She was the scarlet woman of mid-19th century Paris, damned by her contemporaries and by literary historians ever since. A bouquet of red roses transformed her from a small-time cabaret singer into the mistress and muse of a wealthy young man who was destined to become the greatest poet in French history.
To his dying day Charles Baudelaire stood by the woman he called his Black Venus despite the fact that she betrayed him with his friends, bankrupted him with her extravagance, and lured him into drug addiction.
We know a great deal about Baudelaire, who occupies a commanding place in the pantheon of French literary deities along with Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal, Proust, Camus, and Sartre. But we know very little about the woman who became the inspiration for his masterwork, Les Fleurs du Mal. That slim volume of 140 poems, which was seized and destroyed on the grounds of obscenity when first published in 1857, is now recognized as the finest poetry in the French language and the first modern poetry in any language. In a BBC broadcast in the 1930s T.S. Eliot went so far as to say that he could not have written his own great work, The Wasteland, without Les Fleurs du Mal. Marcel Proust and many other major writers of the 20th century have paid generous tribute to the way in which Baudelaire’s work as a poet and critic reshaped literary thinking, if not in his own time, most certainly for all time.
The woman who became such a creative and disruptive force in the poet’s life was Jeanne Duval, a voluptuous Creole beauty whose origins are as mysterious as the hypnotic effect she had on the young poet. Most historians conclude that she came from the Caribbean, possibly Haiti, the progeny of a mixed-race marriage, perhaps between a French planter and a slave. What we do know is that she arrived in Paris in 1840 when she was about 20 years old.
With long tresses of black hair, large dark eyes, and a prominent bosom she had no difficulty finding work in one of the many small cabaret clubs that proliferated in the French capital at the time. It was in one such club at the bottom end of the Champs Élysées, which was then under construction, that Baudelaire first saw her. Some accounts say she had one line to speak in a short play, others that she sang a risqué song. The truth in this respect is unimportant.
We do know that the night after he saw her a large bunch of roses greeted Jeanne Duval at the stage door. Baudelaire, very much the well-dressed young dandy, was watching from his carriage across the street. Not for him the scrum of young men propositioning the cast as they left the theater.
Baudelaire had just turned 21, and was enjoying a substantial inheritance from his father. He was living on his own in a comfortable apartment on the Isle St Louis. And that is where Jeanne Duval joined him in a passionate, tormented and destructive liaison that was to last for 20 years.
Baudelaire’s friends were horrified but not surprised at the relationship. The young poet had already taken a keen interest in the low life of the Left Bank and would spend long nights trawling taverns and brothels in a tangle of side streets and alleyways along the Seine.
But Jeanne Duval was very different from the prostitutes with whom Baudelaire spent both time and his rapidly diminishing fortune. Besides her obvious sexual allure (Baudelaire’s friend and fellow writer Nadar described her as having “improbably developed breasts”), Duval had the exotic appeal of a stranger from across the racial divide who exuded the tropical warmth of the Caribbean. The critic and poet Théodore de Banville, an early friend of Baudelaire, wrote a telling description of Duval at the time that goes some way to explaining her extraordinary attraction for the young poet:
She was a colored girl, very tall who held her head well; that innocent superb brown head crowned with wild dark hair and her gait which was that of queen full of a fierce grace, everything about her had something of both the divine and the bestial.
Baudelaire created some of his greatest poetry from what he saw as a struggle between good and evil within the soul of mankind, between the temptation of the devil, especially the desires of the flesh, and the redemption to be found in the pursuit of beauty. And onstage in a little cabaret theater in Paris he may well have seen the twin forces of the divine and the bestial personified in the shapely form of an unknown actress.
He had already published poetry in some of the small literary journals and had created a reputation for strikingly dark verse that broke with the cloying sentimentality of the romantics. Baudelaire was a contrarian: a well-dressed dandy who delighted in the company of the back-street bars and bordellos, a purist in pursuit of artistic beauty who would spend his nights dazed with alcohol and drugs. Thus it was entirely in character that he should bestow the status of mistress on a barely literate mixed-race woman who seemingly had little to offer but her fleshly charms.
