Pierrot & the Dandy: Figures of Decadence

No one was more reproachful than he of a pose, a “cassure,” to use a vulgar word which exactly expresses our thought, whether in a dandy or in a voyour, in a great lady or in a daughter of the people. He possessed in a rare degree the sense of modern corruptions, in high as in low society, and he also culled, under the form of sketches, his flowers of evil.

-Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, His Life

Here is a description by Théophile Gautier in his biography or monogram of his young protégé, Charles Baudelaire:

His appearance was striking: he had closely shaved hair of a rich black, which fell over a forehead of extraordinary whiteness, giving his head the appearance of a Saracen helmet. His eyes, colored like tobacco of Spain, had great depth and spirituality about them, and a certain penetration which was, perhaps, a little too insistent. As to the mouth, in which the teeth were white and perfect, it was seen under a slight and silky moustache which screened its contours. The mobile curves, voluptuous and ironical as the lips in a face painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the nose, fine and delicate, somewhat curved, with quivering nostrils, seemed ever to be scenting vague perfumes. A large dimple accentuated the chin, like the finishing touch of a sculptor’s chisel on a statue; the cheeks, carefully shaved, with vermilion tints on the cheek-bones; the neck, of almost feminine elegance and whiteness, showed plainly, as the collar of his shirt was turned down with a Madras cravat.

His clothing consisted of a paletot of shining black cloth, nut-colored trousers, white stockings, and patent leather shoes; the whole fastidiously correct, with a stamp of almost English simplicity, intentionally adopted to distinguish himself from the artistic folk with the soft felt hats, the velvet waistcoats, red jackets, and strong, disheveled beards. Nothing was too new or elaborate about him. Charles Baudelaire indulged in a certain dandyism, but he would do anything to take from his things the “Sunday clothes” appearance so dear and important to the Philistine, but so disagreeable to the true gentleman.1


Emile Delroy, Baudelaire (age 20)

Baudelaire reminds us of those figures of commedia dell’arte which personified the rogue, aesthete and naif respectively as Pulcinella, Harlequin and Pierrot. His mannerisms were always on stage, qualified, and part of the theatricality of his life as a Dandy. As one critic, Richard Pine – remarks, the dandy derived from the beaux of the Restoration, and the gothic-romantic preoccupation of the eighteenth century (and the revival of interest in chivalry in the nineteenth) was rooted in remnants of medievalism which survived until Don Quixote eventually fell on the field of Paschendaele.2 The dandy was poised between the dying age of classicism and its revolutionary counter-revolt in the Romantic movement; poised in its quiet return in the emerging age of modernism as the clown and harlequin figures of Picasso, Braque, Beardsley among others; as another critic suggested, the “essence of dandyism and of heraldry is to exist at the critical but confusing point between two cultures, the dying and the emergent”  (Pine, 8).


Picasso, Pierrot

In modernism the notion of the dandy as figure of the old decadence would be extolled by such diverse artists and critics as Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso, Nabokov, and Barthes. Dandyism is the embodiment of the Decadent style; in Baudelaire’s words, it is “like a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy”. 3 It is a “heroic” stance in opposition, man in open revolt – but revolt against the cultural monstrosity of the man of business and industry rather than some hostile and anarchic revolt toward violence and revolution. (By man I have to mean “man” instead of “humankind” here; Baudelaire explicitly defined woman as natural, and therefore abhorrent, an “anti-dandy.” The misogyny of this stance is apparent in representations of women in art of the period, a well-studied aspect of the era. In many of these artists there is a double dehumanization of Woman working in the novels and poetry of the era: the idealized, etherealized woman on the one hand, and the “prey,” or “carnalized” woman on the other. Moreover, in the dandy’s values and in his aloofness he reflects an attitude “close to spirituality and to stoicism”. Like a Don Quixote of sorrowful countenance, the dandy incarnated elegance and effete hierarchism.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) incorporates the unconventional philosophies of the Wildean dandy, which are divided among the three main characters: Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry. By creating a true dandy out of specific aspects of various characters rather than making one character entirely a dandy, Wilde emphasizes his philosophy that individuals, namely here Basil, Dorian and Henry, should not adhere to one approach, stance, or philosophy. The novel promotes Henry’s aesthetic philosophy, Basil’s compassion and his appreciation for avant-garde art, and Dorian’s desire for pleasure and adventure. Taken together, these are the key aspects of the Wildean dandy.


