Comic Creator Félicien Rops

Félicien Rops

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

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

Félicien  Rops

'Les Époux Van-Blague' (Le Crocodile #40, 20 November 1853).

Félicien Rops was a 19th-century Belgian graphic artist, painter, illustrator, political cartoonist and caricaturist, as well as a pioneer of comics and erotic art. With his hedonistic and subversive paintings and drawings - mixing sex and nudity with morbid and Satanistic themes - he often caused scandal. Rops was also the original illustrator of Charles De Coster's classic picaresque novel 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' ('Till Eulenspiegel', 1867), and the first known Belgian to create satirical comic strips with recurring characters. He pioneered the medium with 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). Controversial in its own time, the artwork of Félicien Rops still provokes and intrigues audiences to this day.

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 Namur in 1833. As the son of a wealthy cotton and calico merchant, he was 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 their student would "never amount to anything in his life." Repulsed by the dogmatic Catholic teachings, Rops left school at age 16, and finished his studies at the Royal Athenaeum and then the Académie de Namur. In 1851, he moved to Brussels, where he studied Law and Philosophy at the Free University for a while. Excited by city life, the student got acquainted with many like-minded creative and independent thinkers. Local student magazines like Le Crocodile and Le Diable au Salon ran his first drawings, which Rops made under pen names like "Croque-tout", "Risette", "Graffin", "Cham-Loth" and "Spor". After a while, he dropped out of Law School, and fully focused on a life in art. Among his graphic influences were Honoré Daumier, Cham, Gustave Doré and Paul Gavarni.

On 3 January 1856, the 22-year old Félicien Rops and the writer Charles de Coster, six years his senior, printed the first issue of their satirical magazine L'Uylenspiegel (1856-1863). It was named after the German-Flemish folklore character Till Eulenspiegel, a trickster with no respect for authority. L'Uylenspiegel had the same anti-clerical and subversive spirit. The magazine attacked the bourgeoisie, the Church, politicians, the death penalty and especially the pretentious and subjective art critics of Le Salon. Rops contributed many provocative cartoons, such as 'La Médaille de Waterloo' ("The Waterloo Medal", 1858). The drawing depicts the late "military genius" Napoléon Bonaparte on a medal as a senile dwarf with a cane. The medal is guarded by Marianne - symbol of France - while institutions like the (free) Press and Caricaturing Art are shown under attack by hordes of skeletons, symbolizing the victims of Napoleon's wars. Overall, the cartoon criticized glorification of the late Corsican emperor, and the lack of acknowledgement that he was a ruthless dictator and invader. At the time, Rops' cartoon caused outrage in both Belgium and - especially - France. A son of an imperial officer was so offended that he challenged Rops to a duel. The artist accepted the offer, but both participants survived the duel with only minor wounds. 

Napoleon cartoon by F. Rops
'La Dernière Incarnation de Vautrin', published in L'Uylenspiegel issue #39, 2 November 1862.

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

In addition to his own work, L'Uylenspiegel also ran work by Rops' friends Victor Hallaux, Ceslaw Karski and Ernest Scaron. In 1857, Rops was about to get married to Charlotte Polet de Faveaux - the daughter of a judge from Namur - and left his role as the magazine's editor. Still, it wasn't the cartoonist's final goodbye to L'Uylenspiegel: he kept contributing new material at irregular intervals until the magazine's demise in 1863. Following the death of one of Charlotte's uncles, the Rops family enherited the Thozée castle, a country estate in Mettet, which became a meeting place for artists and intellectuals from the Namur region. Félicien and Charlotte Rops had two children, one of which died at age six from meningitis.

Etch by Félicien Rops for the first edition of Charles De Coster's 'La Légende d'Uylenspiegel' (1867).

Tijl Uilenspiegel
During the 1860s, Félicien Rops made name as an illustrator, livening up the pages of novels by Henri Monnet, Alfred Delvau, André de Nerciat, Théophile Gauthier and Louis Bertrand. Rops also provided artwork for the Charles De Coster novels 'Légendes Flamandes' (1858), 'Contes Brabançons' (1861) and his signature work 'La Légende d'Uylenspiegel' ('Tijl Uilenspiegel', 1867). Like his satirical magazine one decade earlier, the latter story was named after the German-Flemish folkloric trickster Till Eulenspiegel, but then with a more Dutch-sounding name, Tijl Uilenspiegel. Inventing an entire mythology around the character, De Coster situated the story in 16th-century Flanders, when the Southern Netherlands were occupied by Spain. 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 consists of funny farcical events with Tijl fooling, tricking and annoying people. The second half is more serious in tone, 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 had little success. Many objected to De Coster's portrayals of priests and nuns, who are all corrupt and easily fooled by Tijl. With the passing of time, 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' rose to become a classic of world literature. To this day, Tijl Uilenspiegel is still seen as "the spirit of Flanders". With its biting anti-clerical tone, the novel became particularly beloved in Russia.

