• France, Private Collection
The beginnings of Armand Rassenfosse’s artistic career were long and sinuous. Originally from Liege, Rassenfosse grew up in a family of shop keepers. An only son, he was supposed to take over the family business of selling art objects and decoration. Very curious about everything, the young Armand was more enthusiastic about the visual arts than commerce. He drew, tried engraving, and collaborated, without his family’s knowledge, in a Liegeois satirical newspaper to which he supplied a drawing every week under a pen name from 1882 to 1886. Thus he learned the trade autodidactically, even if he periodically received advice from the painter Adrien De Witte.
In June 1887, he wrote to his friend Auguste Donnay,
“I am an amateur who is crazy about drawing and like a madman determined to do the best possible. I pass all of my evenings drawing, I assure you that often it requires a lot of courage after a day’s work. […] I work at learning how to know the human body because that is what I find the most beautiful, the most alluring, the most interesting to reproduce. I recently reread Benvenuto Cellini’s memoirs and I understand his ecstacies in the presence of a model’s movement and shift of a muscle.”
Rassenfosse and Rops
A year later when he traveled to Paris for the family business, Rassenfosse encountered Félicien Rops. In spite of their age difference, an immediate friendship struck up between the two Wallons which was strengthened by their common origins as well as their shared passion for engraving and technical experimentation with it. Regular correspondence was established between the two men, as they shared their research and created, after several years of trials, a new soft varnish which was called “Ropsenfose.” Rops, refusing the status of “master,” contributed to the strength of the young artist’s work through demanding and well-meaning advice. Enamoured of Paris, Rassenfosse went there regularly, was introduced by Rops into his artistic circle, and visited exhibitions and Salons at his side.
In 1890, Rassenfosse left, not without conflict, the family business in order to devote himself to his art. In order to assure sustenance for his wife and three children, he took a job as an artistic counselor in the Bénard Printing Shop in Liege, and thus still had time to create. Rassenfosse’s career was split from then on between creating advertising posters, illustrations – the artist contributed to the Courrier français and the Mercure de France – and his personal efforts. Among his most prestigious commission are the illustrations for Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, for the famous 1899 edition called “the Hundred Bibliophiles” (“des Cent Bibliophiles”). The artist exhibited several times at the Libre Esthétique between 1896 and 1914. His works could also be found in Paris, at Georges Petit in 1908 and Durand-Ruel in 1913.
Drawing the Nude
Armand Rassenfosse was first and foremost a draughtsman and only turned to oil painting fairly late. The painter Delchevalerie described not long after his death, the
“myriad daily studies which swelled the boxes left by the artist and which attest to his subtle linear virtuosity, expressive elegant eurhythmy which were the conclusion of so many experiments pursued with as much clairvoyance as tenacity. He had acquired the supplest mastery in the domain of drawing.” (L’art Belge, 1e janvier 1935).
The artist concentrated his studies on the female body with a personal touch which stayed as much away from Symbolism and society painting as from social engagement. Passionate about the nude, Rassenfosse was a painter of reality which was observed closely on a daily basis and delicately conveyed.
Our Drawing in relation to Exoticism
In terms of both its subject and handling, our work is probably to be placed around 1910 when the artist’s work was tinted with Orientalist accents. Everything led the painters to draw inspiration from the Orient. In 1899, the One Thousand and One Nights was entirely translated into French for the first time. Rassenfosse acquired the entire collection. In 1910, the Russian Ballet came to Paris with Scheherazade and Leon Bakst’s stage sets. The painter’s first works colored by exoticism appeared, such as The Yellow Nightgown (1912) and The Favorite (1915).
Our Drawing: Style and Technique
Here in a single pure stroke, Rassenfosse has drawn a young Creole half-seated on a fabric which acts as the only decoration. With great economy of means, the artist has eliminated any superfluous elements. The drawing in black chalk has been enriched in places with watercolors with a deliberately restrained palette.
The body is reduced to its essential strokes which are sure and precise. A discreet use of stump generates volume. The woman carries her head high, with a proud expression and no false modesty. As her only adornment, the sitter arbors an embroidered bonnet with interlacing in green and blue watercolors, embellished with three red pearls and ribbons which twirl around her face. Rassenfosse liked to adorn nude women in head dresses or bonnets, as in Poyette (Orsay Museum) and The Hungarian Bonnet (Brussels, Museum of Fine Arts). The virginal nudity of the young model is brought out by the fine bracelet of red pearls on each wrist, and the delicate pair of Turkish slippers on her feet. The last colored element, light blue stylized vegetation which is not without reminiscences of Bonnard and Matisse embellishes the fabric.
As a sign of the importance which he gave to this drawing, or perhaps out of a feeling of success that accompanied it, Rassenfosse signed it which he didn’t usually do. Rare, in fact, are the works signed by his hand, a fact which can be explained as much by his craftsman’s sense of the art as by his keen and rarely satisfied sense of work.
One of the drawings which is most comparable to ours is certainly the Study of a Seated Nude Woman in the Palace of Fine Arts in Lille (inv. W.2987). The two sheets, with equally stripped structures, evoque both the classicism of Ingres’ bathers, and the limpidity of Japanese prints. They reflect the talent of a cultivated artist who, on account of his curiosity, assiduous work habits, and inner dynamism, was able to achieve personal art with a rare sensitivity.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Joost DE GEEST (dir.), Armand Rassenfosse, exh. cat., Brussels, Palais des Académies, 2005.
Nadine de RASSENFOSSE-GILISSEN, Rassnfosse. Peintre – graveur – dessinateur –affichiste, Liège, Perron editions, 1989.
E. ROUIR, Armand Rassenfosse. Catalogue de l’œuvre gravé, Brussels, C. Van Loock, 1984.