The figure of Lord Henry is the representative of the Aesthetic Movement of Pater, Wilde’s mentor, and the philosophies which define it. Experience for experience’s sake, art for art’s sake, and the beauty of youth, among others, are all philosophies casually preached by the aesthete (class notes). Placed in a world concerned with virtue and propriety, Henry indirectly but deliberately imposes his mercurial views on anyone listening to his witty conversation. When confronted by Dorian Gray, Lord Henry says, “the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible… Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You only have a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully,” thus already beginning to mold Dorian with his words (Wilde 62). Henry’s flippant conversation on youth quickly initiates a serious shift in Dorian’s self-image, which brings pleasure to the aesthete.  Henry is experimenting with his aesthetic philosophy of experience for experience’s sake by using Dorian as a guinea pig, which sparks Henry to say, “to a large extent the lad was his own creation. He had made him premature. That was something,” which suggests Henry is molding Dorian into a piece of art not even Basil could create (96). However, Henry’s teaching of hedonism to Dorian is simply talk. Acting as the mouthpiece for all the Wildean philosophies in the novel, Henry fails to be the true dandy he preaches about. Rather than leading the life of the dandy himself, Lord Henry says to Dorian, “I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit,” perhaps acknowledging that he lives vicariously through Dorian instead of seeking Dorian’s adventures himself (116).4


Aubrey Beardsley

As Arthur Symons says of Aubrey Beardsley’s art, the dandy lives the style of the decadence, instead of seeking pure beauty, the seriousness and self-absorption of great art, the dandy takes, willfully and for effect, that beauty which is least evident, indeed least genuine; nearest to ugliness in the grotesque, nearest to triviality in a certain elegant daintiness, nearest also to brutality and the spectacular vices. Pierrot is one of the types of the dandy in the nineteenth century. Pierrot is passionate ; but he does not believe in great passions. He feels himself to be sickening with a fever, or else perilously convalescent ; for love is a disease, which he is too weak to resist or endure. He has worn his heart on his sleeve so long, that it has hardened in the cold air. He knows that his face is powdered, and, if he sobs, it is without tears ; and it is hard to distinguish, under the chalk, if the grimace which twists his mouth awry is more laughter or mockery. He knows that he is condemned to be always in public, that emotion would be supremely out of keeping with his costume, that he must remember to be fantastic if he would not be merely ridiculous. And so he becomes exquisitely false, dreading above all things that “one touch of nature” which would ruffle his disguise, and leave him defenseless. Simplicity, in him, being the most laughable thing in the world, he becomes learned, perverse, intellectualizing his pleasures, brutalizing his intellect ; his mournful contemplation of things becoming a kind of grotesque joy, which he expresses in the only symbols at his command, tracing his Giotto’s O with the elegance of his pirouette.5

Pierrot is first and last the creature of Our Lady the Moon, despIte a famtly tree sprining directly from the commedza dell’ arte. Before the first Pierrot there had been Paghacco, who dlffered from other buffoons of Italian farce in that he wore no mask but had his face whitened wIth flour He was a butt, an unsuccessful lover, a lackey. At the end of the sIxteenth century came Pedrolmo (or Plero) Slightly more complex than his predecessor he rather resembled the butts In Moliere’s farces, he was a vainglorious coward, a cuckold on occasion, but not invariably victimized, and was endowed with a rough, comfortIng common sense. The give and take between comic characters was such, moreover, that for a while Piero lost his identity to his hated rival, Arleccruno, who had a fancIful twist to his humor, and Harlequm was the first Pierrot-type to appear in France, when companies of Italian players began to perform for Paris audIences about the beginning of the seventeenth century. He speedIly became naturalized, assumIng the sentiments along wIth the accents of popular songs, hesitating delicately between comic and pathetic, for Harlequin-Pierrot – and this is his distinguishing quality – lost his buffoon – like traits to take on the profounder nature of the clown.6


