left: Alfred Bardey, businessman; center (in checkered suit): Jules
Suel, proprietor of Hotel de l'Univers; second from left: the Bad Boy
of Charleville, age 26(?)
It was reported in mid April: "Two French booksellers have discovered the only clear image of the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud as an adult, after stumbling across it at a flea market." I was amazed. For Rimbaud enthusiasts -- outside of the discovery of La Chasse Spirituelle (called Rimbaud's masterpiece by Verlaine) or later writings -- what could be better than a newly discovered photograph? It was exciting. But shortly after I heard this news, a man named Jacques Quentin started posting comments on various blogs saying that the photo was a forgery created by a man named Raphaël Zacharie de Izarra. Doubt started to build. Jacques Quentin: "The discovery of the photo dates back two years. Troubling: around that same time a certain Izarra protested to whoever would pay attention -- and nobody seemed to want to take seriously the hearing of his pretentious expressions -- that he was the author of "Bismarck's Dream," another inestimable Rimbaldien treasure rescued from the rubbish by a bookseller in Charleville-Mézières." Quentin then goes on to mock the "dizzying certitude" of Rimbaud expert Jean-Jacques Lefrère, who has authenticated the photo (after two years of study!): "...it's with the same conviction, not to say the same fervor, that Bismarck's Dream was decreed authentic. Nothing more resembles one portrait than another portrait, if the heart gets carried away in the least. One questions the methods employed by these imprudent specialists seeking to pass along to posterity the face of a perfect nobody confused with Rimbaud under the pretext of a sign on a hotel in the guise of a (false) footprint for the stars of Parnassus, on the hunt for myths..."
As these remarks spread, many bloggers retracted their original post on the discovery of the 1880 photo, saying that it was a hoax after all. And that's the reason I waited so long to make any mention of it here: I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I researched the subject online and exchanged opinions and information with my friend (and Rimbaud translator) D.J. Carlile. Concerning the appearance of the photo itself, I came to the conclusion that, if it's a hoax, it's a work of genius. Whoever made it knew to make the likeness resemble the less famous Carjat photo of Rimbaud, which was said by those who knew him -- especially his teacher Georges Izambard and his good friend Ernest Delahaye -- to be a much better likeness than the more famous, angelic one. His hairline in the new photograph also seemingly matches the later, blurry African photos, he has the same droopy eyes, and the ear also looks to be exactly correct. And if the photo itself is real and not somehow crafted or doctored, then what are the odds that Alfred Bardey, Rimbaud's employer in 1880, would be seated somewhere alongside Jules Suel without it being on the veranda of the Hotel de l'Universe in Aden? And if that is indeed the Universe Hotel, then who else would this mysterious man resembling Rimbaud be? Henri Lucereau? (As D.J. wrote to me, "this was not a vacation spot.") Everything matches up.
Here are some excerpts from the article Un nouveau visage d'Arthur Rimbaud après la découverte d'une photo inédite (A new face for Arthur Rimbaud after the discovery of an unpublished photo), found in the Belgium newspaper La Libre that, for me, authenticate the photo as much as I feel is personally necessary (especially considering the fact that the voice that says otherwise is coming from the murky depths of the unknown):
"...For authenticity the image, presented Thursday at the Antiquarian Book salon in Paris, the two booksellers had called upon Jean-Jacques Lefrère, specialist in Rimbaud and author of the [recent] book "Arthur Rimbaud: Posthumous Correspondence 1891-1900." [as well as the 1242 page "ultimate biography" Arthur Rimbaud.]
"After a number of comparisons with other photos, various letters, and poring over the minutiae for two years, consisting particularly of aging the Carjat photo, and having analyzed among other things Rimbaud's hairline, the image was judged authentic.
"Rimbaud the adult now has a face... It is neither the young poet of 17 immortalized by Carjat's photo nor the gaunt phantom convict found in the very blurred images before his death," comments Jean-Jacques Lefrère.
"He appears with an intensity nearly troublesome. This is the true Rimbaud, the individual in his truthfulness as an earthly man who eludes objectivity and is such an unknowable personality, not even by Verlaine."
[seated next to Rimbaud is] "Jules Suel, in the checkered outfit, proprietor of the Universe Hotel, who co-financed Rimbaud's 1886 expedition into Tadjoura, on the Red Sea, and the Kingdom of Menelik, who would become Negus, king of Ethiopia, one year later," recounts Mr. Lefrère.
"This became an insane adventure, this business of a caravan of armaments in what one might call the Wild West of the era. The caravan preceding had been massacred (and) it turned out to be a terrible physical ordeal on camel back..."