Félicien Rops, the artist who caused a scandal
He was definitely one of the fieriest artists of his generation, a painter, a watercolourist, a designer, an illustrator and an engraver, the provocateur Félicien Rops was born in Namur on 7 July 1833.
In 1851, Rops enrolled at the Université libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels) to study philosophy in preparation for a law degree. There, he met several Namur friends and formed new relationships, including one of prime importance with the author Charles De Coster. He quickly found his place among the most active student circles: the "Société des Joyeux" and the "Cercle des Crocodiles". He became their official artist and, with great talent, he learned the art of lithography. Two years later, he enrolled at the "Atelier libre Saint-Luc", one of the meeting places for Brussels bohemians, where he exchanged avant-garde ideas. There he met Artan, Dubois, Charles De Groux, Constantin Meunier, and more, the future upholders of realism in Belgium.
"Rops am I, virtuous am I not, hypocrite I do not deign". The Belgian artist followed this virtuous path his entire life. His work and his way of life reflect the freedom of spirit and creativity that characterise his drawings, engravings and illustrations.
An exceptional engraver and drawer, Félicien Rops captured and anticipated women's bodies with great modernity. Abandoning conventional formats of the time, the artist created scenes filled with humour, tenderness and insolence for the pleasure of the public. The titles of his works are barely innocent and bear witness to a rich imagination. No subject was off limits, not death, or the Holy Scriptures, which are illustrated from the very unusual angle of Saint Anthony faced with the temptation of the flesh. Rops lived in a society that was stuck in a rut, where the bourgeoisie, dressed very properly, preached the values that confirmed their principles of appearances and cleanliness. He was stifled by the overwhelming conformism and very quickly his works and, especially his "nudes", attempted to explore what lay behind bourgeois culture. Rops undressed women not in order to sully them but to exalt their strength for life faced with the power of death and of an establishment restricted by economic certainties and moral or religious dogma. At the time, sex was synonymous with scandal owing to the puritanism imposed by those in charge; Rops used this theme freely, refusing to become an artist tolerated by an intolerant society.
On 28 June 1857, Rops married Charlotte Polet de Faveaux, the daughter of a judge at the Court of Namur, whom he had known since university. The spouses lived in turn in Namur, Brussels and at Thozée Castle, near Mettet, a manor house which Charlotte inherited on the death of one of her uncles. Rops took advantage of this large estate to invite many artists and friends to his home, in particular Charles Baudelaire. "Baudelaire is the man I most want to meet. We met because of a strange love […]: the passion for skeletons", explained Félicien Rops to Baudelaire's editor, the Frenchman Auguste Poulet-Malassis. As for the poet of "Les Fleurs du Mal" (Flowers of Evil), it was in a letter to Edouard Manet that he explained: "Rops is the only true artist I met in Belgium." Baudelaire and Rops met in Namur on 24 April 1864 and their encounter led to a great friendship based on mutual admiration.
Félicien Rops' contacts with Parisian life date back to his meeting with the journalist and author Alfred Delvau at the start of the 1860s. It was also Delvau who presented Rops to the editor Auguste Poulet-Malassis in Paris in 1863. He entrusted many projects to the engraver. These were mainly illustrations of licentious works. In Paris, Rops moved among the artists' circles of the Café Guerbois and the Café Larochefoucauld. He was received by Victor Hugo… He impressed many of his peers with his extensive culture and his prodigious memory. In 1866, Poulet-Malassis published Les Epaves (Wreckage), a collection of censored poems from Les Fleurs du Mal. Rops created the frontispiece for it and designed La Mort au bal (Death at the Ball), La Mort qui danse (Dancing Death) and other Mors syphilitica in that same "Baudelairian dream world". He also illustrated a major work of French language Belgian literature: La Légende et les aventures d’Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzak (The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak) by his friend Charles De Coster.
Rops settled definitively in Paris in 1874, where he lived with Aurélie and Léontine Duluc, whom he had met six years earlier. He had many lovers, but only his relationship with these two sisters, both dressmakers, endured. He continued to illustrate the works of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, Joséphin Péladan, Félicien Champsaur and Stéphane Mallarmé.
In 1882, Rops composed the striking series Les Sataniques (The Satanic Ones): five watercolours, a prelude to the series of engravings with texts by the artist commented by Joris-Karl Huysmans in "Certains" (Certain Ones). Joséphin Péladan describes them as a poem of the possession of woman by the devil, in which Rops elevates himself to the status of Dürer whilst, more than ever, continuing to be Rops. Pornocratès created a scandal at the exhibition of XX in 1886. A retrospective of his work was scheduled in 1896 at the Hôtel Drouot, at the same time as the publication of a special issue devoted to him by the magazine "La Plume".
Rops, whose health was deteriorating, worked increasingly in the peaceful atmosphere of the Demi-Lune, his property in Essonne near Paris. There, he devoted himself to his passion for botany and created new varieties of roses. Painting was a refuge for him. He died on 23 August 1898 at his property surrounded by Léontine, Aurélie, his daughter Claire and his closest friends.
His home town created a museum in his honour: https://www.museerops.be In addition to practical information, you will find the artist's main works, biography, and more on this site.