Courtney Baker, “A Legacy of Silence,” unpublished museum handout, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston MA, 1996.
“She was silent and submissive. This was very appropriate, after all, since she had no soul, and she was of a race of slaves. She was lazy and stupid.”
— Camille Mauclair, 1927
“… it is the penchant for misery that kept him near the emaciated body of Louchette, and his love for ‘the hideous Jewess’ that is like a prefiguration of what he would later bring to his relationship with Jeanne Duval….”
— Jean-Paul Sartre, Baudelaire, 1946
“Jeanne, the black witch, symbolized his damnation; Appollonie, the white angel, his salvation.”
— F.W.J. Hemmings, Baudelaire the Damned: A Biography, 1982
Jeanne Duval, Charles Baudelaire’s black mistress, has been an unavoidable subject in Baudelaire’s biographies. Yet despite her obvious importance in Baudelaire’s life and work (it was she who inspired the Black Venus cycle, arguably the most poetically significant poems of Les Fleurs du Mal), very little is actually known about her. Historians and philosophers such as Sartre and Jean Prevost have searched through letters and other
writings by Baudelaire and his contemporaries in an attempt to reconstruct something of Duval’s identity and the quality of her nearly twenty-year relationship with the poet. What they have gleaned from these anecdotes is that the two endured an extremely tempestuous relationship, and that Duval was largely responsible for their domestic difficulties. The majority of musings on Duval during the one hundred and fifty years of Baudelairian criticism have portrayed her as ignorant, malicious and manipulative — figuring as little more than an obstacle to the artist’s genius. These pronouncements may be read as being shaped by the historical contexts of the Baudelaire’s critics, contexts which themselves are intertwined in the history of race.
In embarking upon a study of the critical reception of Duval, one might reasonably expect to encounter hideously racist statements like that of Mauclair, or of Dr. Arthur Kraetzner who described her, in 1950, with shocking confidence as a bad, inferior and annoying woman, citing only her race as the basis of her inferiority. But the frequency of such comments coupled with ( … )