For Théophile Gautier, Pierrot was not a fool but an avatar of the post-Revolutionary People, struggling, sometimes tragically, to secure a place in the bourgeois world. And subsequent artistic/cultural movements found him equally amenable to their cause: the Decadents turned him, like themselves, into a disillusioned disciple of Schopenhauer, a foe of Woman and of callow idealism; the Symbolists saw him as a lonely fellow-sufferer, crucified upon the rood of soulful sensitivity, his only friend the distant moon; the Modernists converted him into a Whistlerian subject for canvases devoted to form and color and line. In short, Pierrot became an alter-ego of the artist, specifically of the famously alienated artist of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His physical insularity; his poignant lapses into mutism, the legacy of the great mime Deburau; his white face and costume, suggesting not only innocence but the pallor of the dead; his often frustrated pursuit of Columbine, coupled with his never-to-be-vanquished unworldly naïveté—all conspired to lift him out of the circumscribed world of the Commedia dell’Arte and into the larger realm of myth.7 Much of that mythic quality (“I’m Pierrot,” said David Bowie: “I’m Everyman”) still adheres to the “sad clown” of the postmodern era.8

As said the dandyism of the nineteenth century does not vanish into the night, but rather enters the heraldic universe arising out of the aesthetic, symbolist, Dadaist, and Surrealist (and, even, Futurist) universes. The modernists had their own beau geste figures: a man who is active rather than passive in his stance, whose physical action is founded on metaphysical speculation and resulting in an answer to that speculation. This is the essence of the heroic, of the heraldic, and, in its fullest form, of the dandy-the translation of dreamer into man of action, a rescue operation firstly for the self and then for the universe. (Pine, 12)

This is the critical point at which the dandy and the herald part company. The dandy is concerned with style, and for the pure dandy the accomplishment of manners, the aristocracy of taste, results in sublimation. For the herald the principal concern, beyond style, is with identity, with an accomplishment of mind and ethics, with renewal of self-knowledge rather than the mere proclamation of an ego. Where the dandy affirms, the herald needs to attest, where dandyism is born out of ennui, heraldry is the child of despair or outrage, a child often savage in defense of the identity it has just proclaimed. Dandy into herald equals artist into autist. The difference is due to the social purpose the herald knows because he is dandy not only of manners but also of mind and of ethics. Where the dandy tells society about himself, the herald tells society about itself. The dandy acts out the comedy of manners; he conceals and refines; today’s heralds have lived through the theatres of cruelty, despair and the absurd; they proclaim in crudity. (Pine, 12-13)

The dandy was an Apollonian figure of perfection – an effete beautiful boy: the Greek beautiful boy is – in Camille Paglia’s sense, one of the west’s great sexual personae. Like Artemis, he has no exact equivalent in other cultures. His cult returns whenever Apollonianism rebounds, as in Italian Renaissance art. The beautiful boy is an androgyne, luminously masculine and feminine. He has male muscle structure but a dewy girlishness. In Greece he inhabited the world of hard masculine action. His body was on view, striving nude in the palestra. Greek athletics, like Greek law, were theater, a public agon. They imposed mathematics on nature: how fast? how far? how strong? The beautiful boy was the focus of Apollonian space. All eyes were on him. His broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted body was a masterwork of Apollonian articulation, every muscle group edged and contoured. There was even a ropy new muscle, looping the hips and genitals. Classic Athens found the fatty female body unbeautiful, because it was not a visible instrument of action. The beautiful boy is Adonis, the Great Mother’s son-lover, now removed from nature and cleansed of the chthonian. Like Athena, he is reborn through males and clad in the Apollonian armour of his own hard body.9