Even though he became the most famous, Rops was only one of several illustrators in the original 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' edition, which also contained drawings by M.M. Degroux, Adolf Dillens, Paul Lauters, Alfred Hubert, Camille Camp, Guillaume van der Hecht, J. Bouwens and Henri-François Schaefels. With three drawings, Rops was the most prominent contributor to the book. In the following decades, many illustrators had their turn in illustrating De Coster's classic work, including Frans Masereel for a 1926 edition. The book also inspired many comic strip versions, that often strayed far from De Coster's source material. Early newspaper comics inspired by De Coster's novel were created in the Netherlands, by Henricus Kannegieter ('De Snakerijen van Tijl Uilenspiegel', 1936-1937) and Piet Broos ('Tijl Uilenspiegel', 1943). Shortly after the war, the future Flemish animator Ray Goossens made a gag strip called 'Tijl en Lamme' for Kleine Zondagsvriend magazine, but besides the names of the two title heroes, his version had very little similarity with the original novel. 1950 saw the appearance of a child-friendly version of 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' by Buth in 't Kapoentje, as well as a more political satire by Bob de Moor under the title 'De Nieuwe Avonturen van Tijl Uilenspiegel' (1950-1951) in the newspaper Nieuws van de Dag. Between 1952 and 1954, the famous Flemish comic creator Willy Vandersteen serialized one of the best-known comic book adaptations of 'Tijl Uilenspiegel', in Tintin magazine. The first installment, 'De Opstand der Geuzen', was a toned down version of De Coster's novel, with all the anti-clerical elements removed. Vandersteen's second story, 'Fort Oranje', was a completely original tale, bringing Tijl and his friends to 17th-century America. De Coster's characters of Tijl, Lamme and Nele were also blueprints for the heroes of Willy Vandersteen's final comic series, 'De Geuzen' (1985-1990). Other Belgian comic strips based on 'Tijl Uilenspiegel' were created by Jacques Eggermont for Franc Jeu magazine (1947), by Nonkel Fons and Gray Croucher for Zonneland (late 1950s) and by Jef van Droogenbroeck (AKA L. Roelandt) and illustrator George van Raemdonck in Vooruit (1964). Another newspaper strip was created in 1961 by Geo under the title 'Tijl Uilenspiegel Leeft in Vlaanderen' (1961). In Denmark, Helge Kühn-Nielsen drew the adaptation 'Till Uglspil og Lamme Goedzak' (1952-1953) for the Danish version of the 'Classics Illustrated' comic book series. The Italian comic magazine Il Giornalino printed a notable 1975 comic adaptation by Dino Battaglia.

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

Charles Baudelaire
Another good friend of Rops was the famous French poet Charles Baudelaire, who regularly visited Rops in his Thozée castle. In the mid-1860s, Baudelaire lived in Brussels, mostly to evade creditors. The Frenchman wasn't too impressed with the country, and chronicled his frustrations in the pamphlet 'Pauvre Belgique' ("Poor/Pathetic Belgium", 1864). In a letter to painter Édouard Manet, Baudelaire however described Rops and the Belgian painter Henri Leys as "the only real artists I ever met in Belgium (...), whose talent is as high as the piramid of Cheops." Félicien Rops illustrated Baudelaire's book 'Les Épaves' ('Scraps', 1866), a collection of censored poems. Rops and Baudelaire shared a fascination for eros and thanatos. Historians speculate that Rops became even more fascinated by the dual attraction between love and death through Baudelaire's poetry. Rops lithographs like 'La Mort au Bal', 'La Mort Qui Danse' and 'Mors Syphilitica' were directly inspired by them. 

The connection between the two men was captured in a 1980 comic strip, made by Jean Lucas and Alain Viray for the book 'Il était une fois... Les Belges' (1980), a collection of columns and comic pages published at the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Belgium. It shows Baudelaire trying to seduce one of Rops' nude models, who turns him down, because she already has an affair with Rops.

