Friday, 17 April 2015

The Art of Félicien Rops

Félicien Rops was a Belgian artist, specialising in printmaking, etching and aquatint. He lived from July 1833 until August 1898. He trained at the University of Brussels and his work was part of, and complimented the literary movement, illustrating Symbolism and Decadence.

Although the movements of Symbolism and Decadence can be considered to be similar in one respect, the two remain distinct..

Decadence was the name given, originally by hostile critics, to several late nineteenth-century writers, who valued artifice more than the earlier Romantics naïve descriptions. Some of them adopted the name, referring to themselves as "Decadents". For the most part, they were influenced by the tradition of the Gothic novel and by the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe.

In Britain the main person associated with Decadence was Oscar Wilde.

Rops’ forté was drawing, more than painting in oils; he first won fame as a caricaturist. He experimented with a distinctive printmaking technique called "soft varnish" which resulted in an image that was very close to drawing, eventually mastering the technique after years of experimentation. He sketched incessantly and feverishly.

Like the works of the authors whose poetry he illustrated his work tends to mingle sex, death, and satanic images.

Rops met Charles Baudelaire towards the end of the poet's life in 1864, and Baudelaire left an impression upon him that lasted until the end of his days. Rops’ created the frontispiece for Baudelaire's Les Épaves, a selection of poems from Les Fleurs du mal that had been censored in France, and which therefore were published in Belgium.

Rops’ association with Baudelaire and with the art he represented, won his work the admiration of many other writers, including Théophile Gautier, Alfred de Musset, Stéphane Mallarmé, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, and Joséphin Péladan.

But let’s look at the art and see if we can fathom what critics and supporters of Rops’ were talking about.

Pornocrates by Félicien Rops.Etching and aquatint.

The etching has a defiantly pornographic tone. An almost naked, blindfolded, curvaceous woman, is led by a fat swine from somewhere, to nowhere. Cherubs flit like butterflies in misty blue. It is an image from a dream, tipping over into a nightmare. The erotica is explicit. Yes -- the woman is almost naked, but the few clothes she wears emphasise the helplessness of her situation.

Yet, she is dressed in garments that suggest that she is in control. Heeled shoes, long, opera gloves and sexy stockings. The silken blue sash emphasises her nudity. It is a work of art for the voyeur; there is a feeling that it is staged, that the subject wants to be seen in her decadent glory. Perhaps she is saying; “look at me!”

Or is this a pornographic fantasy that the woman is determined to see through, despite stepping into the realms of the taboo? The little tipping hat that she wears, suggests that she is someone of consequence; the dream symbolism is perhaps telling us something about ourselves. she has given up control, but she is in control.

It seems that Rops is illustrating the theories of Freud and Jung. No matter how hard we try to suppress our darkest thoughts, no matter our place in the social scale, our darkest desires will surface in art, fantasies and dreams; the stories that we tell.

In a letter to his friend Henri Liesse, Rops described the painting:

"My Pornocratie is complete. This drawing delights me. I would like to show you this beautiful naked girl, clad only in black shoes and gloves in silk, leather and velvet, her hair styled. Wearing a blindfold she walks on a marble stage, guided by a pig with a "golden tail" across a blue sky. Three loves - ancient loves - vanish in tears. I did this in four days in a room of blue satin, in an overheated apartment, full of different smells, where the opopanax and cyclamen gave me a slight fever conducive towards production or even towards reproduction". --Letter from Rops to Henri Liesse, 1879.


Whereas many artists of the time might hint at a fashionable blasphemy or satanism, Rops’ dealings with these subjects were unequivocal, as was the blatant, pornographic tone of many of his drawings.

In this parody of the crucifixion Rops is being deliberately shocking to the lecherous edge of perversity. The contorted body of the Christ figure, has goat’s legs and feet. He looks down at the woman beneath; his expression is agonising. There is pain, and something else; depravity. More than decadence, the work expresses a raw, rapacious lust, that doesn’t know where to stop. The creature’s phallus rests upon the woman’s cheek; she is bound to the figure by some sort of strap. Her pose reflects that of the crucifixion, more so than that of the figure on the cross. The scarlet backdrop signifies corruption.

“Calvary” is brutal; insolent. Rops does not care about the viewer’s sensibilities; and why should he? He is being deliberately provocative. You don’t have to look, but he dares you to. If you were to challenge him, I think that his response would be; “well so what”! He is in the business of shocking and here he takes the sentimental, traditional view of the Passion of Christ, and shows it for the blasphemy and obscenity that it is.

It still has pathos, you can see it in the tortured grimaces. But it’s a work about sex and death; sex and religion. In particular I think that it is an exposition of the Roman Catholic tradition of faith and sacrifice. The life of dedication that Catholicism exhorts from the blindly faithful.


