The Military Man

From The Painter of Modern Life, by Charles Baudelaire, 1863

Once more to attempt a definition of the kind of subjects preferred by our artist, we would say that it is the outward show of life, such as it is to be seen in the capitals of the civilized world; the pageantry of military life, of fashion and of love. Wherever those deep, impetuous desires, war, love, and gaming, are in full flood, like Orinocos of the human heart; wherever are celebrated the festivals and fictions which embody these great elements of happiness and adversity, our observer is always punctually on the spot. But amongst all of this he shows a very marked predilection for the military man, the soldier, and I think that this fondness may be attributed not only to the qualities and virtues which necessarily pass from the warrior’s soul into his physiognomy and his bearing, but also to the outward splendor in which he is professionally clad. M. Paul de Moieties’ has written a passage no less charming than to the point concerning military coquetry and the moral significance of those glittering costumes in which every government is pleased to dress its troops—a passage to which I feel sure that Monsieur G. would be happy to sign his name.

We have already spoken of the idiomatic beauty peculiar to each age, and have observed that each century has, so to speak, its own personal, sort of grace. The same idea is applicable to the different professions; each derives its external beauty from the moral laws to which it is subject. In some this beauty will be characterized by energy, in others it will bear the visible stamp of idleness. It is like a characteristic badge, a trade-mark of destiny. Taken as a class, the military man has his beauty, just as the dandy and the courtesan have theirs, though of an essentially different flavor. (You will note that I am deliberately passing over those professions in which an exclusive and violent training distorts the muscles and stamps the face with slavery.) Accustomed to surprises, the military’ man is with difficulty caught off his guard. The characteristic of his beauty will thus be a kind of martial nonchalance, a curious mixture of calmness and bravado; it is a beauty that springs from the necessity to be ready to face death at every moment. Furthermore the face of the ideal military man will need to be characterized by a great simplicity; for, living a communal life like monks or schoolboys, and accustomed to unburden themselves of the daily cares of life upon an abstract paternity, soldiers are in many things as simple as children; like children too, when their duty is done, they are easily amused and given to boisterous entertainments. I do not think that I am exaggerating when I declare that all these moral considerations spill forth naturally from the sketches and watercolors of Monsieur G. Every type of soldier is there, the essence of each being seized upon with a kind of enthusiastic joy; the old infantry officer, solemn and glum, overloading his horse with his bulk; the exquisite staff-officer, trim of figure, wriggling his shoulders and bending unabashed over ladies’ chairs, who, seen from the back, puts one in mind of the slimmest and most elegant of insects; the zouave and the sharpshooter, whose bearing reveals an exceptional quality of independence and bravado, and as it were a livelier sense of personal responsibility; the sprightly nonchalance of the light cavalry; the oddly academic, professorial appearance of the special corps—artillery or engineers—which is often confirmed by the somewhat un-warriorlike adjunct of a pair of spectacles: not one of these models, not one of these nuances is overlooked, and each is summed up and defined with the same love and wit.

I have before me as I write one of those compositions whose general character is truly heroic. It represents the head of a column of infantry. Perhaps these men have just returned from Italy and are making 1 halt upon the boulevards amid the acclamations of the crowd; or perhaps they have just completed a long route-march along the roads of Lombardy; I cannot tell. What however is manifest and fully realized is the bold, resolute character, even in repose, of all these faces burned by the sun, the rain and the wind.

Here we can see that uniformity of expression which is created by suffering and obedience endured in common, that resigned air of courage which has been put to the test by long, wearisome fatigues. Trousers tucked into incarcerating gaiters, greatcoats besmirched with dust, stained and discolored—in short, the entire equipment of these men has taken upon itself the special personality of beings who are returning from afar after running the gauntlet of extraordinary adventures. All these men give the appearance of being more solidly backed, more squarely set on their feet, more erect than ordinary mortals can be. If this drawing could have been shown to Charlet, who was always on the lookout for this kind of beauty, and who frequently found it, he would have been singularly struck by it.

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Impressionism, Industrial Revolution


Light and movement as the crux of human perception

1860 – 1900

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