M. Coremans au tir national (Almanach d'Uylenspiegel, 1861)
Félicien Rops was a Belgian 19th-century graphic artist, painter, illustrator and caricaturist, best known for his controversial work which mixed sex, death and Satanic images. He influenced many equally subversive artists over the centuries. His pornographic, blasphemous and morbid work is still popular today. At the same time he also made a few text comics which can be considered the starting point of Belgian comics history, not counting the 16th-century predecessor Pieter Bruegel The Elder. He was born Félicien Joseph Victor Rops in Namur in 1833 as the son of a rich cotton dealer. This allowed him to be educated by a private teacher. He later went to a local Jesuit college, where he enjoyed drawing his teachers. At the age of 16, he left the school, repulsed by its dogmatic Catholic teachings, and finished his educational career at the Royal Athenaeum.
His graphical education was pursued at the Academy of Namur and he briefly tried out studying Law and Philosophy at the Free University of Brussels. His first drawings were published in the student magazine Le Crocodile (The Crocodile). He also contributed to Le Charivari Belge and used pen names like Croque-tout, Risette, Graffin, Cham-Loth and Spor. Rops was mostly influenced by Honoré Daumier, Cham, Gustave Doré and Paul Gavarni.
Together with Charles De Coster (the future author of the novel 'Tyl Uilenspiegel'), Rops founded the satirical and anti-clerical magazine L'Uylenspiegel' (1856-1863). The makers enjoyed attacking 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. He frequently drew his venom at the French emperor Napoléon III. In 'Médaille de Waterloo' (1858), Rops criticized people who glorified Napoleon Bonaparte, but didn't remember the death toll of his wars. The drawing caused quite a stir and made a son of a French military officer challenge Rops with a duel. Another iconic cartoon, 'La dernière incarnation de Vautrin' (1862), depicted anarchist and sociologist Pierre Proudhon as merely Napoleon III hiding behind a mask.
In 1857, Rops officially left L'Uylenspiegel, though occasionally new drawings were published until 1859. Around the same time, in 1857, he married and had two children. His daughter died at the age of six from meningitis. After his wife's rich uncle died, the couple enherited a castle in Thozée (Mettet), where Rops often invited many of his artistic friends, including famous novelist Charles Baudelaire. In 1868, he was co-founder of the Société Libre des Beaux-Arts ("Free Society of Fine Arts"), an artistic collective which favored realism in the arts. He also illustrated several novels by De Coster, including 'Légendes Flamandes' (1858), 'Contes brabançons' (1861) and his signature work 'La légende d'Uylenspiegel' ('Tyl Uylenspiegel', 1867).
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.
Rops illustrated many books and poems of a hedonistic nature, including Andrea de Nerciat's 'Les Aphrodites' (1864), Jules Noilly's 'Cent légers croquis sans prétention pour réjouir les honnêtes gens' (1878-1881), the 'Dictionnaire érotique moderne' by Alfred Delvau, Baudelaire's 'Les Epaves', 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). He enjoyed working around pagan, occult and even Satanistic themes, often personified by lustful and seductive nude women, such as his signature works, 'Pornocrates' (1878), and 'Les Sataniques' (1882).
Félicien Rops was also a pioneer in Belgian comics. In the student magazine Le Crocodile he published two text comics, 'Les époux Van-Blague' (1853) and 'Le Juif errant et ferré' (1854), whose lay-out echoes the influence of Rodolphe Töpffer. L'Uylenspiegel also published work by Rops in the comics format, such as the page 'Promenade au jardin zoologique' in the issue of 25 May 1856. In the 1861 almanac of the magazine Uylenspiegel another text comic can be found, named 'M. Coremans au tir national'. It features a character named Mr. Coremans being drafted in the Belgian army. The story is humoristic, with some erotic allusions, and features many references to specific locations in Brussels. In 1868, Rops also made a sequential drawing named '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
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. He passed away in 1898.
In 1980 Jean Lucas made a comic book page for the book 'Il était une fois... Les Belges' (1980), a collection of columns and comic pages published on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Belgium. He illustrated a text by Alain Viray about 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire who stayed in Brussels in 1864. When Baudelaire met illustrator Félicien Rops he tried to seduce his nude model. Unfortunately for him she already had an affair with Rops himself, causing the author of 'Les Fleurs du Mal' to dismiss his stay in Belgium with the frustrated pamphlet: 'Pauvre Belgique' ('Poor/Pathetic Belgium').
Félicien Rops was an influence on many artists, including Octave Mirbeau, Vincent van Gogh, James Ensor, Edvard Munch, Max Klinger, Pablo Picasso, Jan Fabre and Jean-Louis Lejeune.