Chapters of the exhibition

Motifs from Flanders and Wallonia

Rops and the photographer Nadar took a trip to Ostend on the Belgian coast in 1857. Here, near Blankenberghe and in the vicinity of his birthplace of Namur, in a far cry from the erotic subjects he otherwise favoured in his graphic work, the artist focused his gaze on the work environments of the people. He was inspired in his choice of motifs by the French realist Gustave Courbet and the painters of the Barbizon School. Rops recorded his impressions in numerous drawings and etchings compellingly depicting fishermen, seamstresses, laundresses, dairy maids, cooks and farm workers, subjects that also found their way into his oil paintings.

Images of women

In the course of the nineteenth century, industrialisation and urbanisation led to a perceived breakdown of the old bourgeois order. The new era that was dawning was equated with modern working woman. The various women’s emancipation movements however triggered widespread anxieties primarily by men that led to gender roles being defined even more rigidly. Fear of women’s growing power gave rise to the widespread myth of women as dangerously seductive and even demonic beings, the image of the femme fatale. Their goal was ostensibly the destruction of man and society with the help of their sexuality. Diseases such as syphilis were therefore blamed on women. This attitude was reflected in depictions that enhanced women’s exotic character, branding them as sexually untamed, animalistic creatures. The only socially acceptable counter-image was the obedient and quietly contented wife and mother.

Title pages and illustrations

Of great importance for the development of Rops’s Parisian motifs was his close collaboration with the publisher Poulet-Malassis starting in 1863. Sometimes using a pseudonym, Rops etched a total of 34 frontispieces for the publisher between 1864 and 1870, ranging in their motifs from the erotic to the explicitly sexual, including one for Alfred Delvau’s Dictionnaire Ă©rotique (1864). He also created numerous title pages for other Parisian publishers, for works including Les Cousines de la Colonelle by Guy de Maupassant (1881) and Le Vice suprĂȘme by JosĂ©phin PĂ©ladan (1884). Rops gave form to the erotic content of the literature through images of the female body, condensing the themes into highly complex iconographies full of allusions and double meanings.

Society, satire, brothel

With Rops’s move to the metropolitan city of Paris, representations of women, especially of the demimonde, became even more central to his oeuvre. Since sexual activity was supposed to serve only the purpose of procreation, any expression of sensuality was condemned. Its suppression, quite literally making it a taboo, led to a pervasive double standard in bourgeois circles. Prostitution and extra-marital affairs flourished, helping venereal diseases such as syphilis to thrive. With his highly sexualized depictions of what were clearly contemporary figures, Rops held a mirror up to the hypocrisy of bourgeois society. Despite feigning shock and outrage at his explicit depictions, viewers are cast in the role of voyeurs who cannot escape their own sexuality, however much they try to repress it, and the resulting social injustices.

Diaboliques & Sataniques

Rops produced illustrations for Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Les Diaboliques (The She-Devils), a collection of short stories, between 1883 and 1886. Like the stories, Rops’s illustrations break taboos, laying bare widespread social anxieties. Rops’s own project Les Sataniques (The Satanic Ones) opens with a giant figure of Satan sowing women as weeds in nocturnal Paris. Women, eroticism and death intertwine in Rops’s scenes of satanic rites to form a cohesive unity. In the course of these sexually charged, objectifying depictions, a Black Mass takes place in which a woman (representative of all women) enters into an alliance with the devil. Turning Christian symbols on their head by lending them erotic connotations, Rops expresses his critique of the double standards and decadence of Church and society in his day while representing women as the root of all evil.