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  • 9/6/2003

Théophile Gautier

In October 1851, when he had just turned forty, Gautier agreed to a request for biographical information from Armand Baschet, who was planning an article on him.  While he is a bit coy at first, he quickly warms to the task and is quite proud to list his many accomplishments at mid-career.  A partial translation of his letter (Correspondance générale IV, 403-407) follows:

 "I don't know an awful lot about my own life and I'd have an awful time writing my autobiography.  Dates aren't my forte.  However, here are a few for you.  I was born inTarbes, in the Hautes-Pyrénées, on August 31, 1811.  I spoke Basque until I was three or four, when we moved to Paris.  This caused me such distress that I threw all my toys-- soldiers, violin, and Polichinelle doll-- out the window.  I was about to jump out after them, but someone caught me by the shirttail and saved me.

 "Some years later, I was enrolled as a day-student at the Collège Charlemagne, where I spent my recess periods building model boats and theatres.  I was a fairly good student, hardworking but unruly.  My last two years of high school were spent mostly at Monsieur Petit's swimming school and in Louis-Edouard Rioult's studio, where I studied painting.  I became an excellent swimmer and decent at drawing, without doing too much harm to my later literary efforts.  My goal was to become a painter, and I worked at it for three years.  However, having been introduced toVictor Hugo  by Pétrus Borel andGérard, [de Nerval] I started writing poetry, and I published my first slim volume on July 28, 1830.  Later on, I added the long poemAlbertus and my second volume came out in 1832 with an absolutely wild frontispiece by Nanteuil.

 "Next I wroteles JeunesFrance, published by Eugène Renduel, whom I'd met through Hugo.  I became of age while partway through that volume, and slipped a reference to that important event into one of the stories.

 "At that time, my family and I lived in the place Royale, kitty-corner with Hugo. There I wroteUnelarme du diable and thenMademoiselle de Maupin, which took me a long time, as I'd put it down and take it up again.  It came out in 1834 or 1835.  I finished it in my little room in the rue du Doyenné, my family having moved out to Passy.  There, with a group of friends, I led a bohemian existence.  From that time on, I have lived by my pen, without any other income or help.

 "It was there, too, thatBalzac, who was kind enough to find me talented and to say so, sent Jules Sandeau to fetch me, and gave me work at hisChronique de Paris, where I publishedla Morteamoureuse,la Chaîne d'or and some other stories, and several articles of criticism.

 "From there I went on to theFigaro, with Alphonse Karr and Gérard.  Thenla Presse was launched.  I made my début there with an article on the Delacroix paintings in the Chambre des députés, and in the course of my Salons, an article on Delaroche's Cromwell which had considerable impact.  I attacked that bourgeois painter, who was then at the height of his popularity, with a Romantic's ferocity, and struck a blow from which he never recovered.Dumas, Soulié and Granier de Cassagnac all tried writing the weekly theatre review, but they either found the work too demanding, or didn't meet expectations.  Eventually Gérard and I were hired, and we signed our articles G-G, a satirical imitation of the famous J.J. [Jules Janin, then France's most influential critic] My first article, on a ballet entitledles Mohicans, was a big success and soon I had the job all to myself.

 "As I was working on these other things, I wrote the poems ofla Comédie de la Mort, andlesGrotesques, which came out first inlaFrance littéraire.

 "OnMay 5, 1840, I departed for Spain.  The civil war was scarcely over and roaming bands of demobilised soldiers made the journey hazardous.  I was the first foreign traveller to take to the roads ofSpain in seven or eight years.  I spent five or six months there, returning to Paris at the start of the winter season.  Tra los montes is the account of this, my first major trip; I don't count my little excursion in Belgium with Gérard [in 1836], published inZigzags.

 "I was made a member of the Légion d'honneur for my work as secretary of the committee responsible for choosing the design for Napoleon's tomb.

 "I wanted to write for the theatre, but to avoid being accused of overwriting; I started out with a ballet,Giselle, in which Carlotta [Carlotta Grisi, famous 19th century ballerina who had actually danced in Paris before, though not in a new work] made herParis début.  Strangely enough, that ballet was a huge success; it was performed, and is still performed, all over the world.  For a poet, such choreographic success is a bit humiliating!"

 Although Gautier saw himself primarily as a poet, it was the even more "humiliating" world of journalism that paid the bills of the extended family he provided for: his partner, the operatic contralto Ernesta Grisi (1816-95, Carlotta's older sister), their two daughters, the writer Judith (1845-1917) and Estelle (1847-1914), his two younger sisters, Emilie (1817-80) and Zoé (1820-85), his son Théophile Gautier fils (1836-1904), and at various times his mother, Eugénie Fort (1812-81).  Gautier published in many venues, from literary magazines to mass-circulation newspapers.  His weekly articles inla Pressefrom 1836 to 1855 andle Moniteur universel from 1855 to 1870 were mainstays of those newspapers.  He was closely associated with the influential literary magazinel'Artiste, which he edited from 1856 to 1859.

 Burdened by the deadening load of journalism, Gautier took refuge in travel, in poetry and in the escapist world of the ballet.  When he went on lengthy trips, to Spain (1840, 1846, 1849 and 1864), Algeria (1845 and 1862), Italy (1850), Greece and Turkey (1852), Russia (1858-59 and 1861), and finally his much dreamed-of Egypt (1869), his love of travel had to be financed by even more writing, of his popular travel accounts.  As trains and steamships made travel easier and more predictable, he made numerous short excursions to England, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and, in his last decade, toGeneva to spend time with his last great passion, Carlotta Grisi.

 Gautier's best-known collection of poetry is his final one,Emaux et Camées.  He published its first edition in 1852 and new, enlarged editions appeared through 1872.  With it came universal recognition and a wide following among the rising generation of poets.  BesidesGiselle, Gautier wrote scenarios for a dozen other ballets.  While none of them met with comparable triumph, five were staged, and all were honest successes, especiallyla Péri(1843), written for Carlotta, and his last produced ballet,Sacountala, on an East Indian legend and with music by Ernest Reyer.

 Today, Gautier is perhaps best known for his short stories, particularly the fantastic tales, which are frequently anthologised, and for his novelsle Capitaine Fracasse (1863), a swashbuckling tale that masks a strong and poignant autobiographical content, andle Roman de la Momie (1858), set in ancient Egypt.

 In many ways, Gautier's life was beset by disappointments.  He longed to be liberated from the tedium of his weekly newspaper articles, but despite considerable official support, he was never elected to the Académie française, and his government appointments and subsidies were never sufficient.  In addition, the frequent changes of government (born during the Napoleonic Empire, Gautier lived through two revolutions, a coup d'état, a major war and the Commune) always seemed to destroy whatever financial independence he had attained.  Thus he died, on October 23, 1872, his heart weakened by the privations of the siege ofParis, without fortune, but universally known and admired.  The memorial book of poems published in his honour the following year includes poems by Hugo andMallarmé  that are among their finest.

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