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 lived together with the Duluc sisters in the French capital and each bore him a child. Professionally, his career took a flight during his stay there. Under guidance of the French engraver Félix Braquemond, Rops studied the art of etching. It inspired him in 1869 to found La Société Internationale des Aquafortistes (The International Society of Aquafortists) to promote this art form. While his effort didn't evoke a full-blown art movement, it brought him to the attention of people who wanted to learn the art of etching, giving him more financial security. A perfectionist, he often wrote notes to his printers on how light or dark they were allowed to print his etchings. After a while, he was the best paid illustrator in Paris. He also engulfed himself in the city's cultural life, hanging out with many artistic icons, including the painters Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet, the poet/writer Victor Hugo and photography pioneer Nadar. In 1877, the Aquafortists disbanded. Rops was also co-founder of the Société Libre des Beaux-Arts ("Free Society of Fine Arts"), an artistic collective favoring realism in the arts. 

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

Subversive style
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 in excitement to read the biblical chapter about the destruction of Sodom. According to the Bible, this city was destroyed because its inhabitants indulged in excessive sexual behavior. The cartoon's caption reads: "Among the trappist monks, where children are instilled with morals by the mouths opened solely by the Church." Another lithograph causing a scandal was 'Un Enterrement en Pays Wallon' ("A Burial in Wallonia", 1863). Inspired by a rather comical Catholic funeral Rops observed in Namur, the cartoon showed a pitiful boy standing next to a grave, while the adults around him are more concerned about their prestige instead of taking care of him.

Many of Rops' drawings depict life in the fringes of society - some grimly realistic, others meant as symbolic allegories. A recurring theme were lustful seductive women, often in alliance with death and Satan. 'La Dame au Pantin' ("Woman With Puppet", 1885) shows a woman using men as puppets. In his most famous work, 'Pornocrates' (1878), 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), 'La Dèche' ("Poverty", 1882) and 'Parodie Humaine' ('Human Parody', 1882). The latter, for instance, shows a man seduced by a prostitute who, unbeknownst to him, is merely a skeleton behind a mask - a disturbing allegory of venereal diseases.

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

In 1882, Rops created a series of photogravures called 'Les Sataniques' ("The Satanists", 1882), depicting Satan and seductive women working together to corrupt mankind. In 'Satan Semant L'Ivraie' ("Satan Sowing Ryegrass"), the Devil is a colossal skeleton towering over a city at night. Like a farmer sowing seeds, he throws down baby corpses - a metaphor for children who die an unfair early death due to birth complications, 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). French bibliophile and author Octave Uzanne 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 other conservatives. 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 didn't feel he had to apologize for his lifestyle: "I am Rops, I can't be virtuous and don't want to be a hypocrite". 

'Le Juif Errant' (Le Crocodile #14, 2 April 1854).

Félicien Rops was also a pioneer in Belgian comics. As early as the mid-16th century, the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder made sequential narratives, sometimes with captions underneath the images. His observations of villagers were humorous and contain dozens of stories-within-a-story. It took until the 19th century before a more modern prototypical Belgian comic strip came to light, starting with the picture story 'Le Déluge à Bruxelles' (1843), created by Richard de Querelles, a Frenchman living in Belgium. About one decade later, Félicien Rops was the first known Belgian native to create picture stories with sequential narratives. With dialogues in captions underneath the images, Rops is also the first known Belgian to create humorous comics with recurring characters. His stories 'Le Juif Errant et Ferré' (1854), 'Promenade au Jardin Zoologique' (1856) and 'Mr. Coremans au Tir National' (1861) are additionally notable as the earliest known Belgian satirical comics.

Les Époux Van-Blague 
Rops' earliest picture 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 humorous adventures of a husband and his wife, whose son is delivered by doctor Crommelinck and then educated by Mr. Snoeck. Their last name, "blague", is French for "joke". Rops signed the story with the pseudonym "Cham-Loth", a pun on King Arthur's castle Camelot and the French comic pioneer Cham.

Le Juif Errant et Ferré
The 2 April 1854 issue of Le Crocodile featured a Rops parody of Fromental Halévy's opera 'Le Juif Errant' ("The Wandering Jew", 1852), which in itself was based on Eugène Sue's novel of the same name. On four consecutive pages, Rops mocks the stage adaptation, which was first performed in Belgium on 15 March 1854 in the Théâtre de la Monnaie/ Muntschouwburg in Brussels. The cartoonist ridicules the actors, singers, playwright and the audience in a series of chronological vignettes, with each person portrayed in a caricatural fashion. While the lay-out echoes the influence of Rodolphe Töpffer, the story shares its theme with another comic parody of Halévy's 'The Wandering Jew', created in 1844 by the Frenchman Cham.

