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, political cartoonist and caricaturist. He caused scandal with his highly controversial artwork, which glorifies sex and nudity, mixed with morbid and Satanistic themes. Rops was also the original illustrator of Charles De Coster's classic novel 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' ('Till Eulenspiegel', 1867). The artist additionally wrote history as a comics 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). Rops was the first known Belgian cartoonist to create a comic strip based on a recurring character. He is also the first known satirical and erotic Belgian comic artist. His hedonistic and subversive art still provokes and intrigues audiences today. 

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 eventually made him drop out of college. 

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 and writer Charles de Coster founded their own satirical magazine: L'Uylenspiegel (1856-1863). The name was based on the German-Flemish folklore character Till Eulenspiegel. Eulenspiegel is a trickster character with no respect for authority. L'Uylenspiegel had the same anti-clerical and subversive spirit. It attacked the bourgeoisie, the Church, politicians, the death penalty and especially the pretentious and subjective art critics of Le Salon. Rops fitted well in its pages. He drew numerous provocative cartoons, such as 'La Médaille de Waterloo' (1858), which criticized admirers of the late "military genius" Napoléon Bonaparte. The drawing 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. The (free) Press and Caricaturing Art are visualized as institutions under attack of thousands of skeletons, who symbolize the victims of Napoleon's wars. Overall, the cartoon criticized people who glorified the late Corsican emperor, without acknowledging that he was a ruthless dictator and invader. At the time, Rops' cartoon caused outrage in Belgium and especially in France. A son of an imperial officer felt so offended that he challenged Rops to a duel. The artist accepted the offer, but luckily both survived with only minor wounds. 

Rops also drew his venom at Napoleon's relative, Napoleon III, who was president (1848-1852) and later emperor (1852-1870) of France. The politician  established a similar dictatorship. Rops attacked him in several cartoons. The most iconic one is 'La Dernière Incarnation de Vautrin' (1862). The image depicts anarchist and sociologist Pierre Proudhon as merely being Napoleon III, hiding behind a mask. His so-called anarchist ideas are just as repressive as the French emperor. 

Apart from Rops, his friends Victor Hallaux, Ceslaw Karski and Ernest Scaron also published in L'Uylenspiegel. In 1857 he officially left the magazine because was about to get married.  He had two children, one of which died at age six from meningitis. Still, it wasn't a final goodbye to L'Uylenspiegel either. 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' (published in L'Uylenspiegel, issue #39, 2 November 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 Charles De Coster's novels 'Légendes Flamandes' (1858), 'Contes Brabançons' (1861) and his signature novel 'La Légende d'Uylenspiegel' ('Tijl Uilenspiegel', 1867). For the latter story, De Coster took the German-Flemish folkloric trickster Till Eulenspiegel, who'd earlier inspired the name of his satirical magazine L'Uylenspiegel. He gave him a more Dutch-sounding name, Tijl Uilenspiegel, and an origin story situated in 16th-century Flanders, when the Southern Netherlands were occupied by Spain. The author invented an entire 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 to  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. To this day Tijl Uilenspiegel is still seen as "the spirit of Flanders". The novel became particularly beloved in Russia, where readers enjoyed the anti-clerical tone. 

Rops wasn't the only illustrator of the original edition of 'Tijl Uilenspiegel', though. 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. 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 of Rops was famous French poet Charles Baudelaire. In the mid-1860s Baudelaire lived in Brussels, mostly to evade creditors. Rops illustrated his book 'Les Épaves' ('Scraps', 1866), a collection of censored poems. Baudelaire also once described Rops and fellow countryman Henri Leys in a letter to painter Édouard Manet as "the only real artists I ever met in Belgium (...), whose talent is as high as the piramid of Cheops." Unfortunately their friendship soured when Baudelaire tried to seduce Rops' nude model. Much to his anger she turned him down, because she already had an affair with Rops. The author of 'Les Fleurs du Mal' was so angry that he not only broke ties with Rops, but also dismissed his entire stay in Belgium with the frustrated pamphlet 'Pauvre Belgique' ('Poor/ Pathetic Belgium', 1864). 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 Rops even became 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. 

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. Rops also co-founded the Société Libre des Beaux-Arts ("Free Society of Fine Arts"), an artistic collective which favored realism in the arts. 

