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Stéphane Mallarmé Photo

Stéphane Mallarmé

French Poet and Art Critic

Born: March 18, 1842 - Paris, France
Died: September 9, 1898 - Vulaines-sur-Seine, France
"The reproach that superficial people formulate against Manet, that whereas once he painted ugliness, now he paints vulgarity, falls harmlessly to the ground when we recognize the fact that he paints the truth."
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Stéphane Mallarmé
"Everything in the world exists to end up in a book."
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Stéphane Mallarmé
"Poetry is the expression, in human language reduced to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious sense of aspects of existence; it thereby graces our lives with authenticity and constitutes the only spiritual task."
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Stéphane Mallarmé
"Chance does not weaken verse, it's the important thing ... what we should especially aim for, in the poem, is that the words ... reflect one another to the point that they no longer have their own color but are only transitions in a scale."
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Stéphane Mallarmé

Summary of Stéphane Mallarmé

Stéphane Mallarmé is considered one of the greatest French poets of the later nineteenth century. He is most closely associated with the loosely defined Symbolist movement in literature and art, which centered on the expression of emotions and sensations rather than on reproducing observed reality. Although he led a fairly low-profile, middle-class life (unlike some of his more famous, bohemian colleagues including Arthur Rimbaud), his innovative and challenging use of language proved highly influential for subsequent writers, artists, musicians, and philosophers. He was also a champion of many of the avant-garde artists of the time, including the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Mallarmé's Tuesday evening gatherings, which he held at his Parisian home from 1877 until his premature death in 1898, became a meeting place for many of the leading figures in European arts and culture of the time.


  • Mallarmé sought to use language to capture ideas and sensations that were not fully expressed in words, combining words in unexpected ways that were often difficult to interpret. As he wrote to a friend, he wanted to capture "not the thing, but the effect it produces... all the words should fade away before the sensation." Even the blank space of the page was significant, as demonstrated particularly by his poem "Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard," (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), which is typeset with just a few words spread across otherwise empty pages.
  • Mallarmé was one of the first - along with novelist and critic Edmond Duranty - to write an extended defense of the emerging Impressionists, penning an 1876 article on their work. His essay suggests that the Impressionist artists' goals, to record the visual effects of a subject or scene as an observer perceives them, rather than an objective description, were similar to his own in poetry.
  • Like poet avant-garde and novelist Emile Zola, Mallarmé befriended many of the avant-garde artists of the time and used his writing to support and defend them against criticism. He also collaborated on numerous projects with them, from sitting for portraits to commissioning illustrations for his poems, although the challenge of providing a visual complement to his often enigmatic verses regularly proved difficult.
  • The ideas of Symbolism brought together a variety of avant-garde practitioners of different art forms who shared Mallarmé's interest in expressing abstract concepts and emotions; as Alex Ross describes it, "the goal was to discover novel spheres of expression: the unspoken word, the unpainted image, the unheard sound." Examples include composer Claude Debussy, whose "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" was inspired by Mallarmé's poem, and the disembodied dancing of Loie Fuller - with whom the poet was fascinated - which was enhanced by flowing robes and colored lights.

Biography of Stéphane Mallarmé

An 1887 caricature of Mallarmé as a faun, a reference to his famous poem

Mallarmé's writing was usually conventional in its form but radical in its aim to take apart language and find meaning beyond words; "I know of no other bomb than a book," he once wrote. As an avant-garde artist himself, he befriended and championed many other modern artists.

Stéphane Mallarmé and Important Artists and Artworks

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (1871)

Artist: James McNeill Whistler

Arguably James McNeill Whistler's most famous painting - often referred to as Whistler's Mother - this work shows Anna McNeill Whistler seated in left profile in the artist's studio in London. Wearing a black dress and a white lace cap, she stares steadily forward, her hands folded in her lap. The background is as austere as her dress, featuring a long black curtain or textile of Japanese design and one of Whistler's own etchings of the Thames River, Black Lion Wharf. The simplicity and shallow space of the composition, its emphasis on broad shapes, and the painting's original designation as an "arrangement" all highlight the artist's desire to focus on the abstract qualities of form and color rather than on narrative content in his work.