Edward Burns Jones

Aubrey Beardsley would typify the last of the decadents. His works are amazingly voluminous, rivalling the two Fausts in variety of androgynes: angels, beautiful boys, ephebes, eunuchs, Amazons, viragos, vampires, earth mothers. He creates a vast self-enclosed realm of esoteric sexual personae. Rousseau’s self-reflexiveness reaches a painful extremity in Beardsley’s erotic mentalizations. Like Whitman and Genet, Beardsley vivifies his sexual universe by the masturbatory principle of Khepera, the Egyptian First Mover. The compulsive self-population of art usurps nature’s powers. (SP, 506) He began as a disciple of the Pre-Raphaelites. From Burne-Jones he takes the Spenserian thicket of embowered nature, which he redramatizes as elegant conjunctions of perverse sexual personae. Rococo is vernal, lyrical. Beardsley’s sharp line is harsh and Blakean; he inherits Art Nouveau’s daemonized Apollonianism. Chthonian danger is ever-near in him, as it never is in rococo. Elizabeth Siddal’s face appears on both sexes throughout Beardsley, in homage to Rossetti and Burne-Jones. She gives her lips to his early bosomy Hermaphroditus; she is Venus on the title page of the Swinburnian Venus and Tannhäuser; she becomes three longhaired pageboys in the first Toilette of Salomé. Something odd: Siddal as Venus looks exactly like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. So, like all living myths, one of the most famous women of our time evokes the hermaphrodite. Cecil Beaton confirms this, recording Jackie’s “suspicion of a mustache” and her “big boyish hands and feet.”10


Beardsley would turn the beautiful boy toward decadent closure in the grotesque worlds of a hellish paradise of ruination. Beardsley uses the many-breasted Ephesian Artemis, borrowed from Moreau, to symbolize the animalism of procreative woman. His ambivalence toward the mother is obvious in his Swinburnian Madonnas. The seductive Virgin of The Ascension of St. Rose of Lima is no alma mater. Her spiked Spanish Baroque crown makes her bristle like a black cat. Her obscene gesture, propositioning nuzzling St. Rose, comes from Leonardo. The eagerly consensual saint is a lesbian Ganymede. The white innocent is swept toward heaven by the Virgin’s great black cape, billowing voraciously in the wind. Beardsley repeats the pattern on terra firma in A Christmas Card: a Black Madonna, sporting her informal at home spiked crown, dandles a white infant on her lap. The whole picture is nightmarishly black, from the imprisoning forest, in which Botticelli’s pines suffer a population explosion, to the Virgin’s funereal robe, an ermine-bordered black-velvet tapestry with silver-filigree flowers. The drowning white child is a frail Persephone in the bowels of hell. (SP, 511)

In Sarrasine the first of Honoré de Balzac’s decadent fictions we are already introduced to the sense of enclosure and the twin motifs of Love and Death:

I was buried in one of those profound reveries to which everybody, even a frivolous man, is subject in the midst of the most uproarious festivities. The clock on the Elysee-Bourbon had just struck midnight. Seated in a window recess and concealed behind the undulating folds of a curtain of watered silk, I was able to contemplate at my leisure the garden of the mansion at which I was passing the evening. The trees, being partly covered with snow, were outlined indistinctly against the grayish background formed by a cloudy sky, barely whitened by the moon. Seen through the medium of that strange atmosphere, they bore a vague resemblance to spectres carelessly enveloped in their shrouds, a gigantic image of the famous Dance of Death.

 -Honore de Balzac

The sense of the grotesque, the gothic macabre, and the underworld of strange journeys between life and death pervade this liminal masterpiece. His anonymous narrator moves from the social world of light and noise to the enclosed decadent world of night and eternal silence, love and eros; a shifting galaxy of images that bend and twist between the “Light quiverings of the body, voluptuous movements, made the laces and gauzes and silks swirl about their graceful figures,” and “the depressing, silent image of death; at my left the decorous bacchanalia of life; on the one side nature, cold and gloomy, and in mourning garb; on the other side, man on pleasure bent”. And, as the interlocutor admits, he is “standing on the borderland of those two incongruous pictures, which repeated thousands of times in diverse ways, make Paris the most entertaining and most philosophical city in the world, I played a mental macedoine [game], half jesting, half funereal”.

