by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Master of the Risqué

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 3 August 1996
Musée Provincial Félicien Rops, Namur
Pornokratès by Félicien Rops, 1878



Félicien Rops's precocious talents had already won him a name as an illustrator in his native Belgium when he struck up a friendship with Baudelaire (the artist and writer found they had a shared 'passion for skeletons'), who entrusted Rops with the frontispiece for 'Les Epaves,' a collection of poems published in Amsterdam, including the six omittted from 'Les Fleurs du Mal,' for which the poet had been prosecuted for outraging public morals.

In 1874 Rops settled in Paris, where his macabre, bizarre and erotic pictures, dominated by death and femmes fatales, made him the darling of the Decadent and Symbolist anti-establishment and the city's highest-paid illustrator.

The artist's risqué oeuvre, which contained many frankly pornographic works, and the fact that many of his most striking pieces are prints rather than 'originals' have impeded his securing a generally recognized position in art history. An extensive, well-mounted exhibition, 'Félicien Rops: Scandalous Modernism 1833-1898,' of 300 of his paintings, drawings and prints at the Palazzo Venezia (until Sept. 1), covers his career, and embraces a good selection of his lesser-known landscapes, rural vignettes and portraits.

Rops's early periodical illustrations reveal an incisive and sharply satirical eye, and his symbolic repesentations of the horrors of war and violent autocratic repression in, for example, 'The Medal of Waterloo' and 'Order Reigns in Warsaw,' pack a considerable punch. His 'Funeral in the Walloon Country' teeters on caricature, but its acute and unforgiving observation rescues this pathetic scene, in which a tiny, motionless orphan gazes down into the grave, from facile sentimentality.

Before his death in 1867 Baudelaire had pronounced Rops 'the only true artist' he had been able to discover in Belgium, and the poet was influential in persuading him to move to Paris. Once there Rops's destiny became inextricably entwined with the literary scene, as he embarked on illustrations and frontispieces for, among others, Maupassant, Mallarmé, Théophile Gautier, Verlaine and Barbey d'Aurevilly.

The artist's popularity was aided by his ebullient personality, breadth of interests, and quick and fertile mind, which made him much in demand as a companion. With the French author Octave-Henri-Marie Mirbeau he founded a dining club, whose members included Maupassant, Mallarmé, Monet, Renoir and Rodin. Rops's entrée into the Godebski salon introduced him to Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet, Faure, Liszt and Rossini.

The Italian Decadent writer Gabriele D'Annunzio hailed Rops's talent for capturing 'the flowers of evil, flowers that flourish fertilized by the putridness of contemporary life,' and the artist plumbed the lower depths of Paris with undisguised relish (establishing at the same time a ménage à trois with two fashion-designer sisters, Léontine and Aurelie Duluc, the former of whom bore him a daughter). The pleasure-seeking, corrupt, destructive temptress became Rops's archetypal subject, and the vision of woman his patrons could rely on him to provide. Rejecting the classical nude as evocative of coolness and chastity, Rops preferred the semi-clothed 'demi-nu,' tricked out with fetishistic accessories.

Thus, characteristically, the figure in one of his most famous works, 'Pornokratès,' is naked but for dainty shoes, stockings, garters, gold and blue ribbon belt, long black silk gloves, earrings, blindfold and hat. Life directly observed in bars, cabarets, brothels and on the streets produced some grimmer, more realist pictures, such as that of the arresting, gaunt young woman on the road to ruin, 'The Absinthe Drinker.'

While much of Rops's output was in 'illustration,' he never thought of himself as anything other than an artist (and his belief in the artist's right to total freedom extended to a high-handed disregard of deadlines). In 1869 he founded the International Society of Engravers in Brussels, principally to raise the status of etchers and promote the engraving as an independent, original work of art.

Rops's oil, watercolor and tempera landscapes and portraits bring to light unfamiliar aspects of his artistic personality, but he seems to have treated them mainly as a form of relaxation and private expression.

The Musée Provincial Félicien Rops at his birthplace, Namur, has been steadily acquiring his works over the past 30 years and many of those in the Rome show are from there. The Namur museum is planning an even grander retrospective for the centenary of his death in 1998, and this may prove the occasion for Rops finally to find a permanent niche in the 19th-century artistic pantheon that his band of fellow Decadents were convinced he merited.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024