These goals surely appealed to Mallarmé, who similarly wished to capture immaterial effects in his poetry. The two men met in 1888 at Claude Monet's studio where, according to author Gordon Millan, "Mallarmé was greatly impressed by Whistler, whose ironic sense of humor and independent spirit struck a particular chord." Their professional relationship was initiated when the poet translated the artist's "Ten O'Clock Lecture" (in which he argued for the aesthetic value of art for its own sake) into French. And in 1891, when Whistler sought to sell the Arrangement in Grey and Black, Mallarmé was instrumental in securing its purchase by the French government, initially for the Luxembourg Museum to be transferred later to the Louvre. The painting also earned Whistler the honor of being named a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur, which Mallarmé himself presented to him in 1892. Whistler, for his part, made a lithograph portrait of Mallarmé which was published as the frontispiece to an anthology of his poems in 1893.

Le Linge (Laundry) (1875)

Artist: Édouard Manet

A woman accompanied by her child stands in the somewhat overgrown yard of a Parisian house, hanging out laundry to dry. The child is intent on her mother's chore, fascinating by the water pouring into the bucket, while the mother is equally absorbed in tenderly observing her child. Manet's painting was rejected for exhibition in the Paris Salon of 1876, so the artist determined to display it in his own studio, which he opened to the public for two weeks in April in an act of protest against the art establishment. The rejection also inspired Mallarmé to write an article for the September issue of the London periodical The Art Monthly Review titled "The Impressionists and Édouard Manet" in which he defined and defended Impressionism and its artists, although Manet never participated in the exhibitions that defined the group. It was, according to author Margaret Werth, "...arguably the most sophisticated reading of Impressionism in the 1870s."

In this now famous article, Mallarmé described the vibrant colors and play of light in this painting as a "fusion or ... struggle ever continued between surface and space, between color and air." He went on to suggest that contemporary artists' true medium was air, as they painted subjects outdoors that "palpitate[d] with movement, light, and life." As Werth notes, Mallarmé's emphasis on the atmospheric space around objects in Manet's work parallels his own search for meanings and sensations that eluded expression in the words of his poetic writing. This essay identified some of the radical goals of Manet and his Impressionist colleagues and helped solidify the relationship between the artist and the poet.

Stéphane Mallarmé (1876)

Artist: Édouard Manet

This painting captures a sense of Mallarmé's relationship with Manet, as well as of the poet's creative process. It depicts him comfortably seated in the artist's studio, which he visited "every day for ten years," he later claimed, to spend the afternoon in conversation with the artist and his colleagues. It was painted in the same year that Mallarmé wrote his article "The Impressionists and Édouard Manet," and that Manet supplied illustrations for Mallarmé's "Afternoon of a Faun." Mallarmé proudly displayed this portrait in his own apartment, where visitors to his Tuesday evening salons could admire it, and kept it throughout his life, passing it down to his daughter who then gave it to the Louvre.

The artist's body is entirely relaxed, leaning back into the sofa, while his mind seems actively engaged in reverie. The smoke rising from his cigar - which rarely left his hand - suggests his drifting state of mind, but it also gives visible form to the movement and air that Mallarmé proposed in his article as the true subject of the plein-air painters of contemporary life. In a poem published some twenty years later, he directly linked cigar smoke and creative expression, writing "all the soul is summarized / when we exhale it slowly / in several rings of smoke / abolished by other rings." Even the gesture of resting his hand on several sheets of paper suggests the creative act, as if his thoughts were being directly transmitted to the page. Although the portrait is small, Manet has effectively created both a physical and spiritual likeness of his friend.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Stéphane Mallarmé
Stéphane Mallarmé
Influenced by Stéphane Mallarmé
Friends & Personal Connections
Friends & Personal Connections
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Stéphane Mallarmé

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees

"Stéphane Mallarmé Influencer Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees
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First published on 25 Jun 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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