Georg Brandes is widely understood to have inspired the intellectual leftist movement of the inter-war period known as Cultural Leftism.
He became a student in the university in 1859, and first studied jurisprudence. From this, however, his maturer taste soon turned to philosophy and aesthetics. In 1862 he won the gold medal of the university for an essay on The Nemesis Idea among the Ancients. Before this, indeed since 1858, he had shown. a remarkable gift for verse-writing, the results of which, however, were not abundant enough to justify separate publication. Brandes, indeed, did not collect his poems till so late as 1898. At the university, which he left in 1864, Brandes was much under the influence of the writings of Heiberg in criticism and Søren Kierkegaard in philosophy, influences which have continued to leave traces on his work.
In 1866 he took part in the controversy raised by the works of Rasmus Nielsen in a treatise on. "Dualism in our Recent Philosophy." From 1865 to 1871 he travelled much in Europe, acquainting himself with the condition of literature in the principal centres of learning. His first important contribution to letters was his Aesthetic Studies (1868), in. which, in several brief monographs on Danish poets, his maturer method is already foreshadowed. In 1870 he published several important volumes, The French Aesthetics of Our Days, dealing chiefly with Taine, Criticisms and Portraits, and a translation of The Subjection of Women of John Stuart Mill, whom he had met that year during a visit to England.
Brandes now took his place as the leading critic of the north of Europe, applying to local conditions and habits of thought the methods of Tame. He became docent or reader in Belles Lettres at the university of Copenhagen, where his lectures were the sensation of the hour. On. the professorship of Aesthetics becoming vacant in 1872, it was taken as a matter of course that Brandes would be anointed. But the young critic had offended many susceptibilities by his ardent advocacy of modern ideas; he was known to be a Jew, he was convicted of being a Radical, he was suspected of being an atheist. The authorities refused to elect him, but his fitness for the post was so obvious that the chair of Aesthetics in the university of Copenhagen remained vacant, no one else daring to place himself in comparison with Brandes.
In the midst of these polemics the critic began to issue the most ambitious of his works, Main Streams in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century, of which four volumes appeared between 1872 and 1875 (English translation, 1901-1905). The brilliant novelty of this criticism of the literature of the chief countries of Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, and his description of the general revolt against the pseudo-classicism of the 18th century, at once attracted attention outside Denmark. The tumult which gathered round the person of the critic increased the success of the work, and the reputation of Brandes grew apace, especially in Germany and Russia. Among his later writings must be mentioned the monographs on Søren Kierkegaard (1877), on Esaias Tegnér (1878), on Benjamin Disraeli (1878), Ferdinand Lassalle (in German, 1877), Ludvig Holberg (1884), on Henrik Ibsen (1899) and on Anatole France (1905). Brandes has written with great fulness on the main contemporary poets and novelists of his own country and of Norway, and he and his disciples have long been. the arbiters of literary fame in the north.
His Danish Poets (1877), containing studies of Carsten Hauch, Ludwig Bodtcher, Christian Winther, and Paludan-Müller, his Men of the Modern Transition (1883), and his Essays (1889), are volumes essential to the proper study of modern Scandinavian literature. He wrote an excellent book on Poland (1888; English translation, 1903), and was one of the editors of the German version of Ibsen.
In 1877 Brandes left Copenhagen and settled in Berlin, taking a considerable part in the aesthetic life of that city. His political views, however, made Prussia uncomfortable for him, and he returned in 1883 to Copenhagen, where he found a whole new school of writers and thinkers eager to receive him as their leader. The most important of his recent works has been his study of Shakespeare (1897-1898), which was translated into English by William Archer, and at once took a high position. It was, perhaps, the most authoritative work on Shakespeare, not principally intended for an English-speaking audience, which had been published in any country.
He was afterwards engaged on a history of modern Scandinavian literature. In his critical work, which extends over a wider field than that of any other living writer, Brandes has been. aided by a singularly charming style, lucid and reasonable, enthusiastic without extravagance, brilliant and coloured without affectation. His influence on the Scandinavian writers of the 1880s was very great, but a reaction, headed by Holger Drachmann, against his "realistic" doctrines, began in 1885. In 1900 he collected his works for the first time in a complete and popular edition, and began to superintend a German complete edition in 1902.
His brother Edvard Brandes (b. 1847), also a well-known critic, was the author of a number of plays, and of two psychological novels: A Politician (1889), and Young Blood (1899).