Artist - Rops The Etcher
( Originally Published 1925 )
THAT personality in art counts, next to actual genius, heavier than all other qualities, is such a truism that it is often forgotten. In the enormous mass of mediocre work which is turned out annually by artists of technical talent seldom is there encountered a strong, well-defined personality. Imitation has been called the bane of originality; suppress it as a factor, and nine-tenths of living painters, sculptors, etchers would have to shut up shop. The stencil is the support of many men who otherwise might have become useful citizens, shoemakers, tailors, policemen, or vice-presidents. For this reason the phrase "academic" should be more elastic in its meanings. There are academic painters influenced by Corot or Monticelli, as well as by David, Gros, or Meissonier. The "academic" Rodin has appeared in contemporary sculpture; the great Frenchman found for himself his formula, and the lesser men have appropriated it to their own uses. This is considered legitimate, though not a high order of art; however, the second-rate rules in the market-place, let the genius rage as he will. He must be tamed.
He must be softened; his divine fire shaded by the friendly screens of more prudent, more conventional talent. Even among men of genius up on the heights it is the personality of each that enters largely into the equation of their work. No one can confuse Whistler the etcher with the etcher Rembrandt, the profounder is the Dutchman. Yet what individuality there is in the plates of the American! What personality! Now, Félicien Rops, the Belgian etcher, lithographer, engraver, designer, and painter, occupies about the same relative position to Honore Daumier as Whistler does to Rembrandt. How seldom you hear of Rops. Why ? He was a man of genius, one of the greatest etchers and lithographers of his century, an artist with an intense personal line, a colossal workman and versatile inventor — why has he been passed over and inferior men praised?
His pornographic plates cannot be the only reason, because his representative work is free from licence or suggestion. Giulio Romano's illustrations to Aretino's sonnets are not held up as the representative art of this pupil of Raphael, nor are the vulgarities of Rowlandson, Hogarth, George Morland set against their better attempts. Col-lectors treasure the engravings of the eighteenth-century éditions des fermiers-généraux for their capital workmanship, not for their licentious themes. But Rops is always the Rops of the Pornocrates! After discussing him with some amateurs you are forced to realise that it is his plates in which he gives rein to an unparalleled flow of animal spirits and gauloiserie that are the more esteemed. Rops the artist, with the big and subtle style, the etcher of the Sataniques, of Le Pendu, of La Buveuse d'Absinthe and half a hundred other masterpieces, is set aside for the witty illustrator, with the humour of a Rabelais and the cynicism of Chamfort. And even on this side of his genius he has never been excelled, the Japanese alone being his equals in daring of invention, while he tops them in the expression of broad humour.
In the Luxembourg galleries there is a picture of an interesting man, in an etchers atelier. It is the portrait of Rops by Mathey, and shows him examining at a window, through which the light pours in, a freshly pulled proof. It depicts with skill the intense expression upon his handsome face, the expression of an artist absolutely absorbed in his work. That is the real Rops. His master quality was intensity. It traversed like a fine keen flame his entire production from seemingly insignificant tail-pieces to his agonised de signs, in which luxury and pain are inextricably commingled.
He was born at Namur, Belgium, July 10, 1833, and died at Essonnes, near Paris, August 23, 1898. He was the son of wealthy parents, and on one side stemmed directly from Hungary. His grandfather was Rops Lajos, of the province called Alfod. The Maygar predominated. He was as proud and fierce as Goya. A fighter from the beginning, still in warrior's harness at the close, when, "cardiac and impenitent," as he put it, he died of heart trouble. He received at the hands of the Jesuits a classical education. A Latinist, he was erudite as were few of his artistic contemporaries. The mystic strain in him did not betray itself until his third period. He was an accomplished humourist and could generally cap Latin verses with D'Aurevilly or Huysmans. Tertullian's De Cultu Feminarum he must have read, for many of his plates are illustrations of the learned Bishop of Carthage's attitude toward womankind. The hot crossings of blood, Belgian and Hungarian, may be responsible for a peculiarly forceful, rebellious, sensual, and boisterous temperament.
