"Nevertheless I only know how to paint entirely from Nature. I try simply and stupidly to render what I feel with my nerves and what I see with my eyes, that’s my entire artistic theory… I also stick stubbornly to something else as well, that is, wishing to paint scenes and types from this 19th century whom I find very odd and very interesting; the women are as beautiful as ever and the men are always the same.”
Felicien Rops to Fortuné Calmels, 1863, cited Robert Delevoy et al, Félicien Rops, Lausanne, Paris, 1984, p. 109.
At a young age, Félicien Rops, the only son of an industrialist in Namur, left his native town which he considered too forlorn and settled in Brussels which was in the throes of creative effervescence. Although registered as a law student at the Free University of Brussels, he devoted himself to writing, founded an artistic and satiric weekly, Uylenspiegle, and took painting courses at the Saint Luke Studio which brought together avant-garde artists and was run by Ernest Slingeneyer. He began as a caricaturist and then launched a career as an illustrator in Belgium and France, where he moved in 1874. Famous writers turned to him: his friend Charles De Coster, as well as Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Joséphin Péladan, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, and Stephane Mallarme.
As of the late 1870’s, although he was unclassifiable, Rops had unquestionably become one of the most fashionable artists in Paris. Painter when he wished, virtuoso engraver, he was above all a draughtsman who mastered and often mixed all techniques: pencil, colored pencil, pastel, distemper, stump, and charcoal. He used a special Pelée paper, because he appreciated its ability to render effects in white.
Fascinated by the anxieties of Parisian society which seduced him by its extremes and whose atmosphere caused “new lofty thoughts,” he painted bawdy house interiors, street and circus scenes. During this intensely creative period, the artist thought of himself as “molting” as he ceaselessly sought to renew himself and produced his most outstanding works. In the pivotal year of 1878, Rops produced the Temptation of Saint Anthony, followed by the famous and sulphurous Pornocrates which he refused to exhibit until 1896 (watercolor, pastel, and gouache highlights, 29 ½ x 18 7/8 in. Félicien Rops Provincial Museum), and the first drawings of One Hundred Light Unpretentious Sketches to Delight Honest Decent People which gave “the modern demi-nude” a stage.
One Hundred Light Unpretentious Sketches
This vast project in the “human and amorous comedy” inspired by the erotic puppet theater of the rue de la Santé founded in 1862 and conceived “after Molière’s simple idea to delight honest people.” In 1864, Rops had elaborated the theater’s frontispiece for which he reused elements for his Hundred Sketches. The drawings were intended for the bibliophile Jules Noilly: together the patron and artist defined the principle of “depicting all women of the period” and “without premeditation of an erotic work.” If certain scenes evoke the rural world or the circus, most refer directly or in encoded form to prostitution so as to make bourgeois hypocrisy obvious. Using an anecdotal mode, each drawing elaborates its own narrative structure which is rendered explicit by the image’s title.
In August 1878, Rops wrote a letter to Noilly from Anseremme where he was stayed at the inn, Au Repos des Artistes: “The Hundred Sketches are entirely finished; they are done. All that is left is to perfect them and give them the last indispensable pencil touch at the end…” In reality, the project was not finished. On December 12th, 1878, the draughtsman wrote to Noilly from near Fontainebleau:
“I am sending you the list of drawings already made for the Hundred Sketches…I will have seventy-seven drawings delivered to you… Plus the frontispiece for the Hundred Sketches and frontispieces for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th; 5th, 6th, and 7th groups of ten. Therefore, twenty-three drawings remain, plus the frontispieces for the 8th and 9th groups of ten, and a drawing for the Afterword.”
The “Tenth and last group of ten” – frontispiece introducing a group of ten drawings – entitled The Enclosure dates to 1881. In all, Noilly received one hundred and thirteen drawings: the hundred sketches themselves, two overall frontispieces, an afterword entitled Good-bye to Folly and ten for “groups of ten.” The patron added a drawing depicting Félicien Rops’ studio and had the collection bound in two red leather volumes. He also had four works engraved, including Le Maillot, number 77 in Rops’ list. At Noilly’s sale in 1886, the work was auctioned at 15,000 Francs and then sold sheet by sheet. The oxhydric blue watercolor of Maillot thus was separated from the rest of the series. Today it is conserved in a German private collection.
The monochrome page which we present here is the preparatory drawing for sketch number 77, realized in black chalk and charcoal. The scene takes place in the wings of a theater, one of Rops’ favorite themes. A young woman is putting on her slip under the heavy gaze of a surprisingly stylish man of a certain age. The actress already is wearing the wings of her costume and a headband decorated with antennas: she probably plays the role of a moth (a “night butterfly”), an image which was used at the time to designate prostitutes. This is one of the “modern demi-nudes” dear to Rops which he sought in the streets of Paris. In a famous letter to Noilly, he wrote,
“I only stayed in Paris three days to have half a dozen little models pose for me whom I can only find there. I consider that for studies of modern nudes, one mustn’t do classical nudes, but today’s nudes who have their own special character and form which resemble no other. One must not do the breast of Venus de Milo but that of Tata which is less beautiful but is today’s breast.”
The rapid energetic strokes in the drawing give the scene and instantaneous and intimate quality, while the corrections and erasures make it possible to see the work of placement and search for best effects. Rops thus has the young woman bend further over and lowers the left hand of the man. He also hesitates on the height of the mirror against the wall which disappears in the final version which contrasts with the sketch in its clarity and precise lines.
We would like to thank the curators at the Félicien Rops Museum in Namur for having confirmed the attribution of our work.
Bernadette BONNIER (dir.), Le musée provincial Félicien Rops, Bruxelles, Dexia et Fonds Mercator, 2005.
Bernadette BONNIER (dir.), Véronique LEBLANC, Didier PRIOUL et Hélène VEDRINE, Rops suis, aultre ne veulx estre, Brussels, Complexes, 1999.
Robert DELEVOY et al. Félicien Rops, Lausanne, Paris, Bibliothèque des Arts, 1985.
Jef MEERT, Félicien Rops. L’œuvre gravé érotique, Anvers, Loempia, 1986.
Thierry ZENO, Les Muses sataniques - Félicien Rops, œuvre graphique et lettres choisies, Brussels, Jacques Antoine, 1985.