Duval struck Baudelaire like lightning. His fixation with her was both immediate and long-lasting. At first, his friends noted, he would simply ask his mistress to sit in a chair in a sunlit room. He would position her so that the light caught her ink-black hair and showed her full figure in silhouette.
Then he would gaze upon her, making little sketches, some of which survive. He would read her his poetry, and she would stretch and yawn like a cat. At these moments he would kneel, remove her shoes, and kiss her feet. She would smile and fall back into her reverie.
Baudelaire’s most revealing drawing of Duval was made toward the end of his life when he sketched his muse as he remembered her when they first met. Her black hair is swept back and tied with ribbon; the dark eyes deserve their poetic description as chimneys venting smoke from the fires of her soul; the neck is delicately elongated and the breasts strain at a silken blouse over a tightly clinched waist. And below Baudelaire had written a Latin inscription:
Quaerens quem devouret—Seeking whom to devour
Jeanne Duval wasted no time in taking advantage of the mesmeric effect she had on her lover. The pair began spending money prodigiously—Baudelaire on paintings of dubious value and she on clothes and jewelry.
They were quickly forced into a long series of moves, from apartments to hotels and lodging houses, to escape their growing number of creditors. Finally, the couple ended up in the Hotel Lauzun, which still stands today in the Rue D’Anjou on the Isle St Louis.
There, in rooms on the top floor, the most unlikely lovers in literature entertained friends and indulged their growing appetite for alcohol and drugs. Although Baudelaire and his circle are known to have taken hashish, Duval introduced him to opium, then taken in liquid form as laudanum. Baudelaire would struggle with his addiction for years. He described opium as “an old and terrible lover and, like all lovers, overflowing with caresses—and betrayals.”
Meanwhile, he was working on his masterwork and in particular on the inner cycle of sensual poems that lie at the heart of Les Fleurs du Mal. In these poems one can see something of the power that Jeanne Duval exercised over him and the way she fired both his imagination and his longing for the sensual satisfaction that always eluded him.
The poet describes almost despairingly his pleasure at seeing light playing through jewelry on his lover’s brown skin, hearing soft music as her jewels moved against her naked body, inhaling the milky perfume of her breasts and the delicate aroma to be found as he sank his face into her long black hair.
Duval was no fool, for all that has been said about her. She quickly realized that her lover found satisfaction in a very different way from most men. She understood that the well spring of Baudelaire’s creative art lay in his recall of the sensual pleasures of childhood, when he and his widowed mother spent every waking hour together.
Caroline Baudelaire was a good-looking woman who delighted in dressing in her finery when going out at night. Her 6-year-old son drank in the sight of velvet, silk and satin dresses, the scent of her perfume, the flutter of the ribbons in her hair, the soft feel of the furs she wore, and the enveloping warmth of the goodnight kiss.
These were Baudelaire’s years of paradise, until the spell was broken when his mother remarried. And when he looked back with longing it was Duval who helped him re-create the joy he had experienced there. But whether she knew it or not, Duval was much more than a reminder of the scented memories of Baudelaire’s childhood. She invoked in him feelings of pity, despair, lust, and betrayal—the commanding themes of Les Fleurs du Mal. It is arguable, and I would do so, that without her we would have been denied the glory of Les Fleurs du Mal.
In every other respect she was the poet’s ruination. They quarreled repeatedly. She continually begged for money and sold his possessions when he failed to provide. She took lovers, including many of his friends. Baudelaire suspected that sometimes she sold herself on the streets to raise money.
But Baudelaire could not do without her. Years after they finally parted, and both the lovers were dying, the poet still tried to borrow more money to pay her medical bills.
As Baudelaire’s great biographer, the late Dr. Enid Starkie, said of Duval:
No one is justified in judging her since Baudelaire was able to understand and forgive her. It is best to think of her as she had been in the days of her flaming youth, at the Hotel Lauzun, when she kindled the passion in him which is responsible for the magnificent cycle of sensual love poems.