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

Subversive style
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 huddling together to read the biblical chapter about the destruction of Sodom. According to the Bible this city was destroyed because people expressed debaucherous sexual behaviour. In Rops' cartoon, the priests are visibly excited by the story. The caption underneath the cartoon reads: "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 Rops observed in Namur. His cartoon shows a pitiful little boy standing next to a grave, while the adults around him are more concerned about their prestige than taking care of him. This lithograph also caused a scandal. 

Rops made various drawings depicting life in the fringe of society. They are sometimes grimly realistic, but others ought to be understood as symbolic allegories. Lustful seductive women, often in alliance with death and Satan, are a recurring theme. 'La Dame au Pantin' ('Women With Puppet', 1885) features a woman using men as puppets. In 'Pornocrates' (1878), his most famous work, a confident nude woman in stockings holds a pig on a leash, symbolizing barely contained lust. Rops was particularly fascinated with prostitutes, proven by works such as 'La Buveuse d'Absinthe' ('The Absinthe Drinker', 1869), 'La Chanson de Chérubin' ('The Cherub's Song', 1878) and 'La Dèche' ('Poverty', 1882). 'Parodie Humaine' ('Human Parody', 1882) shows a man being seduced by a prostitute who, unbeknownst to him, is merely a skeleton behind a mask. It's a disturbing allegory of venereal diseases.

In 1882 Rops created a series of heliogravures called 'Les Sataniques' ('The Satanists', 1882). They depict Satan and various seductive women collaborating to corrupt mankind. In 'Satan Semant L'Ivraie' ('Satan Sowing Ryegrass') the Devil is a colossal skeleton who towers over a city at night. Like a farmer who sows seeds, he throws down baby corpses. The work is a metaphor for children who die an unfair early death due to child birth, poverty, hunger, crime or neglect. Other images in the series portray Satan being worshipped by femme fatales amidst phallic symbols. Rops illustrated many books and poems of a hedonistic nature, including Andrea de Nerciat's 'Les Aphrodites' (1864), Alfred Devau's 'Dictionnaire Érotique Moderne' (1864), Charles Baudelaire's 'Les Épaves' (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 Rops' drawings: 'Son Altesse la femme' (1885) and 'Féminies' (1896). 

All these works shocked and outraged the upper class, clergy and average, conventional people. But in a letter Rops explained he wasn't prejudiced against one specific group:  "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." 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". 

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

Félicien Rops was also a pioneer in Belgian comics. As early as the 1550s and 1560s, Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder made occasional sequential illustrated narratives, sometimes with a text written underneath the images. His depictions of villagers are humorous and feature dozens of stories-within-a-story. But for a more modern prototypical comic strip made in Belgium we have to wait until the 19th century, until Félicien Rops draws his picture stories. They all feature text underneath the images, making him the earliest known Belgian text comics artist. They also count as the earliest known humoristic Belgian comics and the first known with recurring characters. 'Le Juif Errant et Ferré' (1854), 'Promenade au Jardin Zoologique' (1856) and 'Mr. Coremans au Tir National' (1861) are additionally notable for being the earliest known Belgian satirical comics. While it's true that Richard de Querelles already made a prototypical comic strip in 1843, 'Le Déluge à Bruxelles', which is set and published in Brussels, De Querelles wasn't a native Belgian, but born in France. 

Les Époux Van-Blague 
Rops' earliest story 'Les Époux Van-Blague' ("The Van-Blague Couple"), appeared in issue #40 of the student magazine Le Crocodile, published on 20 November 1853. It features the humoristic adventures of a husband and his wife. Their last name, 'blague', is French for 'joke'. In the story the couple receives a son, delivered by a doctor named Crommelinck and later educated by teacher Mr. Snoeck.  Rops signed the story with the pseudonym Cham-Loth, a pun on King Arthur's castle Camelot, but also the French comic pioneer Cham.

Le Juif Errant et Ferré
In issue #14 (2 April 1854) of the student magazine Le Crocodile, Rops drew a parody of Fromental Halévy's opera 'Le Juif Errant' ("The Wandering Jew", 1852), in itself based on Eugène Sue's novel of the same name. On four consecutive pages, Rops mocks the stage version, which had been first performed in Belgium on 15 March 1854 in the Théâtre de la Monnaie/ Muntschouwburg in Brussels. He ridicules the actors, singers, playwright and the audience in a series of chronological vignettes. Each person is portrayed in a caricatural fashion. The lay-out echoes the influence of Rodolphe Töpffer. Yet it should be pointed out that in 1844 Cham also drew a parody of Halévy's 'The Wandering Jew' in comic strip format. 