The narrator tells the tale of Sarrasine a young decadent artist who falls in love with Zambinella (who is secretly a castrato who dresses as a woman), going to all of her performances and creating a clay mold of her. After spending time with her at a party, Sarrasine attempts to seduce Zambinella. She is reticent, suggesting some hidden secret or danger to their alliance. Sarrasine becomes increasingly convinced that Zambinella is the ideal woman. Sarrasine develops a plan to abduct her from a party at the French embassy. When Sarrasine arrives, Zambinella is dressed as a man. Sarrasine speaks to a cardinal, who is Zambinella’s patron, and is told that Zambinella is a castrato.

Roland Barthes identifies castration as one of the novella’s main concerns. Zambinella is a castrato. Because women were not allowed on the Roman stage, castrati regularly played the parts of women. The tradition of the castrati ended in France before it did in Italy, and when Sarrasine arrives in Italy and meets Zambinella, he does not know about it. Because Zambinella has the voice of a woman Sarrasine assumes La Zambinella is a woman. La Zambinella suggests that her womanhood might be in question, but Sarrasine is too enthralled with La Zambinella as the perfect woman to pay any attention. When Sarrasine finally learns Zambinella is a castrato, he first denies the possibility, then tries to kill La Zambinella, upon which he is himself killed.

The Girl with the Golden Eyes (written March 1834-April 1835) is the second of Balzac’s Decadent fictions incarnating the dandy as an ambiguous figure of fascination. Structurally, it resembles Sarrasine: a mysterious woman is followed into a dangerous labyrinth and private prison. Both sexual adventures end in death, but now it is not the passionate pursuer but the sequestered sex-object who is slain. The dandy Henri de Marsay, hero of The Girl with the Golden Eyes, is one of Balzac’s recurring characters, later rising to Prime Minister. At the Opéra in Lost Illusions, where he crushes provincial Lucien de Rubempré with patrician snobbery, De Marsay has “a kind of girlish beauty: beauty of a languid, effeminate kind.”  His androgyny causes all the trouble of The Girl with the Golden Eyes. (SP, 349)

Idle and spoiled, De Marsay holds no ethical or political beliefs whatever. The English Regency dandy was a final flowering of eighteenth-century epicene style, as embodied in that slippery court hermaphrodite, Lord Hervey. De Marsay is based on contemporary Parisian dandies like the Due de Morny, with his “effeminate charm.” 11 De Marsay must take his name from the Comte d’Orsay, the bewitching “Dandy or Exquisite” whom Lady Blessington scandalously added to her entourage. Byron called him “a beauty.”12  The New Yorker’s supercilious, monocled Eustace Tilley is a dandy of the D’Orsay type.

Sartre says Baudelaire turned the English dandy’s virile athleticism into “feminine coquettishness.” 13 But Barbey already calls dandies “the Androgynes of History,” belonging to “an indecisive intellectual sex,” combining grace with power. 14 There was nothing athletic in the languid Baudelaire, who had, says Gautier, a neck of “feminine elegance and whiteness.” 15 Gautier calls him a cat, that favorite animal of aesthetes and Decadents. In A Rebours, Huysman’s great novel of the dandy, Des Esseintes builds a palace of art against nature, but in his dreams nature comes to reclaim and devour him. This decadent temple and enclosure of the dandy becomes a House of Beauty and Death. Huysmans’ poisonous genital flowers are botanic androgynes, like Lewis Carroll’s shrewish rose and tiger-lily. “Androgynous” is actually a scientific term for plants with staminate and pistillate flowers in one cluster. The female vegetation of A Rebours relates to some amazingly misogynous remarks Huysmans made about Degas’ paintings of bathing women. He speaks of “the humid horror of a body which no washing can purify.”16  Humid horror: here is that inescapable connection I find between female physiology and the chthonian liquid realm. (SP, 434) A Rebours culminates this movement to broaden the rationalist French language. Huysmans’ rich, bizarre vocabulary is both antiquarian and futurist. Symons said, “He could describe the inside of a cow hanging in a butcher’s shop as beautifully as if it were a casket of jewels.”17

