"All men seem mean and petty to me" - The Belgian Symbolist artist Félicien Rops

8 July 1833, the Belgian Symbolist artist Félicien Rops was born in Namur.

“Whenever the pain becomes too much, I saddle my horse and disappear in the forest... silent as desire, silent as myself. For I am not the cheerful gentleman with whom you are acquainted. Within this body is imprisoned a soul like a half-starved tiger in an iron cage, bellowing out its dreadful passions. All men seem mean and petty to me, ingloriously lewd, travelling salesmen with their second-rate eroticism!” (Félicien Rops)

Félicien Rops’ racy symbolist painting “Pornocrates” (1878)

obviously was sending out Bohemian shockwaves during the second half of the 19th century. Or something along these lines, since most aspiring artists coming to the capital of arts seem to have thrown the remnants of bourgeois morals of their provincial provenances overboard and lost themselves in alternative lifestyles. Under these auspices, Belgium spawned quite a few remarkable artists and Parisian expats, writers like Maeterlinck and Verhaeren and painters like James Ensor and Fernand Khnopff and Félicien Rops. All part of the Symbolist movement or its varieties like the Decadents, the Belgian artists were obsessed with the undercurrents of the soul, myth and legends and enlarged upon the more Gothic sujets the Romantics had revealed a few decades before. And usually added an overtly sensual note to the potpourri, often bordering or encompassing pornography, as it was the case with Félicien Rops.

Félicien Rops: "L'Incantation" (1878)

Ironically enough, censorship in Napoleon III’s Second Empire ensured that many of the works of the poètes maudits had to be published abroad, with Baudelaire leading the way. At his publisher’s in Brussels, the aging Baudelaire met the aspiring illustrator Félicien Rops, Rops, quite impressed by the poet, agreed to design the frontispiece for “Les Épaves” and a lasting influence was established. The Belgian artist moved to Paris and became a decadent. Living in a ménage à trois with two sisters, meeting in the regular spots with the usual suspects, d’Aurevilly, Mallarmé, Verlaine and Péladan, illustrating their works and climaxing their thoughts to a visual erotic Fin de Siècle satanism mélange to a point, where seriousness was long since overstepped and resulted in pure irony. Thus, the fantasies of the symbolists and decadents, often at least as schoolboy-like and cliché-ridden as those of the academic artists the bohemians despised, experienced a ribald and refreshing twist in perception that keeps Rops’ illustrations as fresh, purple and scandalizing as it was 150 years ago.

Félicien Rops: "The Sphinx" (1879)

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