‘Des Esseintes’ of Brussels: Artifice of the Villa Khnopff

by Maria Golovteeva, University of St Andrews

Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff erected his extravagant villa in Brussels at number 41, Avenue des Courses in Brussels, at its intersection with Avenue Jeanne, on the edge of the greenery of the Bois de la Cambre. It was a result of collaboration with Belgian architect Edouard Pelseneer. The first steps to create the house were most likely taken in October 1899; the plans were drawn in March 1900, and the residence was finished in 1902.[i] The villa is now only known from eyewitness accounts and photographs published in contemporary periodicals, as it was demolished in 1938 – 1940 to build a block of flats.[ii] It is still to be determined who took the photographs depicting empty rooms and corridors of the Villa Khnopff and one view of the dwelling from the outside, but their reproductions first appeared as illustrations in the article ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’ by writer and journalist Wolfram Waldschmidt in the Dekorative Kunst in 1906.

Facade of the Villa Khnopff
Facade of the Villa Khnopff. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Some of these photographic evocations were reproduced in the artist’s first biography published by his friend Louis Dumont-Wilden in 1907, which provides an insight into the Villa Khnopff too.[iii] Several reproductions also appeared in Hélène Laillet’s 1912 article ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’ for The Studio. Contemporaries that were invited to visit the magnificent building, designed in the Secessionist style that highlighted eccentric designs and superficial atmosphere, called it ‘la chapelle votive d’une esthétique personnelle et compliquée’ or ‘le Castel du rêve.’[iv] Dumont-Wilden, who visited the villa numerous times, recalls des Esseintes, the main character of Huysmans’ novel A Rebours, who decorated his house with rare, strange and beautiful things to establish an artificial environment to correspond with his overly sophisticated idiosyncratic personality. Indeed, artificiality was one of the main characteristics of the Villa Khnopff.

Just like the Goncourt’s ‘maison d’art’ at Auteuil, which its owners transformed into a proto-Symbolist work of art, the image of the Villa Khnopff was circulated in textual and photographic reproductions.[v] Photographic evocations of the house are of particular interest, as they provide visual depictions of the dwelling and perhaps less subjective descriptions than written testimonials. They characterise the self-documenting ability of the photography that gave the artist an opportunity to construct, preserve and project not only his vision of his house, but also of his artistic identity. At the same time, these photographs demonstrate the documentary capacity of the medium, which Khnopff considered to be one of its most important and valuable qualities. This creates an interesting reciprocity between his life and photographs and a certain ambiguity of these photographic representations. On the one hand, they provide a supposedly objective view of the villa; on the other, they exude an air of constructed reality and carefully controlled affectation. For instance, the photographs do not document the villa entirely: they depict only several areas probably chosen by the artist excluding the sleeping quarters of the dwelling. Khnopff’s avoidance of showing more utilitarian spaces in his house, whether it was common for that time or not, represents his meticulous control over his art as well as his personal image. This contributes to Khnopff’s intention to design an artificial aura of an intellectual and dandy around himself and mythologise his œuvre. Thus, the artificiality of the Villa Khnopff, which was also an continuation of the artist’s eccentric personality, extended even in its photographic depictions, which as a result of a technical process represent an opposition to everything natural.

Dumont-Wilden’s comparison of Khnopff to des Esseintes is even more detailed: he dubs the artist “un des Esseintes qui n’a pas subi l’éducation romantique, et n’a jamais fréquenté le grenier d’Auteuil.”[vi] The biographer thus contrasts the Villa Khnopff not only with des Esseintes’ residence, but also with the Goncourt’s aestheticised house. Dumont-Wilden most likely implies the stylistic differences between two dwellings, as in other aspects they shared certain similarities. The villa in Brussels represented a projection of the life of the artist into a living environment and explored the potential of interior rearrangements of art objects and artificial settings that would transform a domestic home into ‘an “artistic” retreat just like the house at Auteuil.[vii] However, while the Goncourts decorated their residence according to their main ‘collecting, literary, and aesthetic interests … in French eighteenth-century art, Gavarni and Romantic literature, near and far-eastern “objets d’art” ‘, Khnopff fashioned his villa in a completely different manner.[viii] He combined his preference for the laconic Secessionist architecture with his fascination with the Pre-Raphaelite art and the classical past.

Khnopff praised the Secessionist style and Viennese architects deriving inspiration for his residence from their works. He was impressed with Josef Hoffmann’s buildings and galleries already in 1898 while he was exhibiting in Vienna.[ix] This was visible in the white facades of the villa (see above) dominated by rigorous straight lines. Such architectural preference was not coincidental on Khnopff’s part: the concepts of straight and curved lines had certain aesthetic and philosophical meaning to the intellectuals of that time. Unsurprisingly, in the manner of his idealistic and spiritual art Khnopff predominantly preferred the supposed intellectualism and morality of straight lines to the sensuality and materiality of curved lines, as well as unelaborate ornamentation to heavy embellishment, both in the exterior and interior of the villa. Indeed, the facades were decorated only with black lines, golden circles, and black monograms on a golden background with Khnopff’s typical “cold yet noble aestheticism”. [x] The building exuded such an “air of reserve, almost of disdain” that passers-by sometimes mistook the austere exterior of the villa for one of a chapel or a vault.[xi] Khnopff used the colour black only for the exteriors together with gold, blue, and white, which he employed for decoration throughout his villa.[xii]

Even after such a laconic exterior, visitors were still struck by austerity of the interior. Khnopff emphasises in his 1904 article ‘Mein Haus’ for Die Zeit that from the beginning the dwelling was as uninviting as possible.[xiii] This statement borders on self-criticism, but not for Khnopff: for him as for an aesthete, the comfort and coziness of his residence is not of a high priority. What was more significant for him is projecting his desire to gather precious collectables and create a specific decadent and artistic setting, which was evident in the first room of the house – a small antechamber with white walls of polished stucco.

The Antechamber
The Antechambre. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Already this little room showed the touch of the artist, as it was inhabited by several emblems of Khnopff’s private symbolism. Those were symbols important for Khnopff and his art: a small laurel tree in the corner, a stuffed Indian peacock, a small Greek statue on a blue column and his work Blanc, Noir et Or (1901) with the word “Soi” (self) inscribed above it.[xiv]

Blanc, Noir et Or
Fernand Khnopff, Blanc, Noir et Or, 1901. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

The antechamber was followed by a long white corridor that ran through the villa.

The Corridor
The Corridor. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Like the antechamber, it was decorated with works of art. Among other paintings hanging on its walls was Khnopff’s work Arum Lily (1895)  that depicted his sister Marguerite with the strong features of a Pre-Raphaelite beauty and the portrait of Elisabeth of Austria  executed by Khnopff.[xv]

Arum Lily
Fernand Khnopff, Arum Lily, 1895. Photographic reproduction executed by Alexandre and reworked by Khnopff. © Le Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique.

Elisabeth d’Autriche
Fernand Khnopff, Elisabeth d’Autriche.

A copy of a Greek sculpture of Hope from the Munich Glyptothek was placed on a windowsill. The latter corresponded with the motto written on the walls: ‘Everything comes to him who waits’. The corridor continued the idea of the immersion into the personality of the artist and his private symbols, his art and sources of his inspiration introduced in the antechamber. In fact, Khnopff’s collection of his own works and of the works of others constituted an important part of his villa.

The space was lit with high windows glazed with Tiffany glass to control the light and reduce the distractions of the nature just as many windows around the house were heavily draped to minimise outside noise and reduce the distractions of the city. The confrontation between the carefully constructed artificial atmosphere of the villa and the outside world was noticed by the visitors: Dumont-Wilden called the house ‘le temple du Moi, … la forteresse d’une individualité en perpétuelle défense contre le Monde et la Vie.’ Hélène Laillet  described it as ‘the expression of his [Khnopff’s] own personality which he [Khnopff] has built for his own satisfaction; it is his immutable ‘Self’ which he has raised in defiance of a troubled and changing world.’[xvi] Khnopff’s dwelling conveyed an impression that the artist fenced himself, his artistic self, from the world in this perpetual defense. Thus, like des Esseintes, Khnopff strived to maintain an artificial environment in his dwelling. After all, he shared with the fictional aesthete from Huysmans’ novel his reclusiveness and eccentricity. At the same time, Dumont-Wilden characterises Khnopff as ‘un des Esseintes méthodique, épris, d’ordonnance harmonieuse beaucoup plus que de singularité.’[xvii] Indeed, Khnopff’s residence, in its austerity, did not share the opulence of des Esseintes’ house.

