Théophile Gautier

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Théophile Gautier
Theophile Gautier by Nadar c1856-1.jpg
Théophile Gautier photographed by Nadar
BornJules Théophile Gautier
(1811-08-30)30 August 1811
Tarbes, France
Died23 October 1872(1872-10-23) (aged 61)
Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
Resting place Cimetière de Montmartre
OccupationWriter, poet, painter, art critic
Literary movement Parnassianism, Romanticism
Theophile Gautier's signature.png

Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier ( US: /ɡˈtj/ goh-TYAY, [1] French:  [pjɛʁ ʒyl teɔfil ɡotje] ; 30 August 1811 – 23 October 1872) was a French poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, and art and literary critic.


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 disparate as Balzac, Baudelaire, the Goncourt brothers, Flaubert, Pound, Eliot, James, Proust and Wilde.

Life and times

Gautier was born on 30 August 1811 in Tarbes, capital of Hautes-Pyrénées département (southwestern France). His father was Jean-Pierre Gautier, [2] a fairly cultured minor government official, and his mother was Antoinette-Adelaïde Cocard. [2] The family moved to Paris in 1814, taking up residence in the ancient Marais district.

Portrait of Theophile Gautier by Theodore Chasseriau (Musee du Louvre) Portrait de Theophile Gautier.jpg
Portrait of Théophile Gautier by Théodore Chassériau (Musée du Louvre)

Gautier's education commenced at the prestigious Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris (fellow alumni include Voltaire, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, and the Marquis de Sade), which 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, who prompted him to become a Latin scholar by age eighteen.

While at school, Gautier befriended Gérard de Nerval and the two became lifelong friends. It is through Nerval that Gautier was introduced to Victor Hugo, by then already a well-known, established leading dramatist and author of Hernani . Hugo became a major influence on Gautier and is credited for giving him, an aspiring painter at the time, an appetite for literature. It was at the legendary premiere of Hernani that Gautier is remembered for wearing his anachronistic red doublet.

In the aftermath of the 1830 Revolution, Gautier's family experienced hardship and was 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.

Gautier with Ernestina Grisi and their daughters Estelle and Judith. Photograph taken around 1857. Gautierfamily.jpg
Gautier with Ernestina Grisi and their daughters Estelle and Judith. Photograph taken around 1857.

Towards the end of 1830, Gautier began to frequent meetings of Le Petit Cénacle (The Little Upper Room), 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 counted among its members the artists Gérard de Nerval, Alexandre Dumas, père, Petrus Borel, Alphonse Brot, Joseph Bouchardy and Philothée O’Neddy (real name Théophile Dondey). Le Petit Cénacle soon gained a reputation for extravagance and eccentricity, but also for being 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 La Presse, which also gave him the opportunity for foreign travel and for 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 personal style, it provides a window into Gautier's own tastes in art and culture.

Gautier was a celebrated abandonné (one who yields or abandons himself to something) of the Romantic Ballet, writing several scenarios, the most famous of which is Giselle , whose first interpreter, the ballerina Carlotta Grisi, was the great love of his life. When Carlotta rebuffed him, he began a longterm relationship and had two daughters with her sister Ernestina, a singer. [2]

Gustave Boulanger, Theophile Gautier and Marie Favart in Roman costumes, 1861, a study for Boulanger's painting Repetition du "Joueur de flute" et de "La femme de Diomede" chez le prince Napoleon Gustave Boulanger, Theophile Gautier and Marie Favart in Roman costumes, 1861.jpg
Gustave Boulanger, Théophile Gautier and Marie Favart in Roman costumes, 1861, a study for Boulanger's painting Répétition du "Joueur de flûte" et de "La femme de Diomède" chez le prince Napoléon

Absorbed by the 1848 Revolution, Gautier wrote almost one hundred articles, equivalent to four large books, within nine months in 1848. In his essay La République de l'avenir, he celebrated the advent of the new republic and the onward march of individual liberty. [3] 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 to 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 the influential review L’Artiste in 1856. It is in this review that Gautier publicized 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 in 1863 to reviews of Gautier's entire published works. In 1865, Gautier was admitted into the prestigious salon of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, cousin of Napoleon III and niece to Bonaparte. The Princess offered Gautier a sinecure as her librarian in 1868, a position that gave him access to the court of Napoleon III.

Elected in 1862 as chairman of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, he was surrounded by a committee of important painters: Eugène Delacroix, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Édouard Manet, Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse and Gustave Doré.

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 23 October 1872 due to a long-standing cardiac disease. Gautier was sixty-one years old. He is interred at the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris.

