Felicien Rops was born in Belgium in 1833 and died in 1898, and is associated with the Decadent and Symbolist art movements.
Originally starting out in oils and caricatures, his life changed on meeting Charles Baudelaire, and did the frontspieces for his work Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil).
As an illustrator for Baudelaire and others, working more in drawing-related works and prints and etchings (which gave his work more of a graphic quality than a painterly one) his works were heavily influenced by sex and death and was a member of both the Freemasons and Les Vingtistes, or Les XX, and was therefore simultaneously a co-artist with authors and painters, including Pissaro.
His personal thoughts are as interesting as his artworks - as a youth he wrote that he was an unremarkable person gifted greatly, but cursed by a bandy-legged fairy who told him he would never excel at what he loved best. In his old age he wrote that one of his largest fears was that he would no longer inspire love in a woman. In his middle age he freely admitted he was a societal misfit and mayfly, but would not and could not be otherwise.
He was expelled from secondary school in the 1840s at the Collège Notre-Dame de la Paix. He was a gifted student and excelled in his subjects, but developed an anti-conformist and anti-clerical attitude for some unknown reason that drove much of his later interest and daring subject matter.
He married in 1857 and had two children, the second of which, a daughter named Juliette, died at a young age. Becoming proficient in etching, he founded the Société Internationale des Aquafortistes (International society of etchers) after having frequented the Société des Aquafortistes and honing his talents in soft etching, dry point and aquatint.
His early work also showed tremendous compassion for his fellow man, highlighting natural disasters and showing sympathy for the suffering of others.
Moving to Paris in 1874, he began affairs with a pair of sisters with whom he was living, enjoying renown as the highest paid illustrator in Paris. He also advanced his chosen profession by developing with fellow Vingtiste Armand Rassenfosse a special technique in etching as well as a transparent varnish for artists. His involvement with various societies he had founded also saw him travelling extensively, even into the New World, to Canada.
In 1892, towards the end of his days, his eyesight began to fail, and he became a proficient correspondent, writing hundreds of letters which have been preserved.
But what of his art? What is it about the man's work that is so striking? So far this node has spoken of his life as a series of events, painting him as a bureaucrat, almost.
To put it bluntly, the man had big, brass balls. The fervent nature of his anti-Church and anti-conformist tendencies manifested themselves in highly crude but sophisticatedly executed works, with elements of sexuality, blasphemy, or both.
The Temptation of St. Anthony shows a beautiful, voluptuous woman appearing nailed to a cross, her smile, firm breasts and curving thighs displacing a ragged Christ from the crucifix. Winged skeletal angels bear witness, while a lustful nun in a pink wimple stares around the cross, her tongue out in raptured lust. St. Anthony, an old man in ragged robes reading from a dusty book, turns from this scene in despair and horror.
Sentimental Initiation shows a pelvis, turning into a butterfly, out of which grows a woman's corseted body, holding a severed head out of a Biblical scene, with her head a grinning skull.
Calvary shows a goat-faced, goat-legged Christ on a cross wrapping his freed feet around a naked woman, emulating his pose in front of him, his feet which are handlike, holding a black cloth with which he is strangling her.
Anyone who's listened to Norwegian Death Metal would think this kind of thing tame - but remember, this was the Victorian Era, a time of great morality and muscular Christianity.
Felicien dug the ladies. The etching which has stuck in my mind forever is one of a beautiful young flying witch, but instead of straddling the object of flight, the broomstick is inserted into her vulva like a dildo, her body thrown back in taut-breasted orgasmic ECSTACY (he'd clearly seen a woman hit that kind of peak, he clearly copied her pose from life). The image is so stunning, so sensuous, and so absolutely wrong on so many levels, that it transcends the rather puerile and obvious blasphemies of later imitators.
The nature of his work means that his name is rarely mentioned, except by sexologists, in correlation with Baudelaire, or in the annals of etchings. But he was an important Symbolist and made great advances in the social organisations and technological advances of his time.