Who doesn’t know this work? It is called ‘the Poor Poet’ and was painted by Carl Spitzweg in 1838. It’s his best known work by large, although Spitzweg was just in his fourth year as a self-taught painter when he created it. And had almost half a century ahead of him . Before he decided to become an artist Spitzweg worked as an academically trained chemist.
The poor poet is lying on several mattresses in the corner of an attic. An open umbrella is meant to shield him from the water entering through a leaking roof. Bundles of his own writing lie next to the oven. Alexandra Matzer writes that rather than an august artistic genius, Spitzweg opted to present the figure of a bohemian: antibourgeois, destitute, but inspired.
And I think that she has a point when she writes; ‘Only after analyzing all aspects and a required sense of empathy Spitzweg’s social criticism will show itself. Amusing though the motif might at first glance appear, it is also a socio-critical comment on the precarious situation of artists. As is so often the case with his works, it is precisely this ambivalence that constitutes the appeal of Spitzweg’s depiction. This ambiguity is also expressed in the iconography of the pointed cap worn by the “poor poet”, for during the French Revolution the so-called Jacobin or liberty cap was used as a symbol of republican resistance. Seeing as it was only a mundane sleeping cap widely worn by the people, it could not be banned as a sign of subversive views. Seen from our own time the work has clear elements of Romanticism and then especially the German Biermeier variant ( 1)
In 1844 The Magazine ’Fliegende Blatter’ is founded in Munich and Spitzweg is engaged as one of the artists to draw caricatures. He goes into satirical works by French artists like Daumier and Grandville. The fact that there also existed an interaction becomes clear by the variation on ‘the poor poet’ that Daumier draws for the ‘Le Charivari ‘(May 26,1847).The lithograph is titled; “Brigand de propriétaire... qui ne veut me faire faire des réparations qu'au beau temps !...” [The landlord really is a robber ... It seems he chooses to make roof repairs only during sunny weather ...].
There are a lot of similarities with ‘der arme Poet’ but Daumier didn’t draw ‘un Pauvre Poète’, although a book lies on the ground there is no pen or quill in sight, this poor man has other issues to deal with. The next image incorporates Daumier’s drawing into a bigger story...
Edmund Texier, image from ‘Tableau de Paris’ from 1852. Cross-section of a Parisian house about 1850 showing the economic status of the tenants varying by floors.
In 1850 a lot of residents of Paris protested the plan of Baron Hausmann,(nickname ‘artiste démolisseur’ artist-demolisher) to build identical five -story houses with uniform façades along the boulevards. They feared that the uniformity of the buildings would turn Paris in a dull and monotonous city.
Despite of the protests Hausmann was able to gain support from the authorities and hundreds of these houses were built. The caricature shows the interior of one of these houses; “On the streetlevel the cook lets her so-called nephew get a taste of the soup. Madame Conciërge danses to the music of the piano played by her daughter who studies at the ‘Conservatoire’. Like ‘tout le monde’ she’s intent upon becoming an artist. On the first floor Madam takes a nap and Sir stretches himself while they wait for visitors to arrive. All the luxury in the world and one is bored! On the second floor we see the richness of marital bliss, father, mother, children and their toys. A floor higher we see the landlord who comes claiming the back rent. On the fourth floor we see a workman out of money and artists stamping their feet in order to stay warm( also based on a print by Daumier). And a philosopher daydreaming under his blankets, brooding on ‘un ouvrage palingénésique ’ while an umbrella hangs over his head to protect him from the leaking roof. ( 2)
An ‘Ouvrage palingénésique ’, what a wonderful notion! The source of this difficult word is ‘rebirth’. A work of rebirth. A phenomenon well known to artists . No success again, no sales, critiques, not even a mention of one’s name! Back in the studio you have to reinvent yourself, improve this and that, visualize even stronger, do some soul-searching and find a way to charge your inner artist and reappear reborn with new works that will inevitably convince everyone !’
