Félicien Rops, Coin de rue, quatres heures du matin (Parodie humaine)

Private collection

Date: 1878-1881
Technique: Pastel, coloured chalks and watercolour on paper, 22.5 x 15 cm

Painted circa 1878-1881, the present work is the first watercolour version Rops made of this subject. Coin de Rue, quatre heures du matin (Parodie humaine) is the final image of Rops's series Théâtre des cent croquis commissioned by Jules Noilly, a series of visual comments on a decadent society. At this time Rops was beginning to add a social dimension to his depictions of 'modernity', capturing the demi-monde of Parisian society.

After his move to Paris, Rops became obsessed with depicting the contemporary 'tart', her obsession with the fashion of the moment encapsulating for the initiate the primeval urge to seduce, the urge of the jungle stalking the streets of the modern metropolis. Having thoroughly researched first hand the world this type of woman inhabited, Rops came to the attention of authors of the Naturalist school, whose objective it was to treat the phenomena of modern life with scientific objectivity. His images, stories and anecdotes supplied them with the perfect material for the evocation of this metropolitan underworld. Edmond de Goncourt wrote in his journal while in the throes of conceiving his novel La fille Elisa '... show in my novels on prostitution the macabre grandeur rendered by the pencils of Rops and Guys' (Goncourt Journal, 25 November 1871). Rops had been launched on the Parisian art world by Baudelaire, who had also introduced him to Symbolism. A statuette of a skeleton in a coquettish pose, clad in a crinoline by Erneste Christophe, exhibited at the Salon of 1859, was one of a few works by contemporary sculptors that received Baudelaire's unequivocal approval. It also inspired his poem Danse Macabre. The sculpture and the poem anticipate a number of works by Rops with similar subjects, including the present work. Baudelaire's preoccupation with death had a lasting effect on Rops. Rops' painting Death at the Ball of 1865-75 (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), which shows a skeleton dressed as a woman, and his etching Death Dancing, of the same period, were a result of these impressions. The subject of Coin de Rue is also reminiscent of Rops' Mors Syphilitica of 1875, which shows the grim reaper masquerading as a seasoned prostitute peddling her trade in a doorway. Rops' fascination with the modern world found its most eloquent and sometimes vicious expression in his numerous representations of prostitutes, whom he often depicted as the spreaders of syphilis. Coin de Rue and Mors Syphilitica were created when new laws were being enacted to regulate prostitution in France and Belgium. Depicted both by academic and avant-garde artists, the figure of the prostitute became a contentious example of urban modernity in that she was often viewed as a product of that environment while remaining on the margins of 'proper' society. In the present work, Rops' prostitute tries to lure a dandy, representative of the bourgeoisie, into the potential dangers of paid sex. At first glance she may seem quite attractive, in a fashionable dress that hugs her curvacious figure. However, unlike her fleshy counterpart in Pornokrates, who remains in the full blush of good health and who might be called the muse of sexual love, or the alluring prostitute in the related Quatre heures du matin, the grimacing skeleton hiding beneath the fancy dress and pretty mask in Coin de Rue, shows that she embodies the risk of infection from a sexually transmitted disease.

'In Parodie humaine the flesh is merely a mask from behind which the grimacing face of death eyes its prey. It is Rops the moraliser we encounter here, aware as ever of contemporary obsessions. He gives the woman the most fatal of faces, thereby castigating the sexual morality of an era in which prostitution was an integral part of society. The prostitute has been corrupted and corrupts others in turn. She carries in her the seeds of degradation, suicide, and - most terrifying of all - syphilis. This drawing appears at the end of the tenth group of ten sketches, forming an unexpected and morbid conclusion to what was supposed to be a light-hearted album. Having been portrayed in a variety of guises throughout the hundred sketches, modern women are synthesised here into the emblematic figure of the prostitute - the archetypal instrument of evil. A trace of her is to be found, Rops seems to be saying, in all women.' (Bernadette Bonnier & Véronique Leblanc, Félicien Rops, Vie et AEuvre, Bruges, 1997, p. 78).

Rops did not produce erotic scenes for themselves but as a means of expressing his vision of the world. Works such as Coin de Rue crystallise the dark side of his iconography of prostitutes, where the drama of voluptuousness, a mixture of fantasy and social realism, turns to fear and punishment. Coin de Rue shows Rops' awareness of death and the wages of sin: Woman is shown as a prostitute whose love brings sickness and death; but if she is an instrument of the devil, she is also his victim and deserves compassion. Carnal love is sin and leads both men and women to perdition. Such ideas, which originated in Catholicism, were then being revived by Schopenhauer and were given visual expression by Rops with unprecedented perspicuity and persistence.


1 comment:

  1. Wow - powerful stuff! I almost feel bad for the poor chap in the top hat.


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