27 October 2014
Félicien Rops, Baudelaire and skeleton passions
Félicien Rops (1833-1898), painter, printmaker, and illustrator, was active in both his native Belgium and in France, where he moved in 1874; his vast and varied output included landscapes, portraits, and, above all, representations of modern life, often caustic and disconcertingly frank. A leading figure of the Belgian avant-garde, he is perhaps best known for his etchings and book illustrations of the 1870s and 1880s which, with their heady mixture of of erotic (or frankly pornographic) and macabre imagery, make him one of the great figures of the late 19th-century Decadent Movement, and an artist whose work often reflects the themes investigated in the British Library’s current exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination’.
His friendship with Baudelaire during the two unhappy years (1864-66) the poet spent in Belgium had a profound and lasting influence on Rops, and determined much of his later imagery. Baudelaire went to Belgium in April 1864 to give a series of lectures and to evade his creditors. Already seriously ill, plagued by money worries and a broken man, his despair there manifested itself in ferocious misanthropic attacks on Belgium and the Belgians. Rops was well-known by then as a caricaturist, his lithographs of social and political satires in the style of Daumier and Gavarni published in various Belgian newspapers and magazines, and also for realist subjects inspired by Courbet. Rops was introduced to Baudelaire in May 1864 by Auguste Poulet-Malassis, the poet’s publisher and friend and, like him, in self-imposed exile in Belgium evading his creditors. Rops and Poulet-Malassis were the only persons whose company, in the words of the poet, “lightened [his] sadness in Belgium”.
Images of skeletons are evoked in Baudelaire’s poetry and described in his art criticism (for example Alfred Rethel’s series of engravings Auch ein Todtentanz). They evidently influenced Rops who confided to Poulet-Malassis that he shared the poet’s “…love for the primary crystallographic form: the passion for the skeleton”. He was accordingly commissioned to execute the frontispiece of Les Épaves, a collection of incidental verse by Baudelaire which would include the six censored poems from the 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du mal. Les Épaves was finally published in 1866 with the Rops frontispiece illustrating the complex iconographic programme elaborated by Baudelaire. It depicts a skeleton, symbolising the tree of good and evil, in whose feet grow flowers representing the seven deadly sins. Angels and cherubs are flying high above around a medallion of the poet carried away by a chimera.
This was the first of a series of skeletons that would feature regularly in Rops’ work over the next three decades, most of them direct or indirect evocations of Baudelairian themes, showing the lasting effect of the poet’s work. They include La Mort qui danse (‘Death Dancing’, ca 1865), and the painting La Mort au Bal (‘Death at the Ball’, 1865-75), both of which show a skeleton dressed as a woman and evoke Baudelaire’s poem ‘Danse macabre’. Mors Syphilitica (1875) shows the grim reaper masquerading as a prostitute in a doorway whereas La parodie humaine (1878) shows death hiding behind the elegant appearance of a young fashionable woman (another syphilis warning).
Félicien Rops, La Mort au bal. (1865-75) (Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum)
Satan is also sometimes depicted as a skeleton, as in the two versions of Satan semant l’ivraie (‘Satan sowing seeds among the wheat’), one pastoral and one urban. The earlier of these images (1867, below left) shows Satan dressed as a peasant sowing the seeds of discord, in the later print (1882, below right), a gigantic Satan is crossing Paris, his right foot resting on the towers of Notre-Dame; in this case the seeds of discord, sown with his right hand, are women (a typically misogynistic image of woman as the instrument of the devil).
Finally, skeletons appear in various guises in Rops illustrations to literary works by, among others, Joséphin Péladan’s Le Vice suprême (1884). Curiously, Rops never illustrated a work by Edgar Allan Poe, whose prose works would have been known to him through Baudelaire’s translations.
Postscript: It was while visiting the baroque Jesuit church of Saint-Loup in Namur on 15 March 1866, in the company of Rops and Poulet-Malassis, that Baudelaire had a seizure which led ultimately to aphasia, paralysis and, the following year, his death. His collapse occurred as he was praising the elaborate confessionals of the church the interior of which he had earlier described as a “terrible and delightful catafalque” and as a “catafalque embroidered in black, pink and silver”. Four years earlier Baudelaire had an ominous warning, which he described in his diaries in apocalyptic terms – “I constantly suffer from from vertigo, and today… I felt pass over me the wind of the wing of imbecility”; he must have now realised that the end was imminent.
The Church, a masterpiece of Belgian architecture, has recently been deconsecrated and is currently being restored. A stone’s throw away, the Musée provincial Félicien Rops, houses a rich collection of the artist’s work. Its façade is adorned with a street sign showing Pornokratès, Rops’s most famous work, its rather curious putti bearing a distinct resemblance to those of his frontispiece of Baudelaire’s Les Épaves, an appropriate reminder of the poet in this neighbourhood redolent with baudelairian associations.
Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian and Modern Greek
Charles Baudelaire, Les Épaves: Pièces condamnées – galanteries – épigraphes – pièces diverses – bouffonneries. (Brussels, 1866). 011483.c.19.
Félicien Rops, 1833-1898, lithographies, gravures, dessins, peintures. (Namur, [198?]). YA.2000.a.15029
Michel Draguet, Rops. (Paris, 1998). LB.31.b.17754
Bernadette Bonnier, André Guyaux, Hélène Védrine, Autour des Épaves de Charles Baudelaire (Antwerp, 1999) YA.2001.b.1454
Bernadette Bonnier, Véronique Carpiaux, Museum Félicien Rops (Oostkamp, 2003) YF.2006.a.5513.
Bernadette Bonnier (ed.), Le Musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur (Brussels, 2005). LF.31.b.2064