Jeanne Duval 1820- 1862
Born in Haiti, Jeanne Duval traveled to Paris when she was twenty to become an actress. She found work in small cabaret clubs. It was when she was working in a theatre on Champs Élysées that she was spotted by the poet Charles Baudelaire.
Baudelaire saw Jeanne perform and was immediately enchanted. That night, he left a large bunch of red roses for her at the stage door. It was the beginning of a love affair that would last twenty years. Though Charles used Jeanne as his main inspiration, she was the subject of much criticism from his friends. Baudelaire was already in a downward spiral when he met Duval. He was spending his inherited fortune haphazardly on drugs and prostitutes. The literary circle of Paris still criticized Duval as the femme-fatale dragging the tortured poet to his inevitable demise.
“Jeanne, the black witch, symbolized his damnation; Appollonie, the white angel, his salvation.”
— F.W.J. Hemmings, Baudelaire the Damned: A Biography, 1982 x
Jeanne was admired relentlessly by the poet. He was fascinated by Duval’s “exotic” appeal. Often, Jeanne would indulge Baudelaire’s maternal cravings. The poet’s infamous mommy-issues began with his father’s death and were magnified with his mother’s second marriage. It was all a part of the poet’s tortured persona. He remembered his relationship with his mother as "ideal, romantic .. . as if I were courting her." x
Jeanne took advantage of her lover’s longing for his childhood. She intentionally set their surroundings so Baudelaire could recall it. This was something no other lover had done for the poet. Through her, Baudelaire re-experienced the feelings of pity, despair, lust and betrayal that inspired his book, Les Fleurs du Mal. It was Jeanne who introduced Baudelaire to Laudanum, a liquid form of Opium. His addiction to the drug would last his entire life. The couple quarreled often and grew apart in the later years of their relationship. The two remained friends throughout their life, even after the affair. When they were both old and dying, Baudelaire helped Duval pay her medical bills.
Portrait by Manet
This is not to say that she didn’t inspire his poetry, but what some are starting to suspect is that the relationship was extremely one-sided… and it was never actually consummated. It’s hard to say for sure, seeing as some sources say she outlived Charles, while other contemporaries (like Nadar) claimed they saw her years after her supposed death. She did have syphilis and so did he. But few 19c Parisians didn’t have it. Some scholars try to link the two with that, and I think it’s a little flimsy.
Let’s be fair— Charles could have very well said they’d slept together, since she was a courtesan (and an actress), and no one would have been able to know, for certain. Nobody would have contested it, even if Duval did. And why would she? In spite of his reputation as a dandy and eventual standing as an immoral poet, he was a known art critic who associated with artists who made money, or were part of moneyed families.
He wrote a novella loosely based off her, and himself. It predated Les Fleurs du mal by about ten years. And while I love Baudelaire an obscene amount, I wouldn’t put it past him to fantasize about— and then write about— a woman he’d never had sex with, just because he wanted to and was either in love with her, or in lust with her.
It’s like Manet and Victorine Meurent. Fun to speculate about, and Jesus, did Baudelaire’s mom hate the ‘Black Venus,’ but that doesn’t automatically mean that she was really his mistress in all senses of the word. It is, of course, entirely possible. History remembers her that way. But there are some gaps in records and hearsay.