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Promenades of an Impressionist By James Huneker Characters: 8257

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


He had no illusions as to the intelligence and sincerity of those men who, denying free-will, yet call themselves free-thinkers. Rops frankly made of Satan his chief religion. He is the psychologist of the exotic. Cruel, fantastic, nonchalant, and shivering atrociously, his female Satan worshippers go to their greedy master in *fatidical and shuddering attitudes; they submit to his glacial embrace. The acrid perfume of Rops's maleficent genius makes itself manifest in his Sataniques. No longer are his women the embodiment of Corbière's "éternel féminin de l'éternel jocrisse." Ninnies, simperers, and simpletons have vanished. The poor, suffering human frame becomes a horrible musical instrument from which the artist extorts exquisite and sinister music. We turn our heads away, but the tune of cracking souls haunts our ear. As much to Rops as to Baudelaire, Victor Hugo could have said that he had evoked a new shudder. And singularly enough Rops is in these plates the voice of the medi?val preacher crying out that Satan is alive, a tangible being, going about the earth devouring us; that Woman is a vase of iniquity, a tower of wrath, a menace, not a salvation. His readings of the early fathers and his pessimistic temperamental bent contributed to this truly morose judgment of his mother's sex. He drives cowering to her corner, after her earlier triumphs, his unhappy victim of love, absinthe, and diabolism. Not for an instant does he participate personally in the strained voluptuousness or terrific chastisements of his designs. He has all the old monachal contempt of woman. He is cerebrally chaste. Huysmans, in his admirable essay on Rops, wrote, "Car il n'y a de réellement obscènes que les gens chastes"; which is a neat bit of special pleading and quite sophistical. Rops did not lead the life of a saint, though his devotion to his art was Balzacian. It would be a more subtle sophistry to quote Paul Bourget's aphorism. "There is," he writes, "from the metaphysical observer's point of view, neither disease nor health of the soul; there are only psychological states." The états d'ames of Félicien Rops, then, may or may not have been morbid. But he has contrived that his wit in its effect upon his spectators is too often profoundly depressing and morbid and disquieting.

The triumphant chorus of Rops's admirers comprises the most critical names in France and Italy: Barbey d'Aurevilly, J.K. Huysmans, Pradelle, Joséphin Péladan-once the Sar of Babylonian fame-Eugène Demolder, Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian poet; Camille Lemonnier, Champsaur, Arsène Alexandre, Fromentin, Vittorio Pica, De Hérédia, Mallarmé, Octave Uzanne, Octave Mirbeau, the biographer Ramiro and Charles Baudelaire. The last first recognised him, though he never finished the projected study of him as man and artist. In the newly published letters (1841-66) of Baudelaire there is one addressed to Rops, who saw much of the unhappy poet during his disastrous sojourn in Brussels. It was the author of Les Fleurs du Mal who made the clever little verse about "Ce tant bizarre Monsieur Rops… Qui n'est pas un grand prix de Rome, mais dont le talent est haut, comme la pyramide de Chéops."

A French critic has called Rops "a false genius," probably alluding to the malign characters of the majority of his engraved works rather than to his marvellous and fecund powers of invention. Perverse idealist as he was, he never relaxed his pursuit of the perfection of form. He tells us that in 1862 he went to Paris, after much preliminary skirmishing in Belgian reviews and magazines, to "learn his art" with Bracquemond and Jacquemart, both of whom he never ceased praising. He was associated with Daubigny, painter and etcher, and with Courbet, Flameng, and Thérond.

He admired Calmatta and his school-Bal, Franck, Biot, Meunier, Flameng. He belonged to the International Society of Aquafortistes. He worked in aquatint and successfully revived the old process, vernis mou. A sober workman, he spent at least fourteen hours a day at his desk. Being musical, he designed some genre pieces, notably that of the truthfully o

bserved Bassoonist. And though not originating he certainly carried to the pitch of the artistically ludicrous those progressive pictures of goats dissolving into pianists; of Liszt tearing passion and grand pianos into tatters. He has contributed to the gaiety of nations with his celebrated design: Ma fille! Monsieur Cabanel, which shows a harpy-like mother presenting her nude daughter as a model for that painter. The malicious ingenuity of Rops never failed him. He produced for years numerous anecdotes in black and white. The elasticity of his line, its variety and richness, the harmonies, elliptical and condensed, of his designs; the agile, fiery movement, his handling of his velvety blacks, his tonal gradations, his caressing touch by which the metal reproduced muscular crispations of his dry-point and the fat silhouettes of beautiful human forms, above all, his virile grasp which is revealed in his balanced ensembles-these prove him to be one of the masters of modern etching. And from his cynical yet truthful motto: "J'appelle un chat un chat," he never swerved.

A student and follower of Jean Francois Millet, several landscapes and pastorals of Rops recall the French painter's style. In his Belgian out-of-doors scenes and interiors the Belgian heredity of Rops projects itself unmistakably. Such a picture as Scandal, for example, might have been signed by Israels. Le Bout de Sillon is Millet, and beautifully drawn. The scheme is trite. Two peasants, a young woman and a young man holding a rope, exchange love vows. It is very simple, very expressive. His portraits of women, Walloons, and of Antwerp are solidly built, replete with character and quaint charm. Charming, too, is the portrait of his great-aunt. Scandal is an ambitious design. A group of women strongly differentiated as to types and ages are enjoying over a table their tea and a choice morsel of scandal. The situation is seized; it is a picture that appeals. Ghastly is his portrait of a wretched young woman ravaged by absinthe. Her lips are blistered by the wormwood, and in her fevered glance there is despair. Another delineation of disease, a grinning, skull-like head with a scythe back of it, is a tribute to the artist's power of rendering the repulsive. His Messalina, Lassatta, La Femme au Cochon, and La Femme au Pantin should be studied. He has painted scissors grinders, flower girls, "old guards," incantations, fishing parties, the rabble in the streets, broom-riding witches, apes, ivory and peacocks, and a notable figure piece, An Interment in the Walloon Country, which would have pleased Courbet.

It is in his incarnations of Satan that Rops is unapproachable. Satan Sowing the Tares of Evil is a sublime conception, truly Miltonic. The bony-legged demon strides across Paris. One foot is posed on Notre Dame. He quite touches the sky. Upon his head is a broad-brimmed peasant's hat, Quaker in shape. Hair streams over his skeleton shoulders. His eyes are gleaming with infernal malice-it is the most diabolic face ever drawn of his majesty; not even Franz Stuck's Satan has eyes so full of liquid damnation. Scattering miniature female figures, like dolls, to the winds, this monster passes over Paris, a baleful typhoon. The moral is not far to seek; indeed, there is generally a moral, sometimes an inverted one, in the Rops etchings. Order Reigns at Warsaw is a grim commentary on Russian politics quite opportune to-day. La Peine de Mort has been used by Socialists as a protest against capital punishment. Les Diables Froids personifies the impassible artist. It is a page torn from the book of hell. Rops had read Dante; he knew the meaning of the lines: "As the rill that runs from Bulicame to be portioned out amid the sinful women"; and more than once he explored the frozen circles of Gehenna. Victor Hugo was much stirred by the design, Le Pendu, which depicts a man's corpse swinging under a huge bell in some vast and immemorial, raven-haunted, decaying tower, whose bizarre and gloomy outlines might have been created by the brain of a Piranesi. An apocalyptic imagination had Félicien Rops.

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