The Supreme Vice

The Supreme Vice (1883) by Félicien Rops

The Supreme Vice (1883) by Félicien Rops

Félicien Rops

Rops earned some of his considerable influence and fame from his early association with Baudelaire, who admired the artist’s early works, one of which became the frontispiece for a banned early selection from Fleurs du Mal. Rops almost slavishly incarnated Baudelaire’s infernal spiritual universe, like a sword-and-sorcery paperback cover artist who actually read the story. Rops drew priapic devils, horny priests, and an obscenely self-pleasuring St. Thérèse, but the center of his cosmos was taken up by repetitions of the femme fatale: fleshy, imperious, invariably nude, a dominating subject radiating perversity or a dominated object broken down, often on or at the foot of the cross. Unsurprisingly, the Decadent author J.K. Huysmans was a Rops fan, writing that he “celebrated the spirituality of lust which is Satanism.” Unfortunately, like so much metal iconography today, the frisson of Rops’ satanic masters and salacious nuns haven’t survived the erosion of Christian moralism, to say nothing of the Catholic imaginary. Banished from the canon of Symbolist art for his unredeemable cheese, Rops remains potent because of illustrative craft, a flair for the cartoon line of evocative caricature that looks, from this far distance, rather charming, if not innocent.

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