Comic Creator Félicien Rops

Félicien Rops

Croque-tout, Risette, Graffin, Cham-Loth, Spor

(7 July 1833, Belgium - 23 August 1898, France)   Belgium

Félicien  Rops

M. Coremans by Felicien Rops
'M. Coremans au tir national' (Almanach d'Uylenspiegel, 1861).

Félicien Rops was a 19th-century Belgian graphic artist, painter, illustrator and caricaturist. He is notorious for his highly controversial artwork which glorified sex and nudity, while mixing it with morbid and Satanistic themes. It has provoked audiences and inspired artists for centuries. Even today it has kept its cult appeal. Rops was furthermore the original illustrator of Charles De Coster's classic novel 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' (1867). Yet the artist was also a comic pioneer. He created the text comics 'Les Époux Van-Blague' (1853), 'Le Juif Errant et Ferré' (1854), 'Promenade Au Jardin Zoologique' (1856), 'M. Coremans Au Tir National' (1861) and 'Le Droit du Travail/Le Droit Au Repos' (1868). These are widely considered to be the starting point of Belgium's comic history, not counting the 16th-century predecessor Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Rops was the first Belgian cartoonist to create a comic strip based on a recurring character. He was also the first satirical and erotic Belgian comic artist. 

Les Sataniques by F. Rops
'Satan Sement L'Ivrae' ('Satan Sowing the Ryegrass'), from 'Les Sataniques' (1882).

Early life and career
Félicien Joseph Victor Rops was born in 1833 in Namur as the son of a rich cotton and calico merchant. This allowed him to be educated by a private teacher. He later went to a local Jesuit college, where he enjoyed caricaturing his teachers. Many were so offended that they predicted he would "never amount to anything in his life." Among his graphic influences were Honoré Daumier, Cham, Gustave Doré and Paul Gavarni. At age 16 Rops left school, repulsed by the dogmatic Catholic teachings, and finished his studies at the Royal Athenaeum and later the Académie de Namur. In 1851 he moved to Brussels, where he briefly studied Law and Philosophy at the Free University. The city life excited him and brought him in contact with many like-minded creative and independent thinkers. Under pen names like 'Croque-tout', 'Risette', 'Graffin', 'Cham-Loth' and 'Spor' he published his first drawings in local student magazines, such as Le Crocodile and Le Diable au Salon. These activities also had the result that he abandoned his studies. 

Les Sonnets du Docteur by Felicien RopsLes Sonnets du Docteur
Two drawings from 'Les Sonnets du Docteur' (1893).

On 3 January 1856 the 22-year old Rops founded his own satirical magazine L'Uylenspiegel (1856-1863). His co-founder was Charles de Coster, who would later become famous as the author of 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' (1867), which took the German-Flemish folklore character Till Eulenspiegel and transformed him into a rebellious trickster with no respect for the Church and government. Rops' magazine had the same anti-clerical and subversive spirit. L'Uylenspiegel attacked the bourgeoisie, the Church, politicians, the death penalty and especially the pretentious and subjective art critics of Le Salon. Here Rops found his characteristic provocative style. His cartoon 'La Médaille de Waterloo' (1858) criticized admirers of the late "military genius" Napoléon Bonaparte. It depicts Napoleon on a medal, but as a senile dwarf who has to use a cane. The medal is guarded by Marianne, symbol of France, and Press and Caricature from thousands of skeletons who try to attack it. The cartoon criticized people who glorified Napoleon without acknowledging how many victims his wars had cost. It caused outrage both in Belgium as well as France. A son of an imperial officer felt so offended that he challenged Rops to a duel. Luckily both men were only wounded afterwards. The artist also drew his venom at Napoleon's most famous relative, the current French president-emperor Napoléon III. He made several cartoons criticizing his policies. The most iconic one, 'La Dernière Incarnation de Vautrin' (1862), depicted anarchist and sociologist Pierre Proudhon as merely Napoléon III hiding behind a mask.

Rops' friends Victor Hallaux, Ceslaw Karski and Ernest Scaron also published in L'Uylenspiegel's pages. In 1857 he officially left the magazine because he was about to get married.  He had two children, one of which died at age six from meningitis. Nevertheless he kept publishing new material at irregular intervals until the magazine's demise in 1863. 