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

Promenade au Jardin Zoologique
For the 25 May 1856 issue of his own magazine L'Uylenspiegel, Rops made a series of humorous vignettes set in the Antwerp Zoo, titled 'Promenade au Jardin Zoologique' ("Promenade in the Zoo"). Each scene shows different visitors in the zoo having a funny conversation. Although the feature is not an actual "story", the images are connected thematically. 

M. Coremans au Tir National
In 1861, the magazine L'Uylenspiegel issued an almanac containing a text comic by Rops, 'M. Coremans au Tir National' ("Mr. Coremans at the Tir National", 1861). With 27 pages in length, it is his longest picture story. The comic strip revolves around an alderman from Jodoigne-Souveraine (in Dutch: Opgeldenaken), a real-life village in the present-day Belgian province Walloon Brabant. One day Coremans goes to Brussels to fulfill his duties as a "garde civique" ("civic guard"), taking his dog Dora with him. What follows, is a somewhat rambling and confusing succession of events, featuring several of Brussels' hotspots and celebrities. First, Coremans' bayonet accidentally shreds the dress of an English woman. Her husband yells at him, but our hero manages to flee once it begins to rain. He goes to local bars like the Café Suisse and Le Lion Belge, after which he joins his cousin Mr. Fuchet in climbing on top of the Congress Column monument. There, his nose gets stuck in the petticoats of Fuchet's wife. One scene later, Coremans visits an exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts, where he is scared of the black slave of a grand dignitary, before getting aroused by nude statues, "despite being father of seven children". At the Tir National firing range, he fires his gun a couple of times, but only makes a fool of himself. 

Afterwards, Coremans eats a beef steak in the Faille Déchirée café and chats with students from the Mille Collines neighborhood. When he asks to meet "some celebrities", he is introduced to the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paul Hymans, Dan Bertram ("from the office of publicity") and baritone singer Dan Carman. They 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. Disguising himself as a choirboy, Coremans tries to meet the real-life attractive dancer Rigolboche, but ends up disgraced once again. Later that night, he is arrested by the police and deported back to his hometown. All ends well when his wife informs him that he has been elected for the function of mayor of Jodoine-Souveraine. 

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

Like many 19th-century picture stories, 'M. Coremans au Tir National' has 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: the dog was "last seen in the lower side of the city and then disappeared without a trace." For present-day readers, the story is difficult to understand, since it relies on outdated references and inside jokes. For Brussels locals the story is 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, Belgian comic creators still use tourist hotspots in their stories to amuse readers who recognize these locations from real life, making both De Querelles and Rops pioneers in this tradition. 'M. Coremans au Tir National' also features a lot of erotic innuendo. On two occasions, 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
'Le Droit au Travail'/ 'Le Droit au Repos', 1868.

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 is 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. 

Final years, recognition and death
In the final decades of his life, Rops kept travelling, from Monaco, Sweden, Hungary, Spain and the Netherlands to the USA and North Africa. He enjoyed painting landscapes, especially near the sea. In 1886, he became a member of Les XX ("The Twenty", formed in 1883), a group of rebellious artists agitating against conservative outdated academicism and the prevailing artistic standards. In 1892, Félicien Rops was inducted in the Légion d'Honneur, the highest French order of merit. With his eyesight deteriorating from 1892 on, Rops 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, the artist's son had his father's remains exhumed and moved from Essonnes to the family vault in Mettet, Belgium. 

Legacy and influence
Over a century after his death, Félicien Rops is still one of the most celebrated Belgian graphic artists, especially in the Namur region. A group calling themselves "Les Ropsistes" began making plans for a Félicien Rops Museum in 1936. A first overview exhibition was held in 1937 in the Hôtel de Croix in Namur. In the 1960s, the province of Namur expanded its Rops collection through gifts from art collectors, resulting in a permanent exhibition in the Hôtel du Gaiffier d'Hestroy in Namur's Rue de Fer. It took until 18 September 1987 before the official Félicien Rops Museum opened its doors to the public, offering a varied selection of the artist's body of work. Artwork by Félicien Rops is also in the collection the Museum De Reede in Antwerp. In 1990, an asteroid was named after the famous artist. The work of Félicien Rops has influenced a great many artists, including 19th and early 20th-century European painters and graphic artists like Vincent van Gogh, James Ensor, Edvard Munch, Max Klinger, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Kubin. He has continued to inspire contemporary Belgian cartoonists and fine artists, including Jan Fabre, Jean-Louis Lejeune, Gal (Gerard Alsteens), Marec, Bart Ramakers and Karl Meersman, but also the Italian comic artist Guido Crepax. Félicien Rops had a cameo in the graphic novel 'Het Dossier van de Duivel' (2018) by Marec and Pieter Aspe.

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


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