Lot 220
  • 220

Félicien Rops

100,000 - 150,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Félicien Rops
  • pornokrates
  • signed Felicien Rops and dated 1879 lower left
  • pastel, chalk, pencil and watercolour on paper
  • 29 by 18cm., 11½ by 7in.


Librairie Jean-Claude Vrain, Paris
Purchased by the present owner from the above in 2002


Vienna, Kunstforum, Der Kuss der Sphinx: Symbolismus in Belgien, 2007-2008, no. 2, illustrated in the catalogue    

Catalogue Note


'The love of women, like Pandora's Box, contains all the grief of life, but they are enveloped in such luminous golden spangles, they are so brilliantly coloured and have such a perfume, that it is never necessary to repent for having opened it.' (Félicien Rops)

The following five works and lots 235, 238 and 242 not only show the many facets of Rops' artistic pre-occupation, but include some of his most iconic and important works, such as Pornokrates ou la dame au cochon, Coin de rue, quatres heures du matin (Parodie humaine) and L'attrapade.

Rops' best works were inspired by the femmes parisiennes, a subject that completely seduced him when he first moved to the French capital. Rops found Parisian women exciting, their wardrobe bizarre and fantastic and their flesh feverishly seductive, the product of a decadent society of which they were the most exotic flowers. 

The Goncourt brothers noted in their Journal in December 1866: 'we were visited by Rops, who is to illustrate La Lorette. A dark man, his hair brushed back and somewhat curly, a small black paint-brush moustache, a white silk scarf around his neck, his features a cross between a duellist of the days of Henry II and a Spaniard from Flanders. His speech is lively, fiery, rushed, with the rolled 'r' of a Flemish accent. He speaks of the bewilderment aroused in him, once he had left his country, by the harness, the transvestism, the near fantastic clothing of the Parisian woman, who appeared to him like a woman from a different planet. He speaks at length of the modernism he wishes to create from nature, of the sinister aspects he finds in it, of the almost macabre feel he sensed in a whore called Clare Blume, at dawn, after a night spent in caress and play' (quoted by Camille Lemonnier, Félicien Rops, l'Homme et l'artiste, Paris, 1908, p. 61).

Rops himself described his first encounter with Parisian women in a letter to Calmels, a critic at the Revue Nouvelle: 'You will understand, my dear Sir, the profound astonishment that filled me when I found myself face to face with that formidable strange product called a Parisian girl. Mr Average, running into the Hottentot Venus in national costume on the street corner, would be less amazed than I was in front of this incredible composition of cardboard, taffeta, nerves and rice powder. And how I love them.' (Letter to Calmels dated 1871, quoted in Demolder, Félicien Rops: Etude Patronymique, Paris, 1894, p. 9). 

Rops devoted himself to the pursuit of these extraordinary females, constantly drawing and etching them. However, he never drew the nude, but, rather, like Manet in Olympia (1867) naked women. A technical perfectionist, he filled drawers full of sketched hands, faces, details of movements or expressions. Looking through them, he would say 'I am Jack the Ripper' (quoted in Victor Arwas, Félicien Rops, London, 1976,  p. 8). Each project would entail endless sketches and trials, amendments and new starts. Once the image was fixed, he would destroy all preparatory work and thereafter typically executed it in a variety of media.

Rops' rich literary and pictorial imagination influenced a number of young Symbolist artists including James Ensor, Edvard Munch, Max Klinger, Alfred Kubin, Paul-Albert Besnard, Aubrey Beardsley and even Auguste Rodin. Hailed as the leader of 'Dark Symbolism', Rops rejected the lyrical aspects of the movement in favour of deliberately shocking images and juxtapositions, perverse, erotic, and bizarre.

To those who did not personally know him, Rops seemed to epitomise the perverse lecherer, with an unbridled sensuality, an intoxicating eroticism, a Marquess de Sade. In fact, Rops was a refined man who combined within him the extremes of a gentle, yet boisterous and highly entertaining character with a melancholic temperament balanced by a keen sense of humour. His early Catholic upbringing and the sexually repressive mores of his time led to a duality between his clear enjoyment of women, and the notion of sin associated with physical pleasure.

'Rops: Anoints himself with rouge, dyes his hair and wears blood-red shirts: looks, or so he hopes, like a sarcastic Satan.' Félix Fénéon, Petit Bottin des Lettres et des Arts, 1886


Executed in 1879, Pornokrates or La Dame au Cochon is arguably Rops' most famous image. Rops considered it his masterpiece. There are two known versions of this composition, the present work and a watercolour and pastel version in the collection of the Rops Museum, Namur.

The technique Rops used in Pornokrates of heightening a watercolour base with non-fixed pastel, embues this work with great luminosity, finesse and intensity of colour. Rops considered this technique his most refined.

In a letter to his friend Henri Liesse, Rops described the creation of the Pornokrates watercolour:  'I had the opportunity to see and kiss the black silk stockings with red flowers of a young girl whose lover is in Monaco. I placed her nude like a goddess, I had her wear long black gloves on these long beautiful hands that I clasped for three years, and on top, I coiffed her hair like those in Gainsboroughs, in black velour ornamented with gold, which gives the girls of our era the insolent dignity of women of the seventeenth century. The drawing pleases me. I want to show you this beautiful nude girl, shod, gloved and coiffed in black, silk, skin and velvet, her eyes blindfolded, walking on a pink marble frieze, led by a pig with a golden tail in front of a blue sky. Three loves (cupids) - the ancient loves - disappear crying... I made this in four days in a blue satin salon, in an overheated apartment, filled with odours, where the opopanax and cyclamen gave me a small fever beneficial to the production and to the reproduction. And so, my Pornokrates is finished. I have no idea to whom I could sell this work, but I don't care!' (Letter to Henri Liesse, 8 January 1879).

To his patron Edmond Picard he wrote in 1879 ' J'ai envoyé à Taelemans dans le but vague de vendre à un amateur encore plus vague und peinture assez bizarre faite uniquement dans le but de pouretraire une grande diablesse de fille qui avait une allure antique... Il y a encore un cochon!... J'espère que c'est moral!'

Rops had moved to Paris at the behest of the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire, who had recommended the artist to his publisher Poulet-Malassis in a poem:

Usez toutes vos éloquences
Mon bien cher coco Malperché

Comme je le ferais moi-même
A dire là-bas combien j'aime
Ce tant bizarre Monsieur Rops,

Qui n'est pas un grand prix de Rome
mais dont le talent est haut, comme
Les pyramides de Chéops

There Rops soon achieved considerable notoriety owing both to his libertine lifestyle and the eroticism and decadence of his imagery. He became a highly successful illustrator, providing visual accompaniments to works by Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Barbey d'Aurevilly and Péladan, who wrote to him admiringly:  'I have seen some of your masterful etchings, which were of such an intense perversity that I, who am preparing the Treaty of the Perverse, have fallen head over heels for your extraordinary talent...' (Undated letter of Péladan to Rops quoted in Cornette de Saint-Cyr, Rêves Symbolistes, Paris, 1975, n.p.).

Having initially divided his time between Paris and Brussels, from the 1870s onwards the newly separated Rops spent most of his time in Paris, where, he often said, the effects of modernity were most readily apparent. For Rops, modernity was best expressed in the figure of woman, whether she was a bourgeoise dressed in high fashion, or a lowly street walker. While real prostitutes were often linked to the spread of disease (lot 221), idealized prostitutes, who might be mistaken for their wealthier urban sisters, formed the inspiration for art. 

Pornokrates was the scandalous success of the 1886 Les XX exhibition and solidified Rops' growing reputation as the creator of sexually-charged, titillating imagery. Although Rops provided it with a Greek title, he changed the figure's status from that of an ancient muse of love to a modern goddess of sex. 'Rops presents a provocative vision of modern woman. She is naked rather than nude, realistically rendered rather than demurely sensuous. Love has no place in the modern worlds; even the ancient cupids leave in tears. Blindfolded and located atop a parapet, she haughtily walks a pig, an emblem of filth and temptation. Were it not for her brazen nakedness, she might be mistaken for a proper middle-class woman walking a well-bred dog. Adorned with the accoutrements of her trade, she parades not on the boulevards that were the street walker's domain, but above the weeping personification of the arts - suggesting that the modern prostitute is truly the new muse of the arts.' (Sura Levine, Les XX and the Belgian avant-garde, Kansas, 1992, p. 329).