Promenade au Jardin Zoologique
In issue #17 of L'Uylenspiegel from 25 May 1856, Rops drew a series of humorous vignettes set in the Antwerp Zoo, titled 'Promenade au Jardin Zoologique' ("Promenade in the Zoo"). Each scene features different visitors in the zoo having a funny conversation. Although it's not a real "story", the images are thematically connected. 

M. Coremans au Tir National
In 1861 the magazine L'Uylenspiegel issued an almanac with a text comic by Rops, 'M. Coremans au Tir National' ("Mr. Coremans at the Tir National", 1861). With 27 pages in length, it's his longest picture story. The comic strip revolves around Mr. Coremans, an alderman from the town Jodoigne-Souveraine. Jodoigne-Souveraine (in Dutch: Opgeldenaken) is a real-life Belgian village in the present-day province Walloon Brabant. Coremans' wife, Eulalie Fruchet, hails from Namur. One day Coremans goes to Brussels to fulfill his duties as a 'garde civique' ('civic guard'). He takes his dog Dora with him. After his arrival in Brussels, Coremans' bayonet accidentally shreds an English woman's dress. Her angry husband starts yelling at him, but once it starts raining our hero manages to flee. He goes to a few local bars, such as Café Suisse and Le Lion Belge. With his cousin, Mr. Fuchet, he climbs on top of the Congress Column monument. There his nose gets stuck in Fuchet's wife's petticoats. One scene later Coremans visits an exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts, where he meets a grand dignitary and his black slave. The black man scares him, but all is forgotten once Coremans looks at some nude statues, which arouse him, "despite being father of seven children". At the Tir National firing range he fires his gun a few times, but only makes a fool of himself. 

Afterwards Coremans eats a beef steak in the Faille Déchirée café and chats with some students from the Mille Collines neighbourhood. When he asks to meet "some celebrities" he is introduced to Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paul Hymans, Dan Bertram ("from the office of publicity") and baritone singer Dan Carman. They have a party together, but Coremans is kicked out when he toasts to the clergy of his diocese and people who defend the Holy Chair. He then travels to the theater, where he meets the real Dan Carman and realizes the man he met earlier was an imposter. Coremans wants to meet the attractive dancer Rigolboche and disguises himself as a choirboy. Again he is disgraced and later that night arrested by the police. They deport him back to his hometown. All ends well when his wife informs him that he has been nominated for the title of mayor of Jodoine-Souveraine. 

'M. Coremans au Tir National' is a rather rambling and confusing story. Like many 19th-century picture stories there is no strong narrative structure. The protagonist merely stumbles from one farcical situation into the other. Halfway the story Rops forgets to draw Coremans' dog. The animal simply vanishes, something the artist does acknowledge, but only on the final page and hardly with a satisfying explanation. According to Rops, the dog was "last seen in the lower side of the city and then disappeared without a trace." For modern-day readers the story is also difficult to understand, since it relies on a lot of references and inside jokes that are nowadays obscure. For people from Brussels it's a bit more relatable, since many of the places Coremans visits are still landmarks of the city today. Just like Richard de Querelles' 'Le Déluge à Bruxelles' (1843), 'M. Coremans au Tir National' is notable for featuring a lot of Brussels couleur locale. To this day many Belgian comics still use tourist hotspots in their stories to attract and amuse readers who recognize these locations from real life. In that regard De Querelles and Rops were again pioneers. 'M. Coremans au Tir National' also features a lot of erotic innuendo. Twice Coremans accidentally embarrasses women. He gets excited from looking at nude female statues and he travels back and forth from the "upper half" to the "lower half" of the city, looking for "love and mystery", a thinly disguised reference to the Brussels' red light district. 

Le Droit au Travail/ Le Droit au Repos
Less of a story and more of a "before and after" comparison is 'Le Droit au Travail/ Le Droit au Repos' ('The Right to Work/ The Right to Rest', 1868). In a two-panel sequence Rops portrays a man whose head is a penis. In the first image he is erect and proud. In the next he's flacid and exhausted. Because of its explicit nature, 'Le Droit au Travail / Le Droit au Repos', didn't see print during Rops' lifetime. It was just a witty dirty joke, but nevertheless still ranks as the first known Belgian erotic comic strip. 

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

In 1892 Félicien Rops was inducted in the Légion d'Honneur. 

Final years and death
In the final decades of his life, 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 from 1892 on, he started suffering from failing eyesight, 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. They were moved 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. 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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