If you considered yourself any kind of artist or writer in Paris in the swinging sixties and seventies – the 1860s and 70s that is – then you carried a copy of Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) with you at all times, and would quote whole poems from it at the drop of an existential allusion.

After Rodin’s illustrations to the 1883 edition of Les fleurs du mal, Martin van Mäele was only the second artist to be commissioned to illustrate the ground-breaking work, in a limited edition produced by the prestigious Paris publisher J. Chevrel.

Les fleurs du mal, one of the most important literary contributions to the symbolist and modernist movements, was and is a milestone in poetry, bringing a fresh personal and emotional response to what Baudelaire saw as the boredom and rigidity of the art and morals of his time. A verse from the introduction illustrates his fiery vision:

     Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l’incendie,
     N’ont pas encore brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
     Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
     C’est que notre âme, hélas! n’est pas assez hardie.

     If rape, poison, dagger and fire
     Have still not embroidered their pleasant designs
     On the banal canvas of our pitiable destinies,
     It is because our soul, alas, is not bold enough!

Les fleurs du mal caused much moral outrage when it appeared. The poems, dealing with themes relating to decadence and eroticism, were judged ‘an insult to public decency’; the author and the publisher were prosecuted and Baudelaire fined. Six poems from the work were suppressed, the ban on their publication not being lifted in France until 1949.

Martin van Mäele’s fine etchings, together with ‘remarques’ or small additional images at the foot of this very limited edition, illustrate the following poems:
     Litanies de Satan (Litanies of Satan)
     Femmes damnées (Damned Women)
     La beauté (Beauty)
     Le revenant (The Revenant)
     Un fantôme (A Ghost)
     Les bijoux (The Jewels)
     Le Léthé (Lethe)
     Métamorphose du vampire (Metamorphosis of the Vampire)
     Les deux bonnes sœurs (The Two Good Sisters)
     Le vin de l’assassin (The Assassin’s Wine)
     Une martyre (A Martyr)

The Chevrel edition of Les fleurs du mal was published in a limited edition, of which just ten copies included three states of each plate with remarques.