Doubtless the three stadia of an artist's career are the arbitrary classification of critics; nevertheless they are well marked in many cases. Balzac was a romantic, a realist, a mystic; Flaubert was alternately romantic and realist. Tolstoi was never a romantic, but a realist he was, and he is a mystic. Dostoïevski, from whom he absorbed so much, taught him the formulas of his mysticism — though Tolstoi has never felt the life of the soul so profoundly as this predecessor. Ibsen passed through the three stages. Huysmans, never romantic, began as a realistic pessimist and ended as a pessimistic mystic. FéIicien Rops could never have been a romantic, though the macabre romanticism of 1830. may be found in his de-signs. A realist, brutal, bitter, he was in his youth; he saw the grosser facts of life, so often lamentable and tender, in the spirit of a Voltaire doubled by a Rabelais. There is honest and also shocking laughter in these early illustrations. A fantaisiste, graceful, delicate — and indelicate — emerged after the lad went up to Paris, as if he had stepped out of the eighteenth century. Rops summed up in his book plates, title-pages, and wood-cuts, illustrations done in a furious speed, all the elegance, the courtly corruption, and Boucher-like luxuriousness that may be detected in the moral marquetrie of the Goncourts. He had not yet said," Evil, be thou my Good," nor had the mystic delirium of the last period set in. All his afternoons must have been those of a faun- a faun who with impeccable solicitude put on paper what he saw in the heart of the bosk or down by the banks of secret rivers. The sad turpitudes, the casuistry of concupiscence, the ironic discolourations and feverish delving into subterranean moral stratifications were as yet afar. He was young, handsome, with a lithe, vigorous body and the head of an aristocratic Mephistopheles, a head all profile, like the heads of Hungary — Hungary itself, which is all profile. Need we add that after the death of his father he soon wasted a fortune? But the reckless bohemian in him was subjugated by necessity. He set to work to earn his bread. Some conception of his labours for thirty-five years may be gleaned from the catalogue of his work by Erastène Ramiro (whose real name is Eugene Rodrigues). Nearly three thousand plates he etched, lithographed, or engraved, not including his paintings or his experiments in various mediums, such as vernis mom and wood-engraving.
The coarse legends of old Flanders found in Rops their pictorial interpreter. Less cerebral in his abounding youth he made Paris laugh with his comical travesties of political persons, persons in high finance, and also by his shrewd eye for the homely traits in the life of the people. His street scenes are miracles of detail, satire, and fun. The one entitled Spring is the most noted. That legacy of hate, inherited from the 1830. poets, of the bourgeois, was a merry play for Rops. He is the third of the trinity of caricature artists, Daumier and Gavarni being the other two. The liberal pinch of Gallic salt in the earlier plates need not annoy one. Deliberately vulgar he never is, though he sports with things hallowed, and always goes out of his way to insult the religion he first professed. There is in this Satanist a religious fond; the very fierceness of his attacks, of his blasphemies, betrays the Catholic at heart. If he did not believe, why should he have displayed such continual scorn? No, Rops was not as sincere as his friends would have us believe. He made his Pegasus plod in too deep mud, and often in his most winged flights he darkened the blue with his satyr-like brutalities. But in the gay middle period his pages overflow with decorative Cupids and tiny devils, joyful girls, dainty amourettes, and Parisian putt% — they blithely kick their legs over the edges of eternity, and smile as if life were a snowball jest or a game at forfeits. They are adorable. His women are usually strong-backed, robust Amazons, drawn with a swirling line and a Rubens-like fulness. They are conquerors. Before these majestic idols men prostrate themselves.
In his turbulent later visions there is no suspicion of the opium that gave its inspiration to Coleridge, Poe, De Quincey, James Thomson, or Baudelaire. The city of dreadful night shown us by Rops is the city through whose streets he has passed his life long. Not the dream cities of James Ensor or De Groux, the Paris of Rops is at once an abode of disillusionment, of mordant joys, of sheer ecstasy and morbid hallucinations. The opium of Rops is his imagination, aided by a manual dexterity that is extraordinary. He is a master of linear design. He is cold, deadly cold, but correct ever. Fabulous and absurd, delicious and abominable as he may be, his spirit sits critically aloft, never smiling. Impersonal as a toxicologist, he handles his poisonous acids with the gravity of a philosopher and the indifference of a destroying angel. There is a diabolic spleen more strongly developed in Rops than in any of his contemporaries, with the sole exception of Baudelaire, who inspired and spurred him on to astounding atrocities of the needle and acid. This diabolism, this worship of Satan and his works, are sincere in the etcher. A relic of rotten Romanticism, it glows like phosphorescent fire during his last period. The Church has in its wisdom employed a phrase for frigid depravity of the Rops kind, naming it "morose delectation." Morose Rops became as he developed. His private life he hid. We know little or nothing of it save that he was not unhappy in his companionships or choice of friends. He loathed the promiscuous methods by which some men achieve admiration. But secret spleen there must have been — a twist of a painter's wrist may expose his soul. He became a solitary and ate the bitter root of sin, for, cerebral as he is, his discovery of the human soul shows it as ill at ease before its maker. Flaubert has said that "the ignoble is the sublime of the lower slope." But no man may sun himself on this slope by the flames of hell without his soul shrivelling away. Rodin, who admires Rops and has been greatly influenced by him; Rodin, as an artist superior to the Belgian, has revealed less preoccupation with the ignoble; at least, despite his excursions into questionable territory, he has never been carried completely away. He always returns to the sane, to the normal life; but over the volcanic landscapes of Rops are strewn many moral abysses.
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 "Eternel féminin do l'éternel jocrisse." Ninnies, simperers, and simpletons have vanished. The poor, suffering human frame becomes a horrible musical instrument from which the artist ex-torts 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 medieval 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 Sâr 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 Iast 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 ad-dressed 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 Jacque-mart, 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 observed 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 François Millet, several Iandscapes 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 generaIly 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 apoca imagination had Félicien Rops.