Félicien Rops: The Irreverent Symbolist 2

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), Sphinx (c 1882), media and dimensions not known, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these two articles about the Symbolist draftsman, printmaker and painter Félicien Rops (1833–1898), I looked at his career and work up to 1878, when he started to concentrate more on the occult and erotic.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), Pornocrates (1878), watercolour, pastel and gouache on paper, 75 x 45 cm, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Pornocrates, or Woman with a Pig from 1878 is Rops’ best-known work. It shows a nearly-naked woman whose gloves and stockings only serve to eroticise her nakedness, being led by a pig tethered on a lead like a dog. She wears a blindfold, and an exuberant black hat, all suggesting that she is a courtesan or prostitute. In the air are three winged amorini, and below is a frieze containing allegories of sculpture, music, poetry and painting.

Various readings have been proposed for this, most of which assume that the pig is a symbol of (male) man, although Rops clearly hasn’t equipped it as a boar. It does have a golden tail, though, which probably signifies luxury and consumption as an evil. The position of the upper part of the painting over the allegories of the arts has also to be taken into account.

Amazingly, this painting wasn’t exhibited until 1886, when Rops showed it with the circle of the XX. It caused great offence and scandal, as would surely have been expected.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1878), pastel and gouache on paper, 73.8 × 54.3 cm, Cabinet des estampes, Bibliothèque Royale Albert Ier, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

That same year, Rops painted his satirical and irreverent version of the popular religious devotional motif of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, which must have curled the hair of a few clerics of the day.

Bound to the cross in Saint Anthony’s tempting vision is a visibly voluptuous woman, the word EROS replacing the normal initialism of INRI (Iēsūs/Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum, meaning Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews) shown above Christ’s head. Christ himself, with full stigmata, has been knocked sideways to accommodate the woman’s naked body. Behind the cross, the horned devil wears scarlet robes and pulls faces. Behind him is a pig, Anthony’s attribute, and possibly a cross-reference to Pornocrates. The two daemonic putti are decidedly not references to Bosch.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), The Incantation (c 1878), tempera, watercolour, pen and ink, 32 x 18 cm, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Another more gentle painting about the occult from about the same time is The Incantation (c 1878). A Faustian character sits in front of an open copy of Compendium Maleficarum, a witch-hunter’s manual first published in Latin in 1608. He’s surrounded by the tools of his trade: alembics, a sprig of mandrake, a pelican, an owl, and a black cat is behind his chair. He has just conjured up a naked young woman, who is popping out of a picture frame. It all seems very good fun, as if witchcraft was a pursuit for every family.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), La foire aux amours (The Love Fair) (The Cage) (1878-1881), pencil and watercolour on paper, 27 × 20.5 cm (10.6 × 8.1 in), Musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

At times, Rops’ symbolism can become cryptic, as is the case with his Love Fair or Cage from 1878-1881. The old crone is procuring for the young woman with her cage full of babies. But what of the prominent tortoise with butterfly wings in the foreground? Tortoises are, I understand, a sign of love, although in this ribald composition I suspect that’s intended to be thoroughly carnal, and probably ephemeral too.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), Farewell to Madness – Better to Laugh Than Be Destroyed With Tears (1878-1881), black chalk, watercolour, gouache, pastel, coloured pencil and gold, 22 x 15 cm, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Farewell to Madness – Better to Laugh Than Be Destroyed With Tears from 1878-1881 is another work which doesn’t make easy reading, in some ways echoing the appearance of the woman in The Incantation.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), Down and Out (1882), pastel and crayon on paper, 45.5 x 30 cm, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

The 1880s was the time that Naturalism became all the rage at the Salon, led by the popular Jules Bastien-Lepage. Rops responded by drawing and painting the seedy side of life in Paris, including this quite tender portrait of a low-end prostitute, Down and Out in 1882. She stands next to a sheet on the wall headed TARIF.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), Sphinx (c 1882), media and dimensions not known, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Sphinx from about 1882 is a lyrical if idiosyncratic take on this classical Greek motif. Standing behind the woman who is embracing the sphinx is a spider-limbed devil in dinner dress.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), Les Sataniques. Satan Sowing Tares (1882), coloured aquatint, 25.7 x 18 cm, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1882, Rops produced two series of drawings, paintings and prints centred on Satanic cults and the occult. The first was a series of his own making titled Les Sataniques, or The Satanics, which he intended to publish as a book. Most of his images remain controversial, and are considered by some to be both pornographic and offensive. One of the less shocking is his second version of Satan Sowing Tares, which is set over the city of Paris, and may refer to Baudelaire’s poem Dawn in Les Fleurs du Mal.

The other series was a set of illustrations for the second edition of a collection of short stories about crimes of violent depravity, Les Diaboliques or The She-Devils, which he later reworked.

In 1883, Rops was honoured by the invitation to join the Circle of the XX as one of its founding members, alongside James Ensor, Théo van Rysselberghe, Fernand Khnopff and others. He also joined the arts and literary circle of Stéphane Mallarmé, which was frequented by most of the major figures in modern French art and literature.

Félicien Rops (1833-1898), Hamadryad (c 1885), gouache, watercolour, ink wash, crayon, pen and ink, grattage, dimensions not known, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, Canada. Image by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons.

As Rops entered his fifties, his themes moderated, although they didn’t necessarily become any easier to read. In his Hamadryad from about 1885, nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems.

The nude woman is seen embracing the trunk of a tree, and is definitely not a part of it. In her left arm, she holds a blue cape, and around the foot of the tree, white garments (or pieces of fabric) are scattered. There is a green furled umbrella on the ground, with a woman’s hat on top. Around the base of the tree, and decorating the woman’s hair, are scarlet flowers.

Rops has written at the top of the sheet about ‘Le Grand Pan’ singing, and at the lower left about travels to the countries of the ‘vieux dieux’, or old gods. Perhaps the woman has come to visit her lover the Hamadryad, and has undressed to make love?

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), The Beach at Heist (1886), media and dimensions not known, Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Image by Paul Hermans, via Wikimedia Commons.

He returned to more conventional motifs, such as this fine oil sketch of The Beach at Heist (1886), a town now known as Knokke-Heist in West Flanders, Belgium, then a popular beach resort in the summer.

In 1892, Rops had an accident with chemicals and nearly lost his sight as a result. Although it stopped him from working for a while, his sight gradually improved, allowing him to make more prints as he grew older and more infirm.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), Old Kate (1895), heliogravure and roulette, 25.9 x 19.5 cm, Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, GA. Wikimedia Commons.

Among his late prints are sensitive portraits, such as this of Old Kate from 1895.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), Parallelism (c 1896), heliogravure, 33.5 × 21.2 mm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

But the irreverent re-emerged occasionally, as in this wonderful print titled Parallelism from about 1896, a magnificent harpy.

Félicien Rops died at his home in Paris, still in his strange ménage à trois, on 23 August 1898. The largest public collection of his works and papers is the museum dedicated to him in his home town of Namur, Belgium, where most of the works shown in these two articles are held.