Gerard de Nerval

Portrait of Gerard de Nerval

Gerard de Nerval: (1808-1855) was a French poet, novelist and translator and was the pseudonym of Gerard Labrunie. He was born in Paris, France on 22nd May 1808 and died there on 26th January 1855 aged 46.

Major Works

“Les Faux Saulniers” (The Salt Smugglers) 1850) 
“Voyage en Orient” (Voyage in the East) (1851)
“Lorely, Souvenirs d’Allemagne” (1852)
“Les Filles du Feu” (The Daughters of Fire”) (1854)

Biography Timeline

Gerard de Nerval (the pseudonym of Gerard Labrunie) was born on 22nd May 1808 in Paris, France. His father Étienne Labrunie was a doctor who served in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Rhine Army. His mother, Marie Marguerite Antoinette Laurent, was the daughter of a clothing salesman.

1808: In June, soon after his birth, his father takes his mother with the army to Germany and Austria, eventually settling in a hospital in Glogow, modern Poland. He is left in the care of his mother’s uncle, Antoine Boucher, who lives in Mortefontaine in the Valois region.

1810: His mother dies on 29th November before she can return to France. 

1814: His father returns to France and sets up a medical practice in Paris and takes his son with him although he visits his other relatives regularly.

1822: He attends the Collège de Charlemagne in Paris and meets the novelist Theophile Gautier there. The two become lasting friends. 

1824: He starts writing poetry and pens one about Napoleon’s defeat called Napoléon ou la France Guerrière, Elégies Nationales” (National Elegies: Napoleon or France at War). He also begins writing satire aiming at the Prime Minister and some non-liberal newspapers.

1826: His first works begin to be published.

1828: He translates Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust” which is praised by the author himself and which Hector Berlioz later uses as a basis for his “La Damnation de Faust”.

1829: He passes out of school two years late largely due to the fact that he often skipped classes and went for a walk instead. He gets a job at a notary’s office to please his father but still continues to write.

1830: A group called the Cenacle is created by the poet Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve which supports Victor Hugo in his production of the play “Hernani”. Nerval joins others such as Alexandre Dumas and Honore de Balzac in this endeavour. After the play the group called the Petit-Cénacle is formed and he attends some of their meetings in the painter Jean Bernard Duseignuer’s studio.

1832: He becomes sympathetic to the liberal and republican political movements and is briefly imprisoned for joining student demonstrations. 

1834: Inspired by Victor Hugo he starts to write plays. “Le Prince des Sots” and “Lara ou l’Expiation” are performed at the Theatre de l’Odeon and are well received by the critics. It is around this time he begins to use his pseudonym Gérard de Nerval named after a property in Oise which had belonged to the family. His maternal grandfather dies leaving him a large sum of money and he uses it to travel to Florence, Rome and Naples in Italy. 

1835: On his return to France he moves in with a group of Romantic artists including Camille Rogier. In May he founds the literary journal “Le Monde Dramatique” with his inheritance.

1836: The journal is not a success and leaves him with debts and he sells it. He travels to Belgium with Gautier in July. He meets and is reputed to fall in love with the actress Jenny Colon.

1837: The opera “Piquillo” is performed at the Opéra-Comique. Despite the libretto being a joint effort only Dumas’s name appears on the programme. Jenny Colon performs the main role.

1838: Jenny Colon marries another man much his disappointment. In the summer he travels with Dumas to Germany to work on “Léo Burckart”.

1839: “Léo Burckart” is premiered at the Theatre de la Porte-Saint-Martin in Paris on 16th April shortly after another joint effort with Dumas, the play “L’Alchimiste” (The Alchemist). In November he travels to Vienna, where he meets the Belgian pianist Marie Pleyel at the French embassy. 

1840: In March, back in France, he takes over Gautier’s column in the newspaper “La Presse”. He travels to Belgium in October. On 15th December “Piquillo” is premiered in Brussels, where he meets Jenny Colon and Marie Pleyel once more.

1841: He suffers a nervous breakdown on 23rd February and is cared for at the Sainte-Colombe Borstal. On 1st March Jules Janin publishes his obituary in the “Journal des Débats”. After another breakdown he is taken in by Dr Esprit Blanche’s clinic in Montmartre where he remains until November.

1842: Colon dies and he is deeply upset. On 22nd December he travels to Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt and then visits Constantinople, Malta and Naples.

1843: Back in Paris he begins writing “Voyage en Orient” (Voyage to the East) which includes ancient mythology and religious themes.

1844: He publishes articles about his recent trip and then visits Belgium, the Netherlands and London, England. He also writes novellas and opera librettos and translates poems by his friend Heinrich Heine which are published in 1849.

1850: He publishes “Les Faux Saulniers” (The Salt Smugglers).

1851: “Voyage en Orient” is published. Meanwhile his behaviour is seen as increasingly erratic, even taking his pet lobster, called Thibault, for a walk through the streets of Paris.

1853: He is locked up for his own safety on several occasions. He writes the short story “Sylvie” about the countryside of his childhood. He begins writing “Aurelia” in which he describes his obsessions, hallucinations and his unrequited love.

1854: He publishes “Des Filles du Feu” (Girls of Fire) which includes “Sylvie”, and the sonnet “Les Chimères” (The Chimeras).

Gerard de Nerval was found dead hanging from the bar of a cellar window in the rue de la Vieille Lanterne, Paris on the night of 26th January 1855. His funeral was held at Notre Dame Cathedral and he was buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in the city. Theophile Gautier and Arsene Houssaye not only paid for the ceremony but published “Aurelia” later that year.