This week’s Symbolist artist is the notorious Félicien Rops (1833–1898), who shocked the public during the last couple of decades of the nineteenth century with his irreverent and often explicitly sexual drawings, prints and paintings. Although closely associated with literary figures including Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, his work has slipped into relative obscurity, and critics have often dismissed it.
Félicien Victor Joseph Rops was born in Namur, a Walloon city in the Ardennes in Belgium. He came from an affluent family, and in 1851 went to the University of Brussels to read law. A couple of years later he seems to have transferred his attention to the Academy of Saint Luke, where he studied drawing and started living a more bohemian lifestyle, alongside the likes of Constantin Meunier. He also seems to have learned printmaking at this time, and in 1856 co-founded a satirical weekly review in which his lithographs were published.
Shortly after his marriage, Rops painted Entry to the Ball (c 1858), which surprisingly is in oils, in a sketchy style reminiscent of Honoré Daumier. It shows a destitute young man in tattered clothing hanging around the entrance to a ball, where there’s a much better-dressed couple looking the other way.
During the 1860s Rops often visited Paris, where he studied etching with Félix Bracquemond, and that technique came to dominate his prints by the mid 1860s. He became a close friend of Charles Baudelaire, spending much of his time with the writer.
Rops’ cover illustration for Baudelaire’s Les Épaves (Scraps) (1866) allies the skeleton of death with the seven deadly sins, named in Latin inscriptions in the lower half of his drawing. The commission required Rops to base this illustration on a now-lost woodcut titled Adam and Eve with the Tree of Knowledge as Death. The artist explained that the skeleton forms a tree with legs and ribs for a trunk, its outstretched arms sprouting poisonous plants as if they were arranged in a greenhouse. The ostrich shown in the lower cameo or medallion is swallowing a horseshoe.
The following year, he made this first version of Satan Sowing Tares (1867), which is an occultist revision of the popular Sower motif which was popular in social realism, originating in François Millet’s famous painting from 1850 and extending well towards the end of the century with other artists such as Vincent van Gogh. The Devil works by the light of a full moon, as he casts the seeds of weeds which will try to overwhelm the farmer’s crop.
After Baudelaire died in 1867, Rops spent most of time in Paris, where he was swept up in the Symbolist movement. He became embroiled in a series of extra-marital affairs which led to separation from his wife by 1875. By that time, Rops had settled into an unusual relationship with both the Duluc sisters, who ran a successful fashion house in Paris. Together they travelled to the US and Canada to present their fashions, and lived as a threesome in Rops’ house in Paris.
Woman with Puppet and Fan from 1873 is the first in a series of four paintings in what we’d now know as mixed media, in which Rops was a pioneer. These are variations on the same elements, of a ‘simple tart’ playing with a puppet, which is the allegory of (male) man. Here, the woman holds the limp puppet in the palm of her hand and looks on with obvious fascination. Rops painted the last in the series in 1890.
Head of an Old Woman From Antwerp (1873) is one of Rops’ fine figurative paintings of Belgian people which stand in contrast to the more radical images for which he is best known today.
He also painted many landscapes, typically of locations in his native country. The Rochers des Grands Malades (1876) shows a rock cliff beside the road running between Rops’ home city of Namur and Beez, in the Meuse valley. This appears to have been painted in front of the motif, in the spirit if not the manner of the Barbizon School.
Édouard Manet was a far stronger influence over Rops’ art in Sunday in Bougival from 1876, which shows a lecherous old man watching two young women preparing to bathe at this popular resort, which is only 15 km (10 miles) from the heart of Paris, on the bank of the Seine. Bougival was justly popular with landscape specialists among the French Impressionists, including Monet, Sisley and Renoir.
Rops also took up the theme of what went on off-stage at the ballet, In the Wings (c 1878). The French term for the stage wings, les coullisses, became synonymous with rich older men leering lecherously at the bodies of young and often impoverished ballet dancers. Rops leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of those relationships here, even dressing the man as Mephistopheles, from Goethe’s Faust.
That same year, Rops started to concentrate more on images of the occult and the erotic.