In 1873, A. Lemerre published a collection memorial poems, Le Tombeau de Théophile Gautier, with homages by Anatole France, Victor Hugo, Algernon Swinburne, and many others. [4]

Personal life

Portrait of Theophile Gautier, by Auguste de Chatillon, 1839 Portrait of Theophile Gautier.jpg
Portrait of Théophile Gautier, by Auguste de Châtillon, 1839

The young Gautier's appearance was "flamboyant…defying conventionality by his flowing hair and far-famed scarlet waistcoat." [5]

In his youth, according to Edgar Saltus, Gautier was dashing, athletic, amorous, and mercurial:

When he first set out to charm that gracious lady whose name is Fame, he was as fabulously handsome as a Merovingian prince. He was tall and robust; his hair was a wayward flood; his eyes were blue and victorious. He was the image of Young France. His strength was proverbial; he outdid Dante; he swam from Marseilles to the Chateau d’If, and then swam back. Had it been necessary, he would have breasted the Hellespont. But of that there was no need. There were hearts nearer home that he won without effort; women fell in love with him at once; the Muse smiled, and Glory stretched her hand. His conquests were so numerous that to give an exact account of them the historian would have to write in Latin. In comparison Mardoche was a Puritan; and yet, through a charming contradiction, no one has ever been better supplied with beliefs: he had no less than three hundred and sixty-five, one for every day in the calendar; and it was only on leap year that he allowed himself for twenty-four hours the privilege of believing in nothing at all. [6]

From an affair with Eugénie Fort, he had a son, Théophile Gautier fils  [ fr ] (1836-1904). From a subsequent relationship with the singer Ernesta Grisi (sister of the dancer Carlotta Grisi, who rebuffed him), he had two daughters, Judith Gautier (1845-1917) and Estelle Gautier (1848-1914). [2]

Despite his attraction to "mystery, legend, tradition, the picturesque and the imaginative," and the occational "excursion into the realms of the beyond," Gautier "was not a believer in religion or the supernatural." [7]


Early in his life, Gautier befriended Gérard de Nerval, who influenced him greatly in his earlier poetry and also through whom 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.

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 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 criticism 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 Émile 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 influence its choices. His role at the newspaper was equivalent to the modern book or theatre reviewer. He also reviewed music, without technical terminology but with intelligence and insight, for instance into the work of his friend Berlioz, who set six of his poems (c. 1840) as 'Les Nuits d'été'.

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 – Baudelaire dedicated his chef-d’œuvre Les Fleurs du mal to him, describing him as "a perfect magician of French letters".

Art criticism

Gautier, who started off as a painter, contributed 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 committed to Denis Diderot's idea that the critic should have the ability to describe the art such that the reader might "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, Édouard 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.

Carlotta Grisi, his great love, as Giselle, 1842 Carlotta Grisi in the title role of Giselle, 1842.jpg
Carlotta Grisi, his great love, as Giselle, 1842

Dance criticism

From a 21st-century standpoint Gautier's writings about dance are the most significant of his writings. The American writer Edwin Denby, widely considered the most significant writer about dance in the 20th century, called him "by common consent the greatest of ballet critics". Gautier, Denby says, "seems to report wholly from the point of view of a civilized entertainment seeker". He founds his judgments not on theoretical principles but in sensuous perception, starting from the physical form and vital energy of the individual dancer. This emphasis has remained a tacit touchstone of dance writing ever since.

Through his authorship of the scenario of the ballet Giselle, one of the foundation works of the dance repertoire, his influence remains as great among choreographers and dancers as among critics and balletomanes [devotees of ballet].

In 2011, Pacific Northwest Ballet presented a reconstruction of the work as close to its narrative and choreographic sources as possible, based on archival materials dating back to 1842, the year after its premiere.


In many of Gautier's works, the subject is less important than the pleasure of telling the story. He favored a provocative yet refined style. This list links each year of publication with its corresponding "[year] in poetry" article, for poetry, or "[year] in literature" article for other works):



Gautier did not consider himself to be a dramatist but more of a poet and storyteller. His plays were limited because of the time in which he lived; during the Revolution of 1848, many theaters 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.

Between the years 1839 and 1850, Gautier wrote all or part of nine different plays:


The fictional Mademoiselle de Maupin, from Six Drawings Illustrating Theophile Gautier's Romance Mademoiselle de Maupin, by Aubrey Beardsley, 1897 Mademoiselle de Maupin by Beardsley.jpg
The fictional Mademoiselle de Maupin, from Six Drawings Illustrating Théophile Gautier's Romance Mademoiselle de Maupin, by Aubrey Beardsley, 1897

Short stories

Travel books

The travels of Théophile Gautier Vol 4
Travels in Russia Vol 1 [9]

Gautier in fiction

Two poems from "Émaux et camées"—"Sur les lagunes" and the second of two titled "Études de Mains"—are featured in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray . Dorian reads them out of the book shortly after Basil Hallward's murder.

Ernest Fanelli's Tableaux Symphoniques are based on Gautier's novel Le Roman de la Momie.

In Peter Whiffle by Carl Van Vechten, the main character Peter Whiffle cites Gautier as a great influence and writer, among others.

Chronology of works

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  1. "Gautier". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary .
  2. 1 2 3 4 See : "Cimetières de France et d'ailleurs – La descendance de Théophile Gautier",
  3. Spencer, Michael Clifford (1969). The Art Criticism of Theophile Gautier. Librairie Droz. p. 44.
  4. Le Tombeau de Théophile Gautier, Paris : A. Lemerre, 1873.
  5. Gilman, p. 160.
  6. Saltus, pp. 11-12.
  7. Gautier (1912), p. 5.
  8. Bob Brier, Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs. New York, St. Martin's Press, 2013. ISBN   9781137401465 (pp. 174–5)
  9. Gautier, Theodore (1912). Travels in Russia (English ed.). Little, Brown, and Company. Retrieved 1 October 2017.


Further reading