Saint Anthony kneels at the lectern, one bony leg outstretched as if in preparation to flee. He needs a place of security, far away from the horrors of blasphemy. His hands attempt to shield his ears from the raucous din. The figure on the cross compounds the blasphemy; it is the figure of a young, voluptuous woman, her soft, yielding breasts thrusting forwards towards the baffled saint. “Eros” replaces “Inri” at the pinnacle of the cross. The banished Christ is on her right, on her left, a ragged demon, behind the cross a swine stares intently, his forelegs raised. Tiny skeletonised demons flit like bats in the darkening sky. Can Saint Anthony resist the allure of the image? The image that so brutally usurps the Christian message.

The violent image seems to have occurred as the Saint turns the pages of the scriptures. Looking closely, I think that I can see the banishment of Adam and Eve, the first sinners. Perhaps this is encouraging Anthony to hold fast to his faith.

The earliest paintings to employ the scene were Italian frescos of the 10th century. The later European Middle Ages saw accumulation of the theme in book illumination and later in German woodcuts. About 1500 originated the famous paintings of Martin schöngauer (ca. 1490), Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1505) and Mathias Grünewald (ca. 1510). In the modern era the theme has been treated by the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí and the French author Gustave Flaubert, who considered his 1874 bookThe Temptation of saint Anthony to be his master work.

PIC  "La Buveuse d Absinthe"

“Félicien Rops drew "La Buveuse d Absinthe" (meaning specifically the female absinthe drinker) in 1865 at the age of around 32 and frequently afterwards drew the same subject over the next 30 years. The picture always shows a slender woman leaning against a pillar outside a dance-hall, her low neckline and fine dress showing she is part of the nightlife. Her insouciant attitude, accompanied by her staring eyes, slightly opened mouth and haggard expression suggesting that she is a prostitute. She became the archetype of the female absinthe drinker.”


“Joris-Karl Huysmans, writer of A Rebours (meaning 'against the grain'), often said to be the supreme expression of the decadent spirit, described Rops’ absinthe drinker:

“M. Rops has created a type of woman that we will dream of, dream of again and be drawn back to, the type of absinthe drinker who, brutalised and hungry, grows ever more menacing and more voracious, with her face frozen and empty, villainous and hard, with her limpid eyes with a look as fixed and cruel as a lesbian's, with her mouth a little open, her nose regular and short ... the girl bitten by the green poison leans her exhausted spine on a column of the bal Mabille and it seems that the image of syphilitic Death is going to cut short the ravaged thread of her life.”

“On exhibition of his absinthe drinker at the International Exhibition of Fine Art in his home town of Namur in Belgium, Rops felt himself "spat upon": The picture outraged the critics and the local civic establishment issued an official rebuke to the artist, who 'far from consecrating his talent to the reproduction of gracious and elegant works, prostitutes his pencil complacently to the reproduction of scenes imprinted with a repellent realism”.

With unconcealed glee at this notoriety, Rops wrote to his friend Jean d'Ardenne how his La Buveuse d'Absinthe blew the minds ('les têtes... s'epanouissaient') of his bourgeois countrymen.'


Two women rage in an orgy of carnal lust. Cunnilingus, tongues, lips, teeth, juices. The image tells a story of how women are able to feel about sex, there is the potential for women to feel earthy, feral, rather than the sanitised presentation of the erotica in the tradition of Ingres. Women can be active, not simply passive recipients. The image is raw, primal and urgent. Their need is overpowering and overwhelming. There is nothing about making love in this drawing and it is as far away from Gustave Courbet’s tender image of “The Sleepers” as you can get. Rops’ depiction of women having sex is about possibilities; the possibility for women to indulge totally in the dark side of desire.


Well, to me, it’s a celebration of life, of sexuality in all of its guises. The woman has an erect penis; or does the man have voluptuous breasts? It doesn’t matter; contorted figures writhe in blatantly sexual poses at the base of the picture. Is the artist saying; “It doesn’t matter what your sexual proclivity is, just do it?”

In his prolific body of work, Rops demonstrates that posterity favours the forthright and the unique over uniformity and compromise.

Like the works of the authors whose poetry he illustrated, his work tends to mingle sex, death, and satanic images in a way which shocked many of his contemporaries and is sometimes disturbing even today.

There can be no doubt that Félicien Robs adored sex and he adored women; their taste, their scent, their texture. His adoration is reflected in his work. In a poignant letter to Louise Danse he opens up about his personal insecurities.

“ Each time autumn arrives with its austere intoxications, I suffer as if every hope that I carry within me and which are the same as those that illuminated my twentieth year were going to expire forever along with the dead leaves. I am so afraid of being old and of no longer being able to inspire love in a woman, which is a true death for a man of my nature, and with my needs for madness of mind and body.”

Thanks to Jan Vander Laenen for introducing the artist to me, and suggesting this post.


  1. These pictures are fantastic! Thanks so much for writing about this and giving us some samples of his work.

    I'm really enjoying your historically informed exploration of the erotica genre. Keep up the good work!

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