|Absinthe & Art II - Félicien Rops
|The remarkable Belgian artist and engraver Félicien Rops was born in Namur in 1883. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in
Namur and began his career by founding a satiric newspaper, Uylenspielgel in 1856. His first drawings and lithographs, heavily
influenced by Daumier and Gavarni, comment in a satiric and often witty way on the politics and bourgeois morality of the era.
In Brussels, in the mid-1850's, he was part of the artistic circle called Atelier St.Luc, which consisted of sculptors, writers and
poets such as Constantin Meunier, Charels de Groux and Charles de Coster. On seeing the works of Courbet in 1861, he began
to work in a more naturalistic style, exemplified by a series of paintings of different regions in Belgium. However, after meeting
Charles Baudelaire - who was to exert a profound and lasting influence on him - his works shifted decisively to themes of
fantasy, eroticism and symbolism, and he largely abandoned lithography for aquatint and etching, which better suited his aesthetic
aims. Rops created the frontispiece for Baudelaire's Les Epaves, a selection of poems from Les Fleurs du Mal that had been
censored in France, and which therefore were published in Belgium. Rops's association with Baudelaire and with the art he
represented won his work the admiration of many other writers, including Théophile Gautier, Alfred de Musset (a notorious
absintheur), Stéphane Mallarmé, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, and Joséphin Péladan. For the rest of his life he was closely associated
with the literary movements of Symbolism and Decadence. Like the works of the authors whose poetry he illustrated, his work
tends to mingle sex, death, and Satanic images in a way which shocked many of his contemporaries and is sometimes disturbing
even today. Prime examples are "Tentations de St.Antoine", "Pornocrates" and the series "Sataniques" and "Diaboliques".
Rops experimented with a distinctive printmaking technique called "soft varnish" which resulted in an image that was very close
to drawing, eventually mastering the technique after years of experimentation. He sketched incessantly and his drawings testify to
his remarkable, almost feverish intensity - the French art critic Rene Huyghe said that had Rops been a French native, he would
have been as renowned in his lifetime as Daumier.
Rops traveled to and worked in many other countries including Spain, Scandinavia, the USA and Hungary. His eyesight began to
fail in 1892, curtailing his output, but he kept up his literary associations until his death in Paris 1898.
Félicien Rops drew "La Buveuse d Absinthe" (meaning specifically the female absinthe drinker) in 1865 at the age of around 32 and
frequently afterwards drew the same subject over the next 30 years. The picture always shows a slender woman leaning against a
pillar outside a dance-hall, her low neckline and fine dress showing she is part of the nightlife. Her insouciant attitude, accompanied by
her staring eyes, slightly opened mouth and haggard expression suggest she is a prostitute. She became the archetype of the female
Joris-Karl Huysmans, writer of A Rebours (meaning 'against the grain'), often said to be the supreme expression of the decadent
spirit, described Rops's absinthe drinker:
M. Rops has created a type of woman that we will dream of, dream of again and be drawn back to, the type of absinthe drinker who,
brutalised and hungry, grows ever more menacing and more voracious, with her face frozen and empty, villainous and hard, with her
limpid eyes with a look as fixed and cruel as a lesbian's, with her mouth a little open, her nose regular and short ... the girl bitten by the
green poison leans her exhausted spine on a column of the bal Mabille and it seems that the image of Syphilitic Death is going to cut
short the ravaged thread of her life.
On exhibition of his absinthe drinker at the International Exhibition of Fine Art in his home town of Namur in Belgium, Rops felt himself
"spat upon": The picture outraged the critics and the local civic establishment issued an official rebuke to the artist, who 'far from
consecrating his talent to the reproduction of gracious and elegant works, prostitutes his pencil complacently to the reproduction of
scenes imprinted with a repellent realism'.
With unconcealed glee at this notoriety, Rops wrote to his friend Jean d'Ardenne how his La Buveuse d'Absinthe blew the minds ('les
têtes... s'epanouissaient') of his bourgeois countrymen.'
Still, his work had its appreciators. The mystical writer Joséphin Péladan wrote a poem in praise of Rops, which reads:
Ô Rops, je suis troublé. Le doute m'a tordu
L'âme!- Si tu reviens de l'enfer effroyable,
Quel démon t'a fait lire en son crâne fendu
Les éternels secrets de ce suppôt du Diable.
La Femme? Tu l'as peint, le Sphinx impénétrable;
Mais l'Énigme survit devant moi confondu.
Parle, dis, qu'as-tu vu dans l'abîme insondable
De ses yeux transparents comme ceux d'un pendu.
Quels éclairs ont nimbé tes fillettes polies?
Quel stupre assez pervers, quel amour devaste
Mets des reflets d'absinthe en leurs mélancolies!
À quelle basse horreur sonne ta Vérité?
Rops, fais parler Satan, prêcheur d'impiété,
Qu'il écrase mon front sous des monts de folie!
O Rops, I am troubled. Doubt has twisted my soul
If you come back from the frightful hell,
What demon made you read in his split open head
The eternal secrets of that tool of the Devil,
Woman? You have painted her, the impenetrable Sphinx
But the enigma lives on before me, confusing me.
Speak, tell what you have seen in the plumbless abyss
Of her eyes, clear like those of a hanged man.
What lightning flashes have haloed your nice young ladies?
What perverted defilements, what devastated love
Put the glitter of absinthe into their melancholy
From what deep horror rings your truth?
Rops, make Satan speak, that preacher of godlessness,
So he can shatter my brow under mountains of madness.
Rops used different models for his Buveuse d'Absinthe, but it seems they had to live the part. He offered a newly drawn Buveuse
d'Absinthe for exhibition in 1876, explaining to a friend: 'it's a girl called Marie Joliet who arrives every evening drunk at the Bal Bullier
and who sees with eyes of electric death. I had her pose and I worked to take down just what I saw.'