On a side of the box of Chris Ware’s sensational ‘Building Stories’ you can find a small drawing of one of the main figures who sighs ; “I don’t think you can make yourself into an artist…you just have to be born that way, like being gay, or something…that was my problem, I think...I was always just art-curious” ( 3)
Back to a real poet, Baudelaire. On page 67 of the dissertation Linda Nochlin wrote as her final thesis presented in 1963,( 4) ( which I was lucky to find in the outstanding multi media center of Fontys Hogeschool der Kunsten in Tilburg), I find when Nochlin discusses Courbet’s portrait of Baudelaire; “(...)but with representing Baudelaire concretely at this particular moment of his life ( probably the time when the impoverished poet sought shelter in an improvised bed in Courbet’s studio)” He may be poor but that doesn’t diminish his inner powers. Manet complains in a letter addressed to Baudelaire about the reception of Olympia and writes.” I could wish you were here, insults pour down on me like hail. I should so much like to have your opinion of my paintings, for all this outcry irritates me, and it is evident that someone or other is at fault.” But Baudelaire already knew something of how prophets are treated.The imperial authorities had presecuted his masterpiece . He had been convicted and fined 300 Francs. The judge ruled that six of his verses had to be suppressed for future editions. He answers Manet ; “ I must speak to you of yourself. What you demand is really stupid. They make fun of you, the jokes aggravate you; no one knows how to do you justice, etc, etc. Do you think you are the first man put in this predicament? Are you a greater genius than Chateaubriand or Wagner? Yet they certainly were made fun of. They didn’t die of it. And not to give you too much cause for pride, I will tell you that these men are examples, each in his own field and in a very rich world,whereas you are only the first in an art in the state of decadence.” ( 5)
The homeless poet
Jehan Rictus ( 1867-1933), born Gabriel Randon, was forced to live on the streets at the age of 17 amongst the clochards and other poor people of Paris. Later on in life his experiences became the source material for his poems. A collection of which were printed under the title ‘Les Soliloques du Pauvre’( the poor’s soliloquy). Dreams of the last warm stay, remembering the arms of a woman, the life of the poor in a style that attempts to imitate their language ( through slang, dropped letters and so on) The poems are melancholic , sometimes filled with bitterness an rage but also with a humoristic touch to them. His ‘Soliloques du pauvre’ is translated into English under the same title ( 6) but apart from this fact I’m unable to find more. But I really like reading the texts aloud and try to get into the rhythm, like I did with a poem called Espoir , a fragment;
The language expresses a rough pulsing rhythm . I learn that Rictus became successful as a singer in the Paris cabarets. An album from 2017 by the French rapper Vîrus gives me an idea of the almost hallucinant power and renews the urgency and actuality of these poems. Listen to Vîrus’ version of ‘Les Soliloques du Pauvre’ and feel the tension building up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7ui66Elalw
By forming a large historical circle I would like to end this text with a stanza from François Villon’s ‘Big Testament” from 1461.
(Ah God! If only I had studied in the days of my mad youth, and learned good habits, now I’d have a house and soft bed, but look. I fled from school like a bad boy...And writing these lines ,I fear my heart will break) ( 7)
(2)https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k2058533/f6.image.r=texier+tableau+de+paris.langFR Own translation of the text on page 65 of the first part of Texier’s book.
(3) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9571426/Building-Stories-by-Chris-Ware-review.html , Photographer; Julian Andrews. Do yourself a big favour and buy the box, it is still available I bought it for 38 and a bit Euros.
(4). “The development and nature of Realism in the work of Gustave Courbet; a study of the style and its social and artistic background, Linda Nochlin 1976. ( Outstanding dissertations in the fine arts) Originally presented as the author’s thesis, New York University 1963”. (A major find from the sensational media library of Fontys Hogeschool der Kunsten, Tilburg. Education management, please consider that it is absolutely no problem to let books rest for a while, it is not wise to confront scientific libraries with economic shelf-life ideas. Knowledge gets better while resting, just like good wine)
(5) Olympia, Paris in the Age of Manet, Otto Friedrich, Aurum Press Ltd 1992, pagina’s 25-26.
(6) Herbert W. Kitson ‘Les Soliloques du Pauvre’. ( University Press of America, 1982)
(7) http://www.florilege.free.fr/jehan-rictus/les_soliloques_du_pauvre.html ( Theophile Alexandre Steinlen was one of my heroes during my study to become an illustrator. When you say ‘Steinlen’ you automatically say ‘cat’. When you go deeper into his works , like I do now and didn’t do in the 1980’s, I find that he engaged himself with the social issues of his time, at times combined with the decorative use of cats’ bodies).
( 8) I own a real nice Dutch edition of François Villon’s, Het Grote Testament, translation by K.J.A.Janson, Het Spectrum Utrecht-Antwerpen, 1961. The French version I found here; https://geudensherman.wordpress.com/lit-ma-fr/ma-1440-1500/francois-villon/, and by copying the first lines “Hé ! Dieu, se j’eusse estudié” , I came upon ‘A place to live and other selected essays’ by Natalia Ginzburg ( edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz)and there I found an English translation minus the two last lines which I attempted to translate myself. Not very poetic but it gives an idea of the content.