The final appearance of the dandy would be in the glamorous leading males of Hollywood. Movies from the Thirties through the Fifties used actors of this kind to illustrate a singular male beauty, witty and polished, uniting sensitivity of response to intense heterosexual glamour: Leslie Howard, Rex Harrison, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, David Niven, Michael Wilding, George Hamilton. The idiomatic qualities are smoothness and elongation: smooth both in manner and appearance, long in ectomorphic height and Nordic cranial contour. One is reminded, for instance, of the astounding narrowness of Cary Grant’s shiny black evening pumps in Indiscreet (1958). The smoothness and elongation of figure are best shown off by a gleaming tuxedo, signifying a renunciation of masculine hirsutism. The debonair cinematic gentleman is usually prematurely balding, with hair swept back at the temples. His receding hairline is sexually expressive, suggesting hermaphroditic gentility, a grace of intellect and emotion. The flowing hyacinthine hair of the beautiful boy traps the beholder’s eye, a portent of future enslavement. (SP, 533-534)

In the end it is about desire and the gaze – the eye of the decadent narcissist seeking in the mirror of the erotic other a semblance of his own features; a slave to his own desires, he fends off the natural and woman through wit or subterfuge, lost in a gaze that is both tormenting and full of that bittersweet jouissance that brings neither pleasure nor closure, the dandy is caught in his own trap of artificialness, a victim of his own hierarchal need for purity and evasion. Yet, in the end Nature, the Grand Dame, the Medusan Queen of the Eye penetrates into even this protected lair to find and slay her beautiful boy son in eternal stone.

  1. Gautier, Théophile. Charles Baudelaire, His Life (English Edition) (Kindle Locations 76-80). LONDON  GREENING & CO.
  2. Pine, Richard. The Dandy and the Herald: Manners, Mind and Morals from Brummell to Durrell. Palgrave Macmillan; First Edition edition (June 1988)
  3. Baudelaire, Charles. Selected Writings, 421– 422, cited in St. John, 215.
  4. Maroutian, Shannon – The True Wildean Dandy: An Analysis of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Dawson English Journal: Issue no. 4, winter 2013
  5. Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945. Aubrey Beardsley (Kindle Location 221). London : J.M. Dent & Co.. Kindle Edition.
  6. Warren, Ramsey. Jules Laforgue and the Ironic Inheritance. (Oxford, 1953)
  7. Custance, Olive (1897). “Pierrot”. The Yellow Book, An Illustrated Quarterly. XIII. p. 121. Retrieved 2016-07-01 – via Internet Archive.
  8. Jean Rook, “Waiting for Bowie, and finding a genius who insists he’s really a clown”, Daily Express, 5 May 1976.
  9. Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 110).  Yale University Press (September 10, 1990)
  10. Self-Portrait with Friends: The Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton, ed. Richard Buckle (New York, 1979), 341.
  11. Corentin Guyho, quoted in Félicien Marceau, Balzac and His World, trans. Derek Coltman (New York, 1966), 44.
  12. Ellen Moers, The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm (New York, 1960), 148n.
  13. Baudelaire, trans. Martin Turnell (New York, 1950), 147
  14. The Anatomy of Dandyism, trans. D. B. Wyndham Lewis (London 1928), 65. Though Barbey’s essay is disorganized, the French advance in sociological speculation is already evident from the following two passages. Thomas Carlyle says, “A Dandy is a Clothes-wearing Man, a Man whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes.” But Barbey says: “Here is a veritable truth about Dandyism. The clothes matter not at all. They are hardly there” (8n). Carlyle, Sartor Resartus and Selected Prose, intro. Herbert Sussman (New York, 1970), 248.
  15. ibid. Anatomy: 221.
  16. Against Nature, trans. Robert Baldick (Baltimore, 1959), 208– 09. This superb translation is by far the best.
  17. The Symbolist Movement in Literature, intro. Richard Ellmann (New York, 1958), 81.


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