A Woman to Know: Jeanne Duval

He treated her, as they say, "Quite Well," except that he appears not to have taken her in any degree seriously as a human being. — Angela Carter

(image via Wikimedia Commons)


Being a muse is a glamorous life — until you get old.

For two decades, Charles Baudelaire held his "exotic" mistress, Haitian-born cabaret star Jeanne Duval, in the highest poetic esteem. He wrote verses dedicated to his Creole mistress, calling her "Black Venus" and "mistress of mistresses."

But the role of artist's muse is always temporary: once you cease to inspire, you cease to exist — at least in the eyes of the artist. Charles of course never married his "mulatto love," despite public gossip about their ongoing affair. Instead, he kept her sequestered in their tryst apartment. He wrote poems dedicated to her "ebony thighs," her "chimney eyes" and (most notoriously) her breasts ("Las Fleurs Du Mal," or "the flowers of evil," he called them). He fantasized about mother-son role play, asking Jeanne to decorate the apartment like his childhood bedroom (rocking horse included).

And then he gave her an STD. And so she got him hooked on laudanum. And then, at the end of her life, he abandoned her. The last time he saw her, he wrote in "Las Fleurs du Mal," he was walking along the Champs Elysees. The former lovers locked eyes across the crowded street. The once-lovely Jeanne limped away, wrapped in a dirty cloak.

Five years after Jeanne's death, Charles himself succumbed to the same disease (syphilis) that killed his muse. Some justice, then.

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