Baudelaire's.

An engraving in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is an almost identical copy and features a note saying it is based on a self-portrait of the artist.

Lenfant believes the portrait could have passed from Daumier's studio, on the Ile Saint Louis in central Paris, to that of Geoffroy-Dechaume as works frequently changed hands in the period's bubbling artistic churn.

As for dating, Avice noted one detail that would place it sometime between 1845 and 1847. "It's certain that he has a moustache at that time," he said.

Baudelaire's most famous work of poetry, "The Flowers of Evil", rocked contemporary society with poems about prostitutes, drugs, alcohol and death, leading to fines for the author and a ban on some of the poems for decades.

His dabblings in artwork were also known and the French capital's Musee d'Orsay owns three self-portraits of the poet, which it acquired in 1988.

The new discovery will be displayed along with highlights of Geoffroy-Dechaume's work from April 22 at the Cite de l'Architecture.

A quotation from an 1868 edition of defunct newspaper Le Petit Figaro suggests that the Baudelaire known to scholars of French romantic poetry could just as well have followed a different path.

"If he had applied the faculties he used for poetry to painting, he could have been as great a painter as he is a distinguished and original poet," it said. (Reporting By Tara Oakes; Editing by Nick Vinocur and Paul Casciato)

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