Napoleon cartoon by F. Rops
'La dernière incarnation de Vautrin' (1862).

Tijl Uilenspiegel
After his wife's rich uncle died, Rops enherited a castle in Thozée. During the 1860s he made name as an illustrator, livening up the pages of various novels by Henri Monnet, Alfred Delvau, André de Nerciat, Théophile Gauthier and Louis Bertrand. Rops provided images for De Coster's novels 'Légendes Flamandes' (1858), 'Contes Brabançons' (1861) and his signature novel 'La Légende d'Uylenspiegel' ('Tijl Uilenspiegel', 1867). De Coster took the German-Flemish folkloric trickster Tijl Uilenspiegel (sometimes named Till Eulenspiegel) and reinvented him as the embodiment of the Flemish rebellion against foreign intruders. He situated Tijl's adventures in the 16th century during the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands. The author invented a whole mythology around him. Tijl is born in Damme, West-Flanders, as the son of Carolus and Soetkin. He has a love interest, Nele, and a Bruegelian funny sidekick, Lamme Goedzak. The first half of the novel is mostly a series of funny farcical events where Tijl fools, tricks or annoys people. The second half is more serious and features Tijl and his friends joining the uprising of the Geuzen/ Gueux rebels against the powerful armies of Spanish king Philippe II and the Duke of Alba. At its initial release the novel wasn't much of a success. Many objected against the biting anti-clerical tone where all priests and nuns are corrupt and easily fooled by Tijl. With the passing of time 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' rose to a classic of world literature. The novel became particularly beloved in Russia. 

Rops wasn't the only illustrator of the original edition of 'Tijl Uilenspiegel'. M.M. Degroux, Adolf Dillens, Paul Lauters, Alfred Hubert, Camille Camp, Guillaume van der Hecht, J. Bouwens and Henri-François Schaefels also made contributions. The book and Rops' illustrations inspired many Dutch and Belgian comic artists to make their own adaptations, often straying far from the source material. Dutch cartoonist Albert Hahn, Jr. made a 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' comic strip as early as 1927. His fellow countryman Henricus Kannegieter published 'De Snakerijen van Tijl Uilenspiegel' (1936-1937) in the Flemish comic magazine Ons Volkske. During World War II another Dutch cartoonist, Piet Broos, made a newspaper text comic based on 'Tijl'. In 1945 the Flemish artist and future 'Musti' creator  Ray Goossens had a gag comic series, 'Tijl en Lamme', which bore no similarity to De Coster's novel. In 1947 Jacques Eggermont drew a version which appeared in Franc Jeu, around the same time François Craenhals made an adaptation for Ran Tan Plan. Italian artist Dino Battaglia and Spanish creators José Cabrero Arnal and Roger Mas also created a comic strip story about the folkloric trickster in Il Giornalino. In 1950 Buth made a child friendly version of 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' for 't Kapoentje, while the same year Bob de Moor drew a more political satire named 'De Nieuwe Avonturen van Tijl Uilenspiegel' (1950-1951) for Nieuws van de Dag.  The most iconic comic book adaptation of 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' was made by Willy Vandersteen and serialized in Tintin magazine between 1952 and 1954. The first story, 'De Opstand der Geuzen', follows De Coster's novel relatively closely, though Vandersteen removed all anti-clerical elements and made the story more child friendly. The second story, 'Fort Oranje', was a completely original tale which brought Tijl and his friends to 17th-century America. Vandersteen's final comics series 'De Geuzen' (1985-1990) featured protagonists who were basically expies of Tijl, Lamme and Nele.  In Denmark Helge Kühn-Nielsen drew a comic adaptation of Charles De Coster's version of the character between 1952 and 1953. Furthermore Nonkel Fons and Gray Croucher created a 'Tijl' children's comic for Zonneland near the end of the 1950s, while Geo drew 'Tijl Uilenspiegel Leeft in Vlaanderen' (1961).  In 1964 author L. Roelandt (pseudonym for Jef van Droogenbroeck) and illustrator George van Raemdonck adapted De Coster's classic into a text comic, with text below the images. It was printed in the Flemish magazine Vooruit. Equally noteworthy are Frans Masereel's illustrations for the 1926 reprint of De Coster's novel. 

Parodie Humaine by F. Rops
'Parodie Humaine', 1881.

Charles Baudelaire
Another good friend was famous French poet Charles Baudelaire. Rops illustrated his poetry collection 'Les Épaves' (1866), while Baudelaire wrote a letter to painter Édouard Manet in 1868 in which he described Henri Leys and Rops as "the only real artists I ever met in Belgium (...) whose talent is as high as the piramid of Cheops." Unfortunately their relationship soured somewhat when Baudelaire tried to seduce Rops' nude model, only to find out she already had an affair with Rops himself. This caused the author of 'Les Fleurs du Mal' to dismiss his stay in Belgium with the frustrated pamphlet: 'Pauvre Belgique' ('Poor/ Pathetic Belgium'). In 1980 Jean Lucas made an one-page comic strip about this anecdote, based on a text by Alain Viray. It was published in  'Il était une fois... Les Belges' (1980), a collection of columns and comic pages published at the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Belgium.  While Baudelaire and Rops didn't always get along they shared a mutual fascination for eros and thanatos. Historians claim that the artist became even more fascinated by the dual attraction between love and death thanks to Baudelaire's poetry. Lithographs like 'La Mort au Bal', 'La Mort Qui Danse' and 'Mors Syphilitica' were directly inspired by them. After spending some time in Paris he co-founded the Société Libre des Beaux-Arts ("Free Society of Fine Arts"), an artistic collective which favored realism in the arts. 

Move to Paris
In 1869 Rops met two young fashion designers, Léontine and Aurélie Duluc, for whom he designed some clothing. He fell in love with them and started to spend more time in Paris, until he finally moved there in 1874. Rops and the Duluc sisters lived together in the French capital and each bore him a child. Professionally, his career took a huge flight during his stay there. Under guard of French engraver Félix Braquemond, Rops studied the art of etching. It inspired him to found la Société Internationale des Aquafortistes to promote this art form in 1869. While it didn't exactly catch on with the general public, he did give lessons in etching to others, which allowed him to refine his technique. A perfectionist, he often scribbled notes to his printers on how light or dark they were allowed to print his etchings. Soon he was the best paid illustrator in Paris. He also engulfed himself in its cultural life, meeting many artistic icons, including Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Victor Hugo and Nadar. In 1877 the Aquafortists disbanded themselves. 

Les Pornocrates by Felicien Rops
'Pornocrates' (1878).

Subversive artwork
Both in his cartoons, lithographs, paintings and illustrations Rops established himself as a subversive satirist. His lithograph 'Chez Les Trappistes' (1859) offended people because it showed a group of Trappist monks grouping together to read the biblical chapter about the destruction of Sodom. The caption underneath the cartoon read "Among the trappist monks, where children are instilled with morals by the mouths opened solely by the Church." Another lithograph, 'Un Enterrement en Pays Wallon' ('A Burial in Wallonia', 1863) was inspired by a rather comical Catholic funeral he'd observed in Namur. His cartoon shows a pitiful little boy observing a grave, while the adults around him are more concerned with keeping their prestige and self importance than taking care of him. Once again it caused scandal. Yet Rops defended himself in a letter: "I am completely indifferent to both liberals and Catholics in terms of taking sides. It is always amusing to mock the hypocrisy of certain people who display an absence of virtues, whether they are Catholics or liberals." Rops illustrated many books and poems of a hedonistic nature, including Andrea de Nerciat's 'Les Aphrodites' (1864), the 'Dictionnaire érotique moderne' (1864) by Alfred Delvau, Baudelaire's 'Les Epaves' (1866), Jules Noilly's 'Cent légers croquis sans prétention pour réjouir les honnêtes gens' (1878-1881), Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's 'Les Diaboliques' (1884), Stéphane Mallarmé's 'La Lyre' (1887) and Paul Verlaine's 'Sphinge ou Parallèlement' (1896). Octave Uzanne even wrote novels based on his drawings: 'Son Altesse la femme' (1885) and 'Féminies' (1896).

Rops made various drawings depicting life in the fringe of society. Particularly prostitutes fascinated him, proven by works such as 'La Buveuse d'Absinthe' ('The Absinthe Drinker', 1869), 'La Chanson de Chérubin' (1878) and 'La Dèche' ('Poverty', 1882). He sometimes made grimly realistic drawings, but also excelled in symbolic allegories. His 'Dames au Pantin' series featured women using men as puppets. Lustful seductive (nude) women, often in alliance with death and Satan, are a recurring theme. In 'Pornocrates' (1878), his most famous work, a confident nude woman in stockings holds a pig on a leash, symbolizing barely contained lust. 'Parodie Humaine' (1882) shows a man being seduced by a prostitute who, unbeknownst to him, is merely a skeleton behind a mask, hinting at venereal diseases. In 1882 Rops created a series of heliogravures called 'Les Sataniques' (1882). They depict various allegories of Satan and seductive women collaborating to corrupt mankind. In 'Satan Semant L'Ivraie' ('Satan Sowing Ryegrass') a gigantic skeleton towers over a sleeping city and throws down baby corpses. Several other images in the series depict women worshipping Satan amidst phallic symbols. All these works caused outrage among the posh higher classes and clergy. The free-spirited artist never felt he had to apologize for his lifestyle: "I am Rops, I can't be virtuous and don't want to be a hypocrite", he once said. 

Promenade au jardin zoologique
'Promenade au jardin zoologique' (L’Uylenspiegel, 25 May 1856).

Félicien Rops was also a pioneer in Belgian comics. He is the earliest Belgian artist to make text comics, humorous comics and comics about recurring characters.  In the student magazine Le Crocodile he published two text comics, 'Les époux Van-Blague' (issue #40, 20 November 1853) and 'Le Juif errant et ferré' (issue #14,  2 April 1854), whose lay-out echoes the influence of Rodolphe Töpffer. The first story, 'Les Époux Van-Blague', features the comedic adventures of a couple. The second story is a parody of the legend of the Wandering Jew. In an issue of L'Uylenspiegel from 25 May 1856 Rops drew a series of individual humorous vignettes set in the Antwerp Zoo, titled 'Promenade au jardin zoologique'. While not a real "story", just a series of unrelated comedic dialogues, it is still a thematically connected text comic.

In 1861 Uylenspiegel issued an almanac featuring a text comic by Rops, 'M. Coremans au Tir National' (1861). The story revolves around a provincial civilian, Mr. Coremans, who leaves his rural community to go to Brussels. Various landmarks in the city from the Congress Column to the Mille-Colonnes are portrayed. Rops makes allusions to nowadays forgotten people and events. His character gets caught in a series of farcical situations, some with erotic innuendo and involving prostitutes. These aspects make 'Mr. Coremans' the first satirical and the first erotic Belgian comic strip in history. Rops made an even more explicit comic strip in 1868, 'Le Droit au Travail/Le Droit au Repos' ('The Right to Work/The Right to Rest'), which features a man with a penis for a head. He is erect and proud in the first panel, but flacid and exhausted in the next.

Le Droit au travail/Le droit au repos
'Le Droit au Travail'/ 'Le Droit au Repos', 1868.

In 1892 he was inducted in the Légion d'Honneur. 

Final years and death
Rops kept travelling, from Monaco, Sweden, Hungary, Spain, the Netherlands, the USA to North Africa. He enjoyed painting landscapes, especially near the sea. In 1886 he became a member of the artistic movement Les XX (The Twenty, formed in 1883). Although suffering from failing eyesight from 1892, he spent the final ten years of his life working at the Demi-Lune, his property in Essonnes near Paris.  Félicien Rops passed away in 1898. In 1906 his remains were exhumed at the wish of his son who had them placed from Essonnes to the family vault in Mettet. 

Legacy and influence
On 18 September 1987 the Félicien Rops Museum opened its doors in Namur, Belgium, where it can still be visited today. In 1990 an asteroid was named after the famous artist. Félicien Rops was an influence on many artists, including Octave Mirbeau, Vincent van Gogh, James Ensor, Edvard Munch, Max Klinger, Alfred Kubin, Pablo Picasso, Guido Crepax, Jan Fabre, Jean-Louis Lejeune, Gal, Marec and Karl Meersman.

Art by Felicien Rops
'La Bouge à Matelots' ('The Sailor's Bar', 1875). 


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