By the middle of the 1890s, Joséphin Péladan’s annual Salons de la Rose + Croix were proving popular with the public, and had been quite well-supported by artists too.
Edmond Aman-Jean’s full-length portrait of a Young Woman with a Peacock from 1895 is set on the green inside what looks like an old castle. Peacocks are symbolically rich: the birds associated with the goddess Juno, they commonly refer to beauty to the point of vanity. There is an unusual contrast between the woman’s dress, which is decorated with flowers, and the eyes of the peacock’s plumage, which according to myth are the eyes of Argus, plucked from his severed head by Juno.
Alphonse Osbert’s Reverie in the Night from 1895 combines his favourite elements, including just a sliver of a moon, in a painting of profound tranquillity, which defies any detailed reading, just as Osbert wished.
Carlos Schwabe’s watercolour tondo portrait of Medusa from the same year has startlingly feline eyes and that characteristic wide-mouthed look of utter horror. This is unusual for being one of the few close portraits in which Medusa is still alive.
In February 1896, Aman-Jean, Osbert and Schwabe were among those who exhibited with les artistes de l’âme (Artists of the Soul) in the lobby of Théâtre de la Bodinière in Paris. Although it attracted the attention of the critics of the day, its impact was less than that of the Salon de la Rose + Croix, but Péladan’s total control over the new movement was falling away.
Fernand Khnopff’s Art, or Caresses (1896) is an extraordinary work even by the Salon’s standards. Its androgynous youth holds an ornate caduceus (less the intertwined serpents) in his right hand, so presumably is intended to refer to Mercury/Hermes. His nipples appear to have been tattooed, or bear jewellery, and he is bare to the waist. He stands cheek-to-cheek with a sphinx having a young woman’s head and the body of a leopard.
The background encourages even greater speculation as to its interpretation. Behind the sphinx’s body is a wooden booth, which has non-Roman characters or ideograms written on it. Further in the distance to the right are two blue columns, with bases and caps of gold.
The Salon de la Rose + Croix of 1897 was the last to be held. Péladan’s writing suffered a hiatus too, and his movement quietly petered out as the twentieth century approached.
Among those who never exhibited at his Salons were Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon.
Péladan had been a great admirer of Moreau’s paintings, and once described the artist as the leader of Idealism (the term used then for the Symbolist movement) in France. But when Péladan visited Moreau, the latter seemed only to want to be rid of him. This precipitated an angry response from the ‘Sâr’, who attacked Moreau personally in a published article for being unreasonable. The result was that Moreau refused to engage with the Salons, and his last great Symbolist masterpiece Jupiter and Semele (1895) was never exhibited there.
Odilon Redon had recently been migrating the strange images which he’d developed in drawings and prints onto canvas, resulting in paintings such as Les Yeux Clos (Eyes Closed) from 1890. Although he exhibited in the Salon of the XX in Brussels in 1890, and had Durand-Ruel as his agent, he rejected Péladan’s cult and in 1894 organised his first solo exhibition, which also travelled to the Netherlands and Belgium.
Oedipus and the Sphinx had been one of the major stories depicted in paint during the nineteenth century, with significant paintings by JAD Ingres, Gustave Moreau and others. Redon took the Sphinx into a mediaeval court in this pastel painting of Mystical Knight from 1894, which must remain one of its most original treatments. Oedipus is carrying a disembodied head in his right arm as he out-stares the Sphinx.
There were other Symbolist painters of the time who don’t appear to have attracted Péladan’s attention
Among them was Eugen Bracht, who in 1889 had achieved fame with his Shore of Oblivion.
On a remote and forbidding shore, below towering rock slabs, small waves lap on the sandy beach below snowslopes. The low sun lights the top band across the rocks, while behind is a dense and dark bank of cloud. Scattered across the beach are large numbers of bleached white objects, which on close examination (detail below) prove to be human skulls, apparently washed up by the water. This is the apocalypse, all that remains of the human race, oblivion for humankind.
I don’t know what inspired this stark landscape. In the late nineteenth century, some expeditions took artists and photographers with them to record locations such as this. For example, in 1869 the American painter William Bradford (1823–1892) sailed with an expedition to the Arctic. Their copiously illustrated account of the journey was published in 1873, and the artist toured Britain at about that time. Bracht will also have had ample inspiration from views of the Alps.
This first version of The Shore of Oblivion was exhibited in Darmstadt in October 1889, to a rapturous reception, and the painting was acquired (free) by the Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig. A copy was made for Kaiser Wilhelm II, who hung it next to Böcklin’s Island of the Dead.
Another artist of whom Péladan seemed unaware was Giovanni Segantini, whose statelessness would have prevented him from travelling to Paris in any case.
The Punishment of Lust, from 1891, was Segantini’s first major Symbolist work, and is the antithesis of several paintings of good motherhood, starting from his first Ave Maria in 1882. Its literary basis is the poem Nirvana by his friend Luigi Illica, based on the visions of Alberico da Settefrati, a twelfth century Benedictine monk.
Two partially-clad young women wrapped in white shrouds hover in mid-air above the snow of a high Alpine valley. Two more women are floating further into the distance at the left. The artist wrote that these women are ‘wantons’ being held hostage in the space above a nirvana of ice and snow.
The landscape shown here is Lai Tigiel, high above Savognin in the Alps.
The Bad Mothers from 1894 is its companion. It has the same literary basis, but here shows a mother whose hair has become caught in the twisted branches of a barren tree, contorting her body to mirror the tree’s form. Trying to suckle at her breast is her child, who she spurns. Two other mothers are in similar situations deeper into the painting, to the left. This tells of the long and arduous path of atonement for mothers who indulge in hedonism and deny their love to their children.
My final omission from the Salons de la Rose + Croix is an American who spent much of his time in Europe.
Elihu Vedder’s finished version of Soul in Bondage from 1891-92 transformed an earlier motif into a startling scene dominated by swirling curves of fabric and cloud. Its figure holds a small snake, a reference to Original Sin and the Fall of Man, and a white butterfly, a symbol of fortune.
During the 1890s, Joséphin Péladan’s annual Salons attracted a lot of attention. They represented a thriving movement in art, which extended more widely. Although its approach and style were far from coherent or cohesive, it seems strange that should dissipate so quickly before the end of the century. Perhaps Péladan’s authoritarian leadership had been essential.