Henri Matisse Illustrates Baudelaire’s Censored Poetry Collection, Les Fleurs du Mal


We pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Hen­ri Matis­se’s illus­tra­tions for a 1935 edi­tion of James Joyce’s Ulysses. If the Odyssey-themed etch­ings he did for that book sur­prised you, have a look at his illus­tra­tions for Charles Baude­laire’s poet­ry col­lec­tion Les Fleurs du mal, first pub­lished in 1857. Accord­ing to Henri-Matisse.net, the book (avail­able in French and Eng­lish in our col­lec­tion of 600 Free eBooks) had “been illus­trat­ed over the years by a vari­ety of major artists, includ­ing Emile Bernard, Charles Despi­au, Jacob Epstein, Gus­tave Rodin, Georges Rouault, and Pierre-Yes Tré­mois. Each inter­pret­ed select­ed poems more or less faith­ful­ly. Matisse took a dif­fer­ent approach in the 1947 edi­tion pub­lished by La Bib­lio­thèque Française.” As you can see from the exam­ples pro­vid­ed here, he went an even more uncon­ven­tion­al route this time, accom­pa­ny­ing Baude­laire’s poems with noth­ing but por­trai­ture.


The edi­tion’s 33 por­traits, includ­ing one of Matisse him­self and one of Baude­laire, cap­ture a vari­ety of sub­jects, most­ly women — also a source of inspi­ra­tion for the poet. How­ev­er, as the site that bears his name makes clear, “Matisse did not indulge in the bio­graph­i­cal fal­lac­i­es of the lit­er­ary crit­ics of his day who attempt­ed to under­stand Baude­laire by asso­ci­at­ing each poem with the woman who may have inspired it. Thus, his gallery of facial por­traits pro­vides an accom­pa­ni­ment rather than an imi­ta­tive ren­di­tion of select­ed poems.” Would that more illus­tra­tors of lit­er­a­ture fol­low his exam­ple and make a break from pure lit­er­al­ism, allow­ing the mean­ing of the rela­tion­ship between text and image to cohere in the read­er-view­er’s mind. You might say that Matisse pio­neered, in oth­er words, the most poet­ic pos­si­ble method of illus­trat­ing poet­ry.


Since it is Banned Books Week, it’s per­haps worth not­ing that Baude­laire’s Les Fleurs du Mal was quick­ly cen­sored in France. Yale’s Mod­ernism Lab web­site notes that, two months after its pub­li­ca­tion in 1857, a French court “banned six of Baudelaire’s erot­ic poems, two of them on les­bian themes and the oth­er four het­ero­sex­u­al but mild­ly sado-masochis­tic. The ban was not offi­cial­ly lift­ed until 1949, by which time Baude­laire had achieved ‘clas­sic’ sta­tus as among the most impor­tant influ­ences on mod­ern lit­er­a­ture in France and through­out Europe.” A sec­ond expur­gat­ed (or as Baude­laire called it “muti­lat­ed”) edi­tion was pub­lished in 1861. Pre­sum­ably Matisse illus­trat­ed that edi­tion in 1947. If you want to buy one of the 300 copies with Matis­se’s illus­tra­tions, you will have to shell out about $7500.

matisse portrait

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hen­ri Matisse Illus­trates 1935 Edi­tion of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Hear Gertrude Stein Read Works Inspired by Matisse, Picas­so, and T.S. Eliot (1934)

Vin­tage Film: Watch Hen­ri Matisse Sketch and Make His Famous Cut-Outs (1946)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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