The austerity of the interiors was specifically evident in the White room on the ground floor, which almost no one could recognise as a dining room, as the space always struck guests with its severity and coldness.[xviii]

The White Room (Dining Room)
The White Room (Dining Room). © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

According to Laillet’s description, the doorway was curtained with pale blue satin, the windows were glazed with blue and gold glass forming in combination ‘flames and fantastic figures’, which demonstrates the artist’s intention to create an artificial interior.[xix] The walls were decorated with Khnopff’s most known works and a reproduction of Edward Burne-Jones’s Wheel of Fortune. The overall impression of the room was ‘vague and uneasy’, chairs did not ‘invite repose’, and a small table was ‘just big enough to hold a vase’.[xx] The miniature dining table would be brought in for every meal and quickly taken away afterwards. This again represents how the functionality and comfort of the living space was sacrificed for the sake of decadent perfectionism and aesthetic unity, the tension between the real and the ideal, the material and the immaterial, or as contemporaries put it, ‘the struggle between the ideal and the material’.[xxi] At the same, by sacrificing the domestic the artist reaches his main goal – to bedazzle the public, as pointed out by French journalist, critic and novelist Albert Flament, who wrote under a pseudonym Sparklet for L’écho de Paris: ‘Ah! l’intérieur de M. Khnopff, son vestibule aux dalles blanches, aux murs blanches, sa galerie blanche, sa sale à manger pareille, avec sa table pour deux, et son petit canapé pour unique siege, triomphe du ripolin, couloirs de sucre vernissé où s’ébaubissent les snobs de la Cambre!’.[xxii]

The artificiality of the Villa Khnopff was partly related to the cult of the artist as a thinker and a priest of art in the nineteenth century. The sacred nature of artists’ work was foremost promoted by the poet and novelist Joséphine Péladan, who addressed artists with the following call: ‘Artiste, tu es prêtre: l’Art est le grand mystère, et lorsque ton effort about it au chef-d’œuvre, un rayon du divin descend comme sur un autel.’[xxiii] In 1892 he founded an artistic group dedicated to spirituality and the aesthetics of mystery – the Salon de la Rose+Croix. Khnopff not only exhibited at the Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, but also to a certain extent followed Péladan’a dogmas. Indeed, Khnopff turned his living and working space into a temple of art by creating a religious, almost supernatural atmosphere in his villa and elevating his art and artistic process almost to the status of a cult, which he attempted to transmit in the photographs of the villa.

Several altars dedicated to the most important emblems in Khnopff’s art and scattered around the house contributed to this atmosphere of the artistic cult. On the ground floor, opposite the staircase leading to the upper floors, was a blue niche containing the first altar of the house.

The Altar
The altar to Imagination in the blue niche. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

It was a shrine to Imagination and comprised Khnopff’s sculpture of a winged mask executed in ivory, enamel and bronze on a thin blue column.[xxiv] The installation was placed against a Japanese embroidery with a crane on a blue background. The winged mask was a recurrent emblem of the artist’s private symbolism: it existed in several versions, including a sculpture in a polychrome plaster and appeared in Secret-Reflet (1902).

 

Another altar, dedicated to Hypnos, was placed in the most important part of the house – the artist’s studio upstairs. It comprised a copy of the bronze head of Hypnos from the British Museum, which dates back to the fourth century B.C., a Byzantine medallion, a case of clear glass, gilded bronze sphinxes and a base of Tiffany glass.[xxv] The motto ‘On n’a que soi’ inscribed behind the altar again invited to the exploration of the inner world of the self.

 

There were in fact two studios separated by draperies, and the second, smaller, altar to Hypnos. One was for completed works, and the other one held works in progress and numerous costume and set designs for the Théâtre de la Monnaie. Only the main studio, with finished works, was ever photographed. First Maria Biermé and later Laillet provided the evocations of the second studio in contemporary periodicals.[xxvi] And the idea of the artist as a Symbolist priest creating art effortlessly is evident in the photograph of Khnopff in his studio.

Fernand Khnopff in his studio.
Fernand Khnopff in his studio.

The artist is posing in front of a painting on the easel as if working on it, but the painting is already framed, which indicates that it is a finished work. The relaxed pose of Khnopff wearing fashionable suit instead of working clothes suggests the staged composition and addresses an image of the artist as a dandy. The similar artificial image is created in the photograph of Khnopff in front of the altar to Hypnos in the main studio, which Günter Metken characterises in the 1980 exhibition catalogue as following: ‘[i]l [Khnopff] se faisait photographier en dandy ou en prêtre symboliste, devant son autel à Hypnos.’ [xxvii]

Thus, following the contemporary fashion, Khnopff created a cult of his own enigmatic artistic personality reflected in the artificial and thoroughly constructed environment of the villa. This was supported by mysterious rituals that the artist was believed to perform in his dwelling. For instance, Khnopff was thought to stand in a golden circle inscribed on the mosaic floor of his studio underneath another circle on the ceiling with the constellation of Libra in the middle to find his inspiration.[xxviii] The effect of such meditation was enhanced by a whisper of a shallow fountain (see above image of main studio) with rose petals floating on its surface placed in the studio.[xxix] And during the guest visits to his house, Khnopff supported and developed the idea of himself as a mysterious artistic genius in his temple of art whose inspiration comes straight from above. As the Viennese painter Josef Engelhart reported, to enter the main studio, the visitors had to participate in a special ritual. The artist would rush into his working space, while a butler would lower a thick bar in front of guests preventing them from entering the studio.[xxx] It would be lifted up after some time, and the visitors would proceed inside greeted by the artist, his works resting on easels and the altar to Hypnos placed exactly opposite the entrance. According to Khnopff, this ritual was necessary for the guests to collect themselves before meeting with his art. Therefore, like the Goncourt house the Villa Khnopff received an aesthetic extension in performances interacting with the interior spaces of the dwelling. Moreover, this demonstrates that the concept of artificiality dominated not only the interiors of the villa and the artist’s establishment of his artistic image, but also the extensions of the dwelling in photography and performance.

Artificiality of the Villa Khnopff was partly linked to a unified aesthetic experience, which was promoted by Wagnerian ideas. Indeed, the artist’s residence brought together architecture, interior designs, sculpture, painting, and even music, which all worked collectively. This was most evident in the Blue Room located above the studio.

The Blue Room
The Blue Room.© Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

It contained works by other artists, including a drawing by Burne-Jones of a woman’s head personally inscribed to Khnopff and an engraving made after Gustave Moreau’s David.[xxxi] The names of these two artists, who influenced Khnopff’s art and whom he held in a very high regard, were set in two gold rings on the wall separated by a small cast of Lord Leighton’s sculpture The Sluggard (1886).[xxxii] Moreau was one of the artists collected by des Esseintes. Khnopff’s portrait of his sister Marguerite (1887), who was his favourite model and his muse, crowned an altar dedicated to her. This familial shrine included a vase with flowers and a tennis racquet that referenced Khnopff’s first widely acknowledged work Memories (1889), which featured Marguerite in seven different poses. Khnopff would retire to this blue sanctuary at the end of the day to dream, contemplate and plan new works, surrounded by paintings and sculptures, while listening to the music coming through a large window from the studio downstairs.[xxxiii]

Memories
Fernand Khnopff, Memories (Du lawn tennis), 1889. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

This granted him a full aesthetic experience of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Like in other rooms of the house, the furnishing was rather scarce, represented only by a blue divan and a table in this case.[xxxiv] This signifies that Khnopff preferred the theatricality and realisation of his artistic vision to his own comfort. Again, in this respect his villa resembles the artificiality of des Esseintes’ dwelling, but distinguishes from it with its austerity of interiors.

Thus, every room of the villa was defined by Khnopff’s collection of art, the emblems of his private symbolism, his celebration of everything unnatural and his pursuit of aesthetic pleasures even in small everyday domestic things. So much so that Waldschmidt noticed than even the flowers in the garden behind the villa looked like the background of a Quattrocento painting.[xxxv] And Khnopff emphasised this link between art and life in his photographic portraits taken in his residence. The artist occupies a rather insignificant place in these depictions as if he wants to hide among his artworks, to immerse and dissolve in his œuvre. He wants to be identified with his works or maybe even become a work of art in the spirit of the Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957), who stated that she would want to be a living work of art.[xxxvi] At the same time, Khnopff elegantly poses in his dwelling harmoniously blending in with the interiors. It was probably his requirement as a sitter to be portrayed either contemplating in front of the altar to Hypnos and surrounded by his art or as if working in his studio. In the Symbolist world of Fernand Khnopff life and art were closely entwined.

Fernand Khnopff in front of his works.
Fernand Khnopff in front of his works.

As can be seen, the comparison of Khnopff to des Esseintes was very appropriate, as they both represented aesthetes withdrawn into their private artificial world. And the photographs of the Villa Khnopff closely reflect the artist’s celebration of everything that is unnatural as well as his carefully constructed artistic image. However, as Jeffery Howe points out in his book on Fernand Khnopff, this praise of artificiality and emulation of the main character of Huysmans’s novel sometimes bordered on self-parody.[xxxvii] A vivid example of that was a tortoise that des Esseintes decorated with precious stones and it eventually died. Khnopff had a living tortoise, which he considered too noisy and put it in the garden, and when he found it dead, he had it bronzed and kept it in his studio calling ‘My remorse’ (fig. 6: bottom right, next to Des Caresses).[xxxviii] Thus, artificiality in the artist’s life and perhaps art, though signified intellectualism and decadence, bore a mark of sadness and regret.

***

[i] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), p. 337.

[ii] Wolfram Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, Dekorative Kunst, Vol. XIV, 1906, pp. 158-166; Maria Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, La Belgique Artistique et Littéraire, July-September 1907, pp. 96 – 113; Louis Dumont-Wilden, George Garnir, Léon Souguenet, ‘L’Atelier de Fernand Khnopff, avenue des Courses’, Pourquoi pas?, December 15, 1910; Hélène Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’, The Studio, Vol. LVII, No. 237, December 1912, pp. 201-207.

[iii] Louis Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: G. van Oest & Cie, 1907).

[iv] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 26; Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 97.

[v] For more information on the Goncourt’s ‘maison d’art’, see Juliet Simpson, ‘Edmond de Goncourt’s Décors – Towards the Symbolist Maison d’art’, Romance Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, January 2011, pp. 1-18.

[vi] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 30.

[vii] Simpson, ‘Edmond de Goncourt’s Décors’, p. 2.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), pp. 339-341.

[x] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 201.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 102.

[xiii] Fernand Khnopff, ‘Mein Haus’, Die Zeit, 37-38, 2 Dezember 1904, No. 483, p. 9.

[xiv] Jeffery W. Howe, The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1979, 1982), p. 147. Though most of these details could be found in contemporary descriptions of the villa, according to Howe, he has enriched his overview of the house with the information obtained during his conversations with Khnopff’s former pupil in 1918-1920 M. Marcel Baugniet.

[xv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 147.

[xvi] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 26; Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 201.

[xvii] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 30.

[xviii] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 202.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid., p. 204.

[xxii] Sparklet [Albert Flament], ‘Le Trottoir roulant. Mardi 1er décembre’, L’écho de Paris, 6 December 1903, p. 1.

[xxiii] Sâr Péladan, “Préface au catalogue du pemier Salon de la Rose+Croix”, in Le Salon de la Rose+Croix: 1892-1897, Jean da Silva (Paris: Syros-Alternatives, 1991), p. 117.

[xxiv] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 202.

[xxv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 148.

 

[xxvi] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, pp. 103-104; Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 205.

[xxvii] Günter Metken, “Fernand Khnopff et la modernité”, in Fernand Khnopff 1858-1921, Frans Boenders et al., (Brussels: Ministère de la communauté française de Belgique, Service de la diffusion des arts, 1980), p. 44.

[xxviii] Josef Engelhart, Ein Wiener Maler erzählt… Mein Leben und meine Modelle (Vienna, 1943), p. 89.

[xxix] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 148.

[xxx] Engelhart, Ein Wiener Maler erzählt…, p. 88.

[xxxi] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 149.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 112: “… sur l’atelier, de larges baies vitrées, car c’est dans cette chambre bleue que Fernand Khnopff se retire pour venir écouter religieusement la musique que des artistes exécutent dans son atelier”.

[xxxiv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 149.

[xxxv] Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, p. 166.

[xxxvi] Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino, Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati (New York: Viridian Books, 1999), p. 1.

[xxxvii] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 145.

[xxxviii] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 204.

[i] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), p. 337.

[ii] Wolfram Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, Dekorative Kunst, Vol. XIV, 1906, pp. 158-166; Maria Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, La Belgique Artistique et Littéraire, July-September 1907, pp. 96 – 113; Louis Dumont-Wilden, George Garnir, Léon Souguenet, ‘L’Atelier de Fernand Khnopff, avenue des Courses’, Pourquoi pas?, December 15, 1910; Hélène Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’, The Studio, Vol. LVII, No. 237, December 1912, pp. 201-207.

Forming the Symbolist Identity: the Materiality of Fernand Khnopff’s Sculptures

by Maria Golovteeva, University of St Andrews

Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren described the artworks of his compatriot, symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff, as “suggestions of thought” due to their visionary and symbolic character.[i] Indeed, his œuvre is predominantly characterised by allegorical and emblematic symbolism, but it would be rather simplistic to dismiss the material aspect of his art. First, the physicality of works of art characterises artists’ intentions, as they choose specific materials and employ specific techniques to obtain a certain effect. Thus, as a versatile craftsman, who worked with paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and sculpture, Khnopff must have paid careful attention to the material aspects of his creations. His articles on various materials he employed and their physical characteristics demonstrate his interest in materiality (photography, ivory carving, etching and engraving, etc.). Second, considering the Kantian idea of the “aesthetic experience”, art can function through its physicality, as the viewer’s engagement with a work of art includes not only its intellectual aspect, but also the interaction with its physical components: “the immediate relation to the sensational apprehension of the objects is what forms the primary basis of experience”.[ii] Third, according to the Symbolist Manifesto, the objective of the movement was to wrap the idea in a sensual form, with the form being subjected to the idea, which it is meant to express.[iii] This declaration of the idealist nature of the Symbolism and movement away from naturalism still took the notion of the form into consideration. Moreover, the importance of the material culture within the symbolist subjectivity was determined by the symbolist desire to collect exquisite and unique objects or everyday objects with acquired deeper meaning.[iv] The main character of Karl Huysmans’s novel À rebours, Des Esseintes, was an example of this predilection to gather exquisite things and construct an artificial interior in his search for the self-realization.

Khnopff did not produce many sculptures: around seven are known to have existed, but most of them were produced in multiple copies or in various materials. For example, he created two versions of Bust of a Young Englishwoman, both in tinted gessoduro but with slight variations in a turn of the head.

f1
Fernand Khnopff, Bust of a Young Englishwoman, 1891, polychrome plaster, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels (Inv. No. 70)

 

f2
Fernand Khnopff (from Robert L. Delevoy, et al), Photograph of Bust of a Young Englishwoman, 1891, polychrome plaster/photograph, Private Collection, Brussels.

Another variation of this sculpture might have existed in tinted marble.[v] Khnopff also rendered Head of Hypnos in bronze (below) and in plaster (known from photographs).

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As can be seen, in terms of a subject matter, Khnopff explored the themes and imagery of his paintings and drawings in a three-dimensional form. The recurrent symbols comprise images of Hypnos as well as of enigmatic and mysterious women (a young Englishwoman, Sybille, Vivien, Medusa), who embody qualities of both an ideal woman and a femme fatale in different proportions. As already mentioned, the materiality of his sculptures was determined by the Symbolist doctrines, which articulated the physicality of the objects through the concepts of precious or unique objects (collectibles) and a self-expression of an artist or a collector. Moreover, Khnopff was an active participant in the fin-de-siècle milieu, therefore, his considerations of sculptural materiality were strongly influenced by several contemporary trends, particularly the nineteenth-century revival of sculptural polychromy and re-introduction of certain materials.

Almost all the sculptures that Khnopff created were polychromed. He explored the expressive and aesthetic qualities of sculptural colouring. His pictorial approach was to create an image of a mysterious female or androgynous creature, self-contained and withdrawn from reality, as found in his Bust of a Young Englishwoman (above), Sybille (below, known from a photograph), Vivien (below), Mask (above), Future (below).

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His sculptural polychromy evoked the enigmatic and visionary atmosphere of his paintings and drawings. As a Symbolist, who experimented with levels of reality and the coexistence of two worlds, real and ideal, Khnopff employed the sculptural colouring in attempt to add a lifelike resemblance to his visionary characters, which were neither living nor alive. As such, he highlighted certain realistic features of his mystical beings with colour: lips, eyes, eyebrows, and hair of Vivien, a young Englishwoman (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Future), a two-winged creature (Mask), skin tones of Vivien and the 1891 rendering of a young Englishwoman. However, Khnopff did not use colour to create a naturalistic effect: emphasising the human traits of his creatures, he at the same time made them look like inanimate idols of his own ideal world of symbols and visions. This resulted from a certain tension between form and colour: despite relatively naturalistic colouring, his sculptures did not try to mimic reality or real human beings, as they were always presented as objects – busts, masks, heads, or, as in case of Sybille and Vivien, small statuettes against exquisite backdrops resembling George Frampton’s Mysteriarch (1892). Khnopff emphasised the physicality of his sculptures and thus the visionary nature of the creatures they depicted by an unrealistic slicing of their heads (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Future), constructing elaborate compositions with a backdrop and a support (Sybille, Vivien), leaving an unworked piece of marble under a carefully sculpted face (Future) or simply exposing the uncoloured gessoduro with his monogram (Bust of a Young Englishwoman). Furthermore, Khnopff’s intention to create sculptures resembling some sort of religious idols was related to the Symbolist concept of a studio altar, which the Belgian might have learnt from a German artist Franz von Stuck.[vi] Just as Stuck’s studio, built in 1897, featured an altar to Athena, Villa Khnopff, which was constructed between 1900 and 1902, enshrined an altar to Hypnos (above), topped by a plaster version of his Head of Hypnos and composed of Tiffany glass, a Byzantine medallion, precious books, images of his family, and golden sphinxes, and inscribed with the artist’s personal motto “On ne a que soi” (One has only oneself).[vii] Combining the idea of the studio altar and the collectibles as a way of artistic and intellectual self-expression Khnopff also erected a construction recalling an altar (below), which included an original version of Mask in ivory and gilt bronze crowned with a crystal vase and placed on a blue column against a Japanese embroidered wall-hanging with a white crane flying against a blue background.

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Robert L. Delevoy, Photograph of Khnopff’s House

Another German artist, Max Klinger, also dismissed the colour in sculpture as a trace of naturalism, instead praising it for its artistic qualities that allowed the realization of almost any idea. He wrote on sculptural polychromy and was partly credited for formulating a base for its reintroduction in the nineteenth-century arts: “Colour must come into its own here, must structure, fit, speak”.[viii] He stated that sculptural polychromy symbolised a return to simplicity that could help to emphasise the sculptural form and balance each part of the sculptural composition. These ideas of the fellow artist-sculptor must have appealed to Khnopff, who was possibly familiar with Klinger’s art through Franz von Stuck. Furthermore, both Khnopff and Klinger preferred to work with artificial polychromy based on the addition of paint to accentuate the painterly quality of the sculptures instead of natural polychromy represented by a combination of a naturally coloured materials (mainly stones and marbles). This approach to the colour aspect of sculptural materiality reveals the general artistic method of Khnopff and Klinger: they were concerned with colour in the first place and chose materials that granted them certain freedoms in terms of applying colour over the colourful materials that pre-determined the colour of the sculptures themselves. Introducing polychromy into three-dimensional works was a common practice of many nineteenth-century artists, who were equally interested in sculpture and painting: most of them, like Khnopff, were used to working with colour, but lacked training in sculpture.

At the same time, sculptural polychromy experienced an overall revival in the nineteenth-century. It represented a movement away from academic canons, which stood for principles of classical white sculpture. Furthermore, the nineteenth century was marked by medieval polychromy and by a final acknowledgement of the widespread colouring of the ancient Greek sculptures. Within the pan-European romanticism of the Middle Ages and supported by active restorations of medieval buildings around Europe starting from 1830s, coloured medieval sculptures came under the notice of artists and scientists.[ix] Moreover, conservation activities influenced to a certain degree the re-introduction of forgotten arts and crafts, such as gesso painting, fresco painting, stained glass, etc. Even though Medievalism was an international movement, Khnopff’s interaction with medieval subjects and sculptural polychromy was through his fascination with British art. The Neo-Gothic movement in Great Britain resulted in the re-introduction of coloured ceramics and gesso painting as well as the medieval themes (the legend of King Arthur, the War of the Roses, etc.). Khnopff most likely learnt the re-discovered technique of gessoduro during one of his many trips to England, presumably from George Frampton in 1891.[x] The Pre-Raphaelites, whom Khnopff admired and even was rumored to have befriended, also promoted the subject matters and techniques inspired by the Middle Ages.

The gessoduro re-established itself during the British medieval revival and since Khnopff was looking for a medium that united colour and matter, it became his material of choice.[xi] At the same time his works are often described as of polychrome or coloured plaster due to the closeness of these two materials. In his article on gessowork Walter Crane highlights its elasticity and a wide range of “effects and expressions it provides with almost no particular limitations or natural laws.”[xii] He partly attributes its expressive qualities to the variety of existing recipes and mixtures. Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert, one of Khnopff’s critics, explains the artist’s fascination with the material through its aesthetic potential: it is susceptible to both moulding and carving combining organic and inorganic qualities and at the same time provides an extreme delicacy and softness that no other medium could grant.[xiii] His gessoduro sculptures (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Vivien, Mask) demonstrate how Khnopff explored the physical characteristics of the material. The medium allowed him to carefully shape even the smallest and the most exquisite details, such as the laurel and flower wreath and small precious wings of the Mask, or convey a movement, such as the flowing hair and gown of the dancing Vivien, without any previous training. The fluidity and opaque texture enhanced the delicate feature of the mask and the young Englishwoman, while the fusion of the colour and the matter created an illusion of an inner glow. The colour receptivity of the gessoduro gave Khnopff an opportunity to control the intensity and shades of applied colours, thus, again, exploit the coherence between sculpture and painting.

Even though gessoduro or polychrome plaster was Khnopff’s material of choice, he turned to wax perhaps in pursuit of a greater artistic expression. As a more plastic material, wax provided more accuracy in details and allowed the creation of more complicated forms or more spontaneous expression. Even though it is possible to study Khnopff’s Sybille only from a photograph, it is obvious that the artist took full advantage of the plasticity of the medium: the mysterious priestess seems to be wearing an elaborate headpiece and a flowing garment with numerous folds along the sleeves. Again, with careful modelling, the artist depicted Sybille’s elegant gesture almost resembling a dance. While working in wax, Khnopff also paid more attention to the sculptural surface: he created a captivating difference between the smooth hands and calm face of Sybille and her vibrant outfit consisting of pleats, creases, and crinkles. It is unknown whether this sculpture was coloured, as the original, which had belonged to a British collection, was presumably lost during German bombing in 1940.[xiv] Nevertheless, the wax itself has a specific colour, which together with its other physical characteristics, including its ability to deteriorate with time, attracted the Symbolists as an intermediate state between human skin and marble and became their favourite material.[xv] In Georges Rodenbach’s famous work Bruges-la-Morte (1892) the makeup of Jane Scott resembled corpselike wax figures contributing to the overall dark atmosphere of that Symbolist novel.[xvi] With the medium experiencing a certain revival in the course of the nineteenth century and polychrome wax sculpture becoming more popular among the artists and more acknowledged by the public, Khnopff most likely became intrigued by the material’s ability to create fascinating fusions of form, texture, and colour (due to its great capacity to hold pigment), again realising his recurrent symbol of a mysterious and distant female. Khnopff’s approach to using wax characterised the changing perception of the material in the course of the nineteenth century. Traditionally wax was employed for its perfectly mimetic qualities: due to the highly naturalistic effect, cheapness and availability of the material, it was used to create votive sculptures, funeral effigies, death masks, and anatomical models. However, as with the sculptural polychromy, fin-de-siècle artists and sculptors attempted to move away from the naturalism bringing the symbolic aspect of the three-dimensional wax works to the forefront.

While Great Britain was going through the gessoduro revival, Belgium was experiencing an ivory movement. To encourage the chryselephantine revival, King Leopold II and the secrétaire d’état to the Congo Free State, Edmond van Eetvelde, invited Belgian artists and sculptors to create works for the Antwerp Interbational Exhibition of 1894.[xvii] This government campaign bordering on a colonial propaganda intended to promote the economic exchange between Belgium and Congo and revive the Belgian craft of ivory carving, which had been almost forgotten since the seventeenth century. In his article on the revival of ivory carving for The Studio Khnopff partly reviewed the exhibition, considering it a success and regarding the chryselephantine sculptures as the products of Congo rather than objects d’art.[xviii] Three years later he praised the organisers of the Tervueren Colonial section of the 1897 Brussels Exhibition for paying more attention to art rather than to the practical side.[xix] This was very representative of the quickly-established status of the recently rediscovered medium. Khopff himself contributed to its artistic acknowledgement: he exhibited his Mask (above) in the Brussels Exhibition. He also created a frontispiece for the catalogue of the exposition L’Etat indépendant du Congo. La sculpture chryséléphantine, Bruxelles-Tervuren. Just as Khnopff never returned to work with wax after the Sybille, he employed ivory to create only one sculpture, quite possibly caught in the overall celebration of the Belgian craft revival. One of the reasons could be that chryselephantine was a complicated material to work with: Khnopff’s ivory mask was mounted into a bronze laural wreath possibly because it was quite challenging for the artist to carve such small and delicate details, which he easily sculpted in the gessoduro version (above). On the other hand, merging ivory and bronze in one image corresponded with the fin-de-siècle love of exquisite materials and symbolist fascination with precious collectibles. The ivory mask was supposedly slightly tinted on the lips, eyes, and wings, but probably in a slightly colder palette when compared to the plaster version, due to the materials’ different capacity to hold colour.

Khnopff explored the expressive qualities of bronze more deeply in his two 1900 sculptures: Head of Hypnos and Head of the Medusa. Obviously inspired by the bronze head of Hypnos in the British Museum, which he most likely had seen during one of his trips to Great Britain, Khnopff stayed true to the material of the original but created a noticeably bigger sculpture. In the spirit of symbolist aesthetics with the form being determined by the idea, Khnopff chose the medium, which evoked the ancient Greek sculptures to render the classical imagery of two mythological creatures, Hypnos and Medusa. At the same time, he was clearly concerned with the aspect of presentation and exhibition: he placed his sculptures on elegant plinths, hiding the fastening behind the writhing snakes in the Head of the Medusa in a particularly clever and creative way. Deriving inspiration from ancient motives and taking into account contemporary aesthetics, Khnopff realised nineteenth-century visions of mythological imagery and produced fin-de-siècle versions of Greek sculptures, which also correlated with the symbolist desire to collect artifacts, even if they were only seemingly rare.

Khnopff’s only marble sculpture Future also recalls an ancient Greek bust, particularly because of the medium used, the form of a herm, and the laurel wreath. However, the Belgian again rendered the object according to nineteenth-century ideas. First, he left an area of crude marble in the form of a plinth building up a tension between the delicate features of the mysterious female and the unworked material. Second, Khnopff added colour to the face and hair, juxtaposing the cold marble and the traces of polychromy. The resulting contrast between the colour and the medium was stronger than in his much warmer plaster busts creating an impression of an almost vampirish beauty. Third, as he rendered the altars enshrining the Head of Hypnos and the Mask in a priestly manner, he also conducted physical manipulations resembling his own special spiritual rituals to change the appearance of the Future several times. Treating the bust as a precious collectible, Khnopff altered not the work itself, but the way in which he fashioned it, which nevertheless affected the presentation and thus the perception of the sculpture. At the first Viennese Secession the work was presented with a scarf sprinkled with little blue stars on her head.[xx] The photograph with Khnopff posing in front of the sculpture depicts it with a bare head revealing a skull cut across the forehead (below). Nowadays the bust is adorned with a laurel wreath. This is a clear example of Khnopff interacting with his sculptures and treating them as an extension of his personality and philosophy and as a means of constructing his artistic identity.

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Photograph of Fernand Khnopff

Clearly Fernand Khnopff was attentive to the physical characteristics of his sculptures, adjusting their materiality to his artistic needs. Experimenting with sculptural polychromy and various materials Khnopff was influenced by contemporary trends in sculpture and at the same time supported them with his works, rendering his most recurrent imagery and symbols in a three-dimensional form. Rejecting the naturalism, Khnopff explored the artistic and spiritual coherence of his art as well as aesthetic and expressive qualities of different media. So with his art he constructed his artistic ego, his Symbolist identity, leaving almost no other documentation of his personality: the record found after his death hardly provided any information about the artist himself.

 

***

[i] Verhaeren, E., ‘Les XX’, Chronique artistique, I (no. 7), 1891, p. 251

[ii] Banham, G., Kant and the Ends of Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), p. 13

[iii] Moréas, J., ‘Un manifeste littéraire: Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, September 18, 1887

[iv] Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, O’Mahoney, C. I. R., ed., Symbolist Objects: Symbolism and Subjectivity at the Fin de Siècle (High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Rivendale press, 2009), p. 165

[v] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1996), p. 57

[vi] Howe, J. W., The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1982), p. 112

[vii] Ibid.

Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 165

[viii] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 42

[ix] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 54

[x] Hargrove, J., ‘Painter-sculptors and polychromy in the evolution of modernism’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910, p.109

Draguet, M., Khnopff, ou L’ambigu poétique (Brussels, Paris, 1995), p. 136, note 134

[xi] Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 175

[xii] Crane, W., ‘Notes on gesso work’, The Studio, vol. I (2), May 1893, p. 47

[xiii] Fierens-Gevaert, H., ‘Fernand Khnopff’, Art et décoration, 4 (1898), p. 123

Quoted in Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 175

[xiv] Delevoy, R. L., C. de Croës, and G. Ollinger-Zinque, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1987), p. 35

[xv] Héran, E., ‘Art for the sake of the soul’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910, p. 99

[xvi] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 57

[xvii] Leonard, A., ‘Internationalism in Spite of Themselves: Britain and Belgium at the Fin de Siècle’, Brockington, G., ed., Internationalism and the Arts in Britain and Europe at the Fin de Siècle, CISRA Volume 4 (Peter Lang, 2009), p. 229

[xviii] Khnopff, F., ‘The revival of ivory carving in Belgium’, The Studio, vol. IV, 1894, p. 150

[xix] Khnopff, F., ‘Studio-Talk: Brussels’, The Studio, vol. XI (51), June 1897, p. 201

[xx] Hevesi, L., Acht Jahre Sezession (Vienna, 1906), p. 33

Bibliography:

Banham, G., Kant and the Ends of Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910 (Van

Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1996)

Brockington, G., ed., Internationalism and the Arts in Britain and Europe at the Fin de Siècle, Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, Volume 4 (Peter Lang, 2009)

Crane, W., ‘Notes on gesso work’, The Studio, vol. I (2), May 1893, p. 45-9

Delevoy, R. L., C. de Croës, and G. Ollinger-Zinque, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1987)

Draguet, M., Khnopff, ou L’ambigu poétique (Brussels, Paris, 1995)

Hevesi, L., Acht Jahre Sezession (Vienna, 1906)

Howe, J. W., The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1982)

Khnopff, F., ‘The revival of ivory carving in Belgium’, The Studio, vol. IV, 1894, p. 150-1

Khnopff, F., ‘Studio-Talk: Brussels’, The Studio, vol. XI (51), June 1897, p. 200-2

O’Mahoney, C. I. R., ed., Symbolist Objects: Symbolism and Subjectivity at the Fin de Siècle (High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Rivendale press, 2009)

Moréas, J., ‘Un manifeste littéraire: Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, September 18, 1887

Verhaeren, E., ‘Les XX’, Chronique artistique, I (no. 7), 1891

Fabricating Innocence and Fashioning Sexuality: The Material Culture of the Female Child in Nineteenth Century British and French Art

by Sophie Handler,  Durham University

Throughout medieval Europe, the most prevailing opinion of the state of children was their inherent sinfulness. The belief in the notion of Original Sin at home in the child, only to be cleansed away on one’s journey to adulthood through a positive, dutiful and pious life, was strong and widespread, such was the power and influence of the Church. The infiltration of Enlightenment philosophy from the eighteenth century onwards turned the world of established European thought on its head. The Middle Ages’ view of the young was characterised by “the temptation to equate the child with the savage”.[i] As close to basic physical and sexual urges as animals, children had to learn to become civilised in order to be considered human, for “childhood [was] merely the life of a beast”.[ii] However, by the eighteenth century, empirical thought had made considerable headway in chipping away at the cultural cornerstone of Europe that was religion, and began replacing it with a more sceptical attitude that declared man responsible for the corruption of an otherwise innocent and pure child. Accordingly, eroticism was no longer seen as something innate within a child, but acquired through exposure to the evil of the adult world; “crucial to the modern conception of childhood as a state of innocence was the notion that sexuality is dormant, or even non-existent, in the prepubescent body”.[iii] This attestation generated a sense of urgency on the part of social thinkers and philosophers of the period to protect the innocence of the young for as long as possible. In complete contrast to the tolerance of the unruly, carnal child of the medieval era, the Enlightenment period saw every effort imaginable to shield infants from the immorality of the world, perhaps to such a degree, according to some, that most anything besides the overtly pure and innocuous was considered a taboo subject, regardless of its natural roots: “Foucault contends that during the Enlightenment people became deprived of certain ways of speaking about sex”.[iv]

It is unsurprising, then, that by the nineteenth century, attitudes to the moral fibre of the child, particularly in relation to sexuality, were muddled and varied at best. Linda Pollock accurately summarised the perplexity of the situation thus: “The mingling of sexuality and purity, freedom and restraint, material indulgence and corporal punishment, in attitudes to and treatment of children in the nineteenth century indicates both the legacy of the past and the increased anxiety of Victorian society with respect to the new emphasis on the responsibilities of parents and educators”.[v] Social reform in Europe in the nineteenth century had launched parents especially into the spotlight of public scrutiny with regards to appropriate care and education of children, which had consequently intensified anxieties over the place of sexuality in the lives of children.[vi] Far from a sensible and considered approach being established, the pressure of the modern age appeared to merely conflate the issue, most often resulting in the projection of two very polarised images of the child, reflecting the paradoxical combination of innocence and sexuality at play: “in nineteenth-century Europe the diffusion and sentimental glorification of the cult of childhood coincided exactly with an unprecedented industrial exploitation of children”.[vii]

Correspondingly, this paper shall investigate the ways in which these two conflicting ideas of the child were represented in the visual culture of nineteenth century Britain and France, focusing on the depiction of the female child. This focus upon girls invites an issue that is something of a crux to the paper; that is to say, the identities, roles and manifestations assumed by children in these examples of visual culture are invariably a construct of adult design, a physical or symbolic ideal or concession to support popular and material culture of the epoch. The significance of the female child arises from the fact that this commodification of the image of the child is intensified tenfold in the case of little girls, who, from a very young age are “prepared to be looked at by another”, serving as a constant reminder that “the feminine body is constructed for display”.[viii] [ix] The ineffectualness of the child becomes enhanced yet further when that child is female, for her powerlessness does not dissipate gradually on the pathway through adolescence to adulthood as it does for boys. She will remain similarly objectified and manipulated throughout her life, having been prepared and worked upon for this very purpose from an early age. Given that childhood in general has been “primarily a cultural invention and a site of emotional projection by adults”, the subject of the female child becomes all the more loaded, meaning that “representing them visually can project adult questions and assumptions about the social order and can place [female] children in a political (and often sexual) economy that is greater than the contingency of the individual child”. [x] [xi] In order to investigate this issue, this paper will explore and discuss various examples of revealing visual culture of the period, including the work of Impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), the fairy paintings of British artists John Simmons (1823-1876) and Robert Huskisson (1820-1861), the photography of writer Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), and relevant advertising artwork of the period. By turning to some of the most prevalent yet simultaneously controversial artwork of this era from either side of the Channel, this paper can arguably obtain the most accurate gauge of how the female child was viewed and presented, both in terms of the extremes of artistic license and the representativeness, acceptance and popularity of such artwork amongst the general public.

Whilst in most art historical accounts, Impressionism is hailed as a deliciously treasonous movement, brashly subverting the established style and subject matter of the academic art world, its presentation of girlhood is all too often obedient and supportive of the status quo. [xii] Instead of concentrating on the blotchy, heavily stylised landscapes that gave Impressionism its name and renown, and which were so popular with key artists of the movement like Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Renoir became arguably the most prolific producer of Impressionist artwork in which the focus was people in everyday scenes. From sisters collecting flowers and dreamy boat trips to intimate dancing couples and busy café scenes, Renoir became the purveyor of the simple bourgeois social scene for the Impressionist movement. Indeed, for although his style was decidedly neglectful of traditionally accepted techniques as supported by the Salon, conversely, his compositions often buttressed the approved lifestyle of the conforming middle classes. This is perhaps particularly evident in his idyllic family arrangements of mothers, daughters and sisters, whose leisurely role in the home “emphasises this cyclical reproduction of ideal feminine domesticity” at the heart of bourgeois culture. Consider, for example, Renoir’s Children’s Afternoon at Wargemont (1884), in which three sisters of varying ages are depicted partaking in activities appropriate to their delicately domestic upbringing and future, such as reading and sewing. [xiii]

Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Children’s Afternoon at Wargemont, 1884, oil on canvas, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.

These pastimes are peaceful and require little or no supervision; Renoir enhances the quiet insignificance of these girls and their activities by carefully blending them into their surroundings. The girl on the left in particular almost becomes part of the furniture; dressed in shades of blue and white and holding a blue book, she becomes camouflaged in the settee upon which she is seated, her chambray skirt fanning out into the navy stripes of the upholstery, which in turn fades into the blues of the wall behind. Similarly, though not to the same extent, the girl on the right, dressed in reds and with a plait of auburn hair is placed before a predominantly russet background. Far from individuals in their own right, these girls, engrossed in their pastimes, are a decorative feature of a blissful middle class home. Subject to the voyeuristic gaze of the adult viewer, they are “put on display as a commodity of bourgeois culture, signifying wealth, leisure and domesticity”, neither their activities nor appearance disturbing the idyll. [xiv]

It is perhaps the youngest girl in the centre of the composition who is most interesting, however. Unlike her sisters, her dress contrasts with the fabrics immediately surrounding her, and she is not wholly engaged with an activity, instead stood slightly nonchalantly, looking out of the artwork and in the general direction of the viewer, possibly meeting his gaze in a more confident, perhaps coquettish manner. Significantly, she is holding a doll, whose general appearance and countenance is strikingly similar to her own; that is to say, Renoir has seemingly painted the child’s face in much the same way as the doll’s, supporting the notion that in nineteenth-century Europe, “dolls had a powerful influence in helping to internalise, on an unprecedented scale, stereotyped role models”.[xv] In order to compete with the enormously successful German toy market, French company Jumeau, founded in the early 1840s, began designing and manufacturing high quality bisque dolls, whose soaring popularity with the middle and upper classes resulted in an explosion in doll sales by the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

Jumeau
Example of a Jumeau doll.

Far from an innocuous plaything, the Jumeau dolls became a powerful tool by which adults could project their ideals onto children, for these immaculate miniatures embodied the tiny ladies to which these little girls ought to aspire; “the dolls were as placid and perfect as the parent wished the child to be”.[xvi] Spotlessly manicured, stylishly clad, with engaging and unflinching eyes, sweet mutism and reassuring stillness, the Jumeau doll provided the perfect example of feminine decoration and domesticity from which the obedient and dutiful bourgeois girl could learn, and which Renoir’s portrayal of girls eagerly conflated. The ivory complexion, soft rosy cheeks and bright glassy eyes of Renoir’s infant subjects, combined with their idle and somewhat ornamental positioning in the home supported the aesthetic and behavioural ideal for the little bourgeois girl: “the prevalence of the doll type as a visual standard of children shows that children – girls especially – were being commodified as an essential element of bourgeois spectacle”.[xvii]

To explicate this issue yet further, it is important to understand the potential inferences that can be drawn from the name Jumeau, which translates from French to mean ‘twin’, and thus carries a sense of novelty appealing to a materialistic audience or buyer. This is perhaps best explored by looking to another of Renoir’s paintings, Pink and Blue (1881), a portrait of Alice and Elisabeth, the daughters of Jewish French banker Louis Raphaël Cahen d’Anvers.

Renoir_Mlles_Cahen_d_Anvers
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pink and Blue, 1881, oil on canvas, Sau Paulo Museum of Art, Sau Paulo, Brazil.

Although not twins, Elisabeth was just fourteen months older than Alice, and the resemblance is palpable, further expounded by their outfits. The sisters, like a pair of little Jumeau dolls, are positioned before the viewer in matching outfits, separable only by the pink or blue embellishments, as if to offer the consumer a choice of colour, or indeed the complete set of two: “these children are like commodities on a store shelf, the shiniest of many luxury goods”.[xviii]

Reflective of the paradoxical projection of both innocence and sexuality upon the female child in this period, Renoir’s presentation of little girls fittingly corresponds to both characterisations. On the one hand, she embodies the pure innocence of childhood, partaking in simple, harmless activities, seemingly unaware of the adult surveillance to which she is subject; on the other, she has been prepared for viewing, trained from an early age to perform the appealing and perversely alluring role laid out for her, and which she is thus far unable to fully comprehend. Perhaps then, she personifies the “infantile stage of sexual ignorance (not innocence)”, for she is simply unaware, or at least does not wholly appreciate, the sexual economy into which she has been forced from an early age as an unavoidable rite of passage to womanhood. [xix] This is conflated and muddied yet further by the contention that in some cyclical twist, it is from the very innocence and purity of the female child that her sexual appeal is derived. Given that women of nineteenth century Europe had few, if any, rights beyond those of a child, it is unsurprising that the traditional male voyeur gleaned some sexual intrigue if not satisfaction from the same basic sense of innocence and powerless which characterises the perceived role and image of both women and little girls. [xx]  The traditional social expectation of women in this era, namely that they should be “pious, modest, virtuous and chaste” could equally be applied to one’s anticipations of a little girl, a comparison that becomes all the more poignant when coupled with the fact that in nineteenth century France at least, a married woman was considered a minor. [xxi] [xxii] In both life and culture, “young girls and adult men are the preferred couple”, and being that “rich men turned young and beautiful women into ‘trophy wives’ [who were] pampered, indulged and well-dressed, but […] uneducated, led pointless lives, and were little more than rich men’s playthings and status symbols”, it is scarcely remarkable that this deep preoccupation of innocence extended yet further to those most innocent and thus with the most potential for modulation, control and even initiation. [xxiii] [xxiv]

The nineteenth century saw a disconcerting shift in its symbolic figurehead, the middle class adult male. Whilst originally a protective authority, albeit an increasingly curious “voyeur of puberty”, the middle class man was transforming instead into an individual of considerable means and power dangerously captivated by the notion of “childhood innocence sullied by adult intrusion”. [xxv] [xxvi] It was Victorian Britain especially in which morbid and perverse fascination of all sorts flourished, and indeed where “the child-woman came into vogue [as] one yearned for unripeness”, and so the popularity of the bizarrely tantalising art form of fairy painting soared. [xxvii] The combination of the erotic and the supernatural in the art world was not new to the nineteenth century. Consider Henry Fuseli’s (1741-1825) 1781 painting The Nightmare, which, whilst ostensibly depicting a sleeping woman and the demonic manifestation of her nightmare, has overtly sexual motifs running through it, including connotations of violent male libido, conquest and rape of a virgin, and female orgasm. This mingling of the supernatural with taboo aspects of sexuality reached a climax of sorts in Victorian fairy paintings, which offered its viewers an acceptable and accessible way of exploring “a mixture of childish innocence and ripening eroticism”.[xxviii] Once again, the female child is “on passive display, an object of visual pleasure”, and now, instead of a doll, fills the role of a sweet little fairy, disturbingly similar to the ones found in her storybooks, thus partaking in the dangerous, though carefully otherworldly, game of mystical sexual initiation. [xxix] Against a backdrop of advancing awareness of the potentiality of the sexual life of the child, especially in light of “the Victorian era’s cultural fascination with fallenness and prostitution” and the wavering ambivalence towards the eroticising powers of the male gaze, fairy paintings offered an escape into the harmless, fictional land of guilty pleasures: “it often seems as if pictorial fairies overtly acted out what humans only covertly expressed in literature and kept under wraps in varying degrees in real life”. [xxx] [xxxi] By equating the little girl to a fairy, a chaste and miniature being belonging to a fictional universe, she is both protected by the reaffirmation of her innocence and unobtainability in the real world, and eroticised as a sexually appealing commodity to be viewed and sought, instead of appreciated and understood as a person.

John Simmons’ watercolour painting of 1872, entitled There Titania Lies, is just one example of his extensive work on Shakespeare’s fairy queen Titania. In the centre middle ground of the piece lies Titania, the reclining, erotic yet unknowing nude illuminated by her ethereal fairy bedchamber, sleepy, if not sleeping, and angelic. She is surrounded, in the foreground, by a collection of similarly delicate and unconscious fairies, one of whom, in the centre of this protective ring of supernaturalism, is clearly a small fairy child, huddled in the foetal position, the purest of the pure. The dusky background features the vague figure of an adult male approaching; whilst we may assume this is Oberon, Shakespeare’s king of the fairies, this is unclear, and could just as easily be some sort of threatening imposter suggestive of “rather orgiastic undertones, […] of male desire and possession” as he makes his way towards the collection of virginal girl fairies. [xxxii]

Huckisson
Robert Huskisson, The MIdsummer Night’s Fairies, 1847, oil on mahogany, Tate, London, United Kingdom.

A strikingly similar scene is replicated in Robert Huskisson’s painting The Midsummer Night’s Fairies (1847), in which the figure of Titania lies limp and unaware in the light of her purity, whilst a strong and virile knight approaches her from the opaque darkness behind, his white helmet plume aloft as he surveys this diminutive yet invitingly voluptuous child-woman, Huskisson’s use of chiaroscuro emphasising their moral polarity: “sleeping, recumbent, and vulnerable, she is visited by an erect […] youth with a shield […] who has entered her private boudoir”.[xxxiii] The secondary scene in the foreground is a violent one, featuring muscular male fairies battling one another, their lances raised and threatening, perhaps indicative of the all too frequent “sinister spectre of rape or assault [who] lurks in many corners” of the Victorian fairy world of lust, aggression, and prepubescent erotic investiture. [xxxiv] Ultimately, the fixation with fairy paintings points to a need for an outlet through which sexual taboos of the period (which included concepts of bestiality and gender non-conformity as well as the exploitation of young girls) could be safely explored and even enjoyed. Both virtuous and enticing, whilst maintaining a crucial level of fiction and thus separation from the human world, fairies served as the perfect fantasy, the personification of “the ubiquitous fetishisation of girlhood which is at once innocent and erotic”.[xxxv]

More worrying perhaps is the fact that such fetishisation and commodification of little girls, particularly on a paradoxical see-saw combining innocence and sexuality, extended beyond the fictional world and emerged into the human one. Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, is most renowned for his works about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865 onwards), but it is his photographs of little girls, in particular a little girl named Alice Liddell, the reported inspiration behind his eponymous character, which is of particular interest to this paper. Carroll spent a considerable amount of time and often photographed the daughters of friends and acquaintances, (consider for example, his controversial child-nudes featuring sisters Beatrice and Evelyn Hatch), frequently terming the infantile muses his ‘child friends’. Whilst Carroll sought and cultivated “the friendship of many little girls”, it was arguably Alice Liddell to whom he was most firmly attached. [xxxvi] The daughter of Henry Liddell, a long-established friend of Carroll’s from the University of Oxford, Alice became something of a muse to the young writer, manifesting herself in a series of photographs, which have, in more modern times, come under significant scrutiny for their paedophilic undertones.

Lewis
Lewis Carroll, Open your mouth, and shut your eyes, 1858, photograph, Princeton University Library.

Consider as a prime example, Carroll’s 1858 photograph Open your mouth, and shut your eyes, in which Alice is pictured alongside her sisters Lorina and Edith, one sister dangling a pair of cherries before another who waits with closed eyes and open mouth, whilst the third sister watches. On the one hand, it is simply a portrait of three young sisters, wearing their white Sunday dresses. On the other, of course, it is overtly sexual; from the title of the photograph, suggestive of tactile and sensory games, to the poignant use of the cherries, a symbol of virginity and the relinquishment thereof, in the hands of Carroll as a practiced coercer. Perhaps an insight into the largely secretive and thus controversial relationship between Carroll and Alice, the image of cherry bobbing, just like “an adult male playing with a little girl, carries erotic connotations of sexual initiation”.[xxxvii] Reinforced by the third sister who coquettishly observes the scene, this is an acting-out of feminine, infantile sexuality to a captive audience, a “performance of childhood for the adult”.[xxxviii] Encouraging the little girl to come out and play on this intimate stage is metaphorical of the “titillating attractions of the young girl becoming a sexually mature adult”.[xxxix]

Stretching beyond the realm of art and entertainment, the power of the fetishised girl carried economic sway, allowing the materialistic and greedy heart of nineteenth century Europe to maximise upon her potential: female “childhood was elaborately capitalised”.[xl] Interestingly adopting a similar focus on the heavily loaded symbol of the cherry, British soap company Pears made use, from the early 1900s onwards, of John Everett Millais’ (1829-1896) 1879 work Cherry Ripe.

Millais.jpg
John Everett Millais, Cherry Ripe, 1879, oil on canvas, Private Collection.

Originally commissioned by the editor of Victorian newspaper The Graphic, the image proved immensely popular. Featuring a young girl sat beside a bundle of cherries, she is dressed in eighteenth century garb, a nostalgically unreachable image of yesteryear. Her tiny hands pressed together in black fingerless gloves and her ankles are exposed as her skirts bunch around her thighs and hips, suggestive of the curves which will develop beneath the fabric. As she gazes out to the viewer, half smiling, the inference here is that the little girl is ripening just like the cherries. However, her smile is unfounded, for like the other dolls and fairy girls to which she can be compared, her role and appearance is a construct that in itself feeds off its own ignorance: “girl children in particular must not be seen to explore sexual knowledge on their own terms […] they must perform childishness as if unaware of their sexual appeal”.[xli] Once again buttressing the juxtaposition of innocence and sexualisation in which the little girl is passively embroiled, this coy child is unknowingly harnessed for her pubescent sexual appeal in order to sell a product solely for the purposes of cleansing, cleanliness and purity.

A doll, a fairy, or a nostalgic ideal of the past or even one’s own youth, the female child is constructed in a contradictory manner that reflects her lack of natural place in nineteenth century Europe. Her absence of personal or cultural identity as formed on an independent basis conflates her role as harnessed by the beholders of the male gaze. As the miniature version of the already commodified woman, even more ineffectual than her adult counterpart, her existence and image renders her all the more useful to the unbending culture of materiality into which she has been tossed. Perplexed and unnerved by an unfathomable array of historical and philosophical accounts and teachings on the role and morality of the female child, the powerful male populace of nineteenth century Britain and France manipulated this situation, as they did with many others, in order to benefit from the material gains that their influence of careful modulation could afford. Little girls, like dolls and fairies, quite literally became constructions, not so much formed of bisque, fabric and painted magic, as of greed, enterprise and power.

***

[i] Colin, Heywood, Growing Up in France: From the Ancien Régime to the Third Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 286.

[ii] Ibid, 1.

[iii] Jennifer Milam, “Sex education and the child: gendering erotic response in eighteenth-century France”, in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 45.

[iv] Ibid, 49.

[v] Linda A. Pollock, foreword to Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, by Marilyn R. Brown (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002),  xix.

[vi] For example, the loi sur la déchéance de la puissance paternelle (‘law on the forfeiture of parental power’), which was passed in France in 1889 and essentially dictated that parents would lose their rights as such if convicted of “crimes committed against ‘the person or persons of their children’”. Sylvia Schafer, Children in Moral Danger and the Problem of Government in Third Republic France. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 19.

[vii] Brown, Picturing Children , 3.

[viii] Patricia Holland, Picturing Childhood: The myth of the child in popular imagery (London: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2006), 188.

[ix] Ibid, 188.

[x] Brown, Picturing Children , 1.

[xi] Ibid , 2.

[xii] Renowned figure of the nineteenth century Parisian art scene, Louis Leroy (1812-1885) famously coined the term ‘impressionist’ by way of scathingly satirising Claude Monet’s artwork in a review for Le Charivari in 1874. John Rewald. The History of Impressionism. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 323. In more contemporary times, the National Gallery (London), for example, defines Impressionism as a “radical breakaway movement”. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/learn-about-art/guide-to-impressionism/guide-to-impressionism

[xiii] Greg M. Thomas, “Impressionist Dolls: on the commodification of girlhood in Impressionist painting” in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 105.

[xiv] Thomas, “Impressionist Dolls”, 107.

[xv] Ibid, 105.

[xvi] King, Constance Eileen King, Jumeau (Atiglen: Schiffer Publishing, 1983), 92.

[xvii] Thomas, “Impressionist Dolls”, 104.

[xviii] Ibid, 108.

[xix] Milam, “Sex education”, 47.

[xx] In the French Third Republic, for example, a married woman was considered a minor, over 40% of French women were illiterate and therefore excluded from education, and those who found employment had to settle for unskilled work for which they were paid less than half of their male counterparts. William Fortescue. The Third Republic in France 1870-1940: Conflicts and Continuities. (London: Routledge, 2000), 83-96.

[xxi] Fortescue. The Third Republic, 80.

[xxii] Ibid, 83.

[xxiii] Valerie Walkerdine. Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 140.

[xxiv] Fortescue, The Third Republic, 96.

[xxv] Alessandra Comini, “Toys in Freud’s attic; torment and taboo in the child and adolescent themes of Vienna’s image-makers” in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 174.

[xxvi] Walkerdine, Daddy’s Girl, 174.

[xxvii] Comini, “Toys in Freud’s attic”, 175.

[xxviii] Walkerdine, Daddy’s Girl, 140.

[xxix] Thomas, “Impressionist Dolls”, 109.

[xxx] Susan P. