Félicien Rops was born to a bourgeois family in Namur and was one of the most successful artists in 19th-century Belgium. He received his education at the Academy of Namur, Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he developed influential artistic, social, and political networks. Rops achieved international acclaim as a designer and printmaker, frequently collaborating with contemporaries and experimenting with printmaking techniques. The primary research on Félicien Rops’ art focuses on the erotic aspects of his works, with many fin-de-siècle and Symbolist tropes, while ignoring his mythological and realistic works. It is essential to point out that his work also includes contemporary criticism of the clergy and bourgeoisie, literary illustrations, and the hardships of the working class. Here are 10 of his most significant works.
1. Contact with Baudelaire: Les Épaves, 1866
Félicen Rops’ art and life are closely related to the works of the French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire, and their relationship was beneficial to both of their careers. Baudelaire praised Rops as the greatest Belgian artist of his time, and Rops illustrated the poet’s collections of poems.
Les Épaves (The Wreckage), done in 1866, two years after Rops met Charles Baudelaire, is a front piece for the poet’s compilation of censured poems from Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil). In this work, Rops developed a set of symbols he would use for the rest of his career. Rops shows a skeleton encircled by a snake, its outstretched arms metamorphosing into an apple tree supporting the letters of the title. At its feet are the Seven Deadly Sins living out their excesses, while at the top of the page, a chimera-like creature is carrying off a medallion bearing the poet’s likeness. Parts of this image, specifically the skeleton and the evil plants, were Baudelaire’s conception.
The poet wrote what he desired as a front piece in a letter to the photographer Nadar in 1859:
“An arborescent skeleton, his legs, and ribs forming the trunk, the arms extended in a cross blossoming out into leaves and buds protecting many ties of venomous plants in small pots, staggered as in a greenhouse.”
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2. Les Dames au Pantin, 1890
Les Dames au Pantin, or Woman with a Puppet, finished in 1890, comes from a series of four drawings produced over the period of almost 20 years representing the spirit of fin-de-siècle. It is a typical representation of a femme fatale manipulating the male sex. The work shifts Félicien Rops’ art towards symbolism, allegorical and mythological expression.
As a man is turned into a puppet, the woman, holding a dagger at her waist, becomes a murderer, and the gold coins flow from the puppet’s stomach. Below the puppet, we see the bowl of the Original Sin, at the foot of which is a seated jester holding a macabre bauble. The wings on the jester indicate that he is Eros in disguise, who brings destruction instead of arrows of love. Another indication of impending doom is the text and figures in the bas-relief beneath the woman. In the anxieties of the era, it suggests that a love relationship in which the female dominates the male leads to his destruction.
3. Nightlife in Paris: Bouge à Matelots, 1875
Felicien Rops’ art shows how the artists mingled in the nightlife of Paris, depicting it in a spirit similar to Toulouse-Lautrec or French Realist literary circles. The brothels, the girls in the streets, and drinking alcohol (absinthe) were the points from which Rops drew his inspiration.
The diagonal composition lends dynamism to the atmosphere of the brothel in Bouge à Matelots (The Sailors’ Den). The viewer’s gaze turns in every direction, supposed to evoke the excitement of a cabaret. One prostitute is kissing a seaman, and another, half-naked, allows a sailor to approach her. The third, with her arm raised, holding a bottle of alcohol, adds rhythm to the scene.
In one of his letters, Rops writes:
“Young people are tremendous! Here are those who have abandoned all hope; who are weary and satiated, life has swept them along on a tide of harsh emotions, all this has left its mark on their foreheads and wrinkled mouths and sinister maculatures, and this splendid make-up that casts warm glows across all that, it’s really lovely to do for a painter or a poet, but you need a tool like Baudelaire. He’s caught on.”
4. Reinterpretation of Myths: Sphinx in Les Diaboliques,
In 1882, writer Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly authorized the publisher Alphonse Lemerre in Paris to reprint his collected short stories, Les Diaboliques. Lemerre hired Rops to illustrate the nine short stories in the collection. After reading all of the stories, the artist chose to make images that summarized the texts. Despite Barbey’s moderate appreciation of the illustrations, they enjoyed great success among contemporary readers.
In the spirit of the last decades of the 19th century, illustrations of Les Diaboliques unite sensuality and morbidity. The Sphinx is the first of the nine images representing a woman intertwined with a Sphinx statue while being spied upon by the Devil dressed as a 19th-century dandy. As the whole series and works of Jules Barbey suggest, the woman is ready to submit to and do evil. The drawing can also be interpreted as a criticism of the moral order at the fin-de-siècle.
5. Symbolism in Félicien Rops’ Art: Pornocratès, 1878
Félicien Rops’s art confronted society with its amoral tendencies, depravity, and debauchery, which starkly contrasted the strict social norms of the end of the century. Many of Rops’s blatantly sexual and even obscene depictions were perceived as scandalous. However, in his deliberate breach of taboo, the artist held up a mirror to his contemporaries and exposed the prevailing bigotry. It is reflected best in none other than his famous watercolor Pornocratès, in which the artist pays homage to the dominion of uncontrollable urges.
The painting depicts a half-naked woman against a blue background, blindfolded and led by a pig. The black stockings and gloves accentuate the woman’s nakedness and eroticism. Beneath her is a classical frieze with personifications of the fine arts in resigned positions with bowed heads. The modern woman is guided by her instincts, symbolized by the pig trampling over the tradition of ancient arts. At the same time, it represents how Félicien Rops’ art rejects academicism and society and denounces bourgeois hypocrisy as repressing moral freedom.
6. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1878
Yet again, Felilcien Rops bases his modern image on an already established iconography of the 3rd-century hermit and the torments he endured. In a typical representation of the crucifixion, Christ is replaced and pushed away to the side by a completely nude woman with a provocative smile. As described in the hagiography of Saint Anthony, the hermit is tempted by the devil in various ways, including young women. The INRI, an acronym for the Latin phrase Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews), is replaced by the word EROS, representing love, lust, and desire.
This standard fin-de-siècle image still holds some iconography associated with Saint Anthony, such as ragged clothing, a long beard, books, and the pig. As in Rops’ other work from this period, Pornocratès, the pig is linked to the woman. In this case, the pig, traditionally the representative of the hermit’s kindness, is focused on the crucified woman showing its subordination to her. The half-skeletal putti, often associated with love, are turned into macabre creatures. Next to the crucified femme fatale, they seem to indicate lust’s alluring and deadly side.
7. A Lighter Side: La Plage de Heyst, 1886
Despite spending most of his life in Paris after he separated from his wife in 1874, Rops never cut ties with his motherland. Moving away from the femmes fatales and the underbelly of modern society, Felicien Rops’ oeuvre became full of images of the countryside at the North Sea. There, in the manner of the impressionists, Rops experimented with new techniques and painted often in nature. However, these paintings are also representations of the Belgian and foreign middle class in their leisure time.
In Plage de Heyst (Beach at Heyst), Felicien Rops’ art comes close to the French impressionists with a focus on light and vivid, scattered colors. His palette is lighter than in his more famous works, the technique is subtle, and the atmosphere predominates with Caillebotte, Degas, and Monet, cited by Rops, as of great importance to his work.
8. Embracing the Devil: Les Sataniques, c. 1882
In 1882, Félicien Rops finished his series, Les Sataniques (The Satanic), again showing the decadent spirit of the 19th century. This five-part series quickly lapses into the pornographic, without referencing any literary model at all, and is sometimes regarded as the continuation of Les Diaboliques.
As much of Felicien Rops’ art, these works were ostracized and banned. The five engravings, intended as a part of the never completed L’Album du Diable (The Devil’s Scrapbook), form a series themed on sex, death, and religion. Once again, we get an image of a woman as Satan’s accomplice, whose attraction provokes vices and torments the Man, her mere puppet.
The central theme of Sacrifice is a woman totally subjugated by her own urges and bound to evil in a pact with Satan. The woman loses control of her body and her emotions to couple with the Devil. The figure of the sower from one of the prints in the Sataniques series, Satan semant l’ivraie (Satan Sowing the Tares), was taken up by other artists of the period.
9. Social Criticism: Un Enterrement au Pays Wallon, 1863
Felicien Rops’ art has always been filled with a certain humoristic element at the expense of the Catholic Church, politicians, the bourgeoisie, and art critics. When he was 22, Rops co-founded the satirical magazine L’Uylenspiegel, named after a folkloristic trickster figure. In his cartoons, lithographs, paintings, and illustrations, Rops more prominently established himself as a subversive satirist.
In Un Enterrement au Pays Wallon (A Burial in Wallonia), Rops presents us with a realistic image of a funeral in progress. In a letter, Rops explains that he has faithfully reproduced a funeral that he attended by chance when walking in Namur. This realistic scene close to caricature reveals all his sensitivity. Inspired by the Enterrement à Ornans (A Burial in Ornans) by Gustave Courbet, Rops distills a hint of cynicism faced by the clergy who, absorbed by the worship, ignore all the child’s pain.
10. Comics: Mr. Coremans at the Tir National, 1861
Another medium of Felicien Rops’ art is the comic strips containing similar subjects as his paintings and engravings. In 1861, the magazine L’Uylenspiegel published a 27-page text comic titled Mr. Coremans au Tir National, which revolves around a city councilor from a Belgian province. It follows his work-related trip to Brussels, featuring the capital’s hotspots and celebrities. There is no cohesive narrative of the comical events in which the main character finds himself. The story of Mr. Coremans could only be interpreted in the context of contemporary life in Brussels.
Characteristic of Rops’ art, the drawings are full of erotic innuendo and social criticism. In one scene, Coremans’ bayonet accidentally shreds the dress of an English woman. In another, he climbs the top of the Congress Column monument, and in the Museum of Fine Arts, he gets aroused by nude statues. He is kicked out of a party when he toasts the clergy of his diocese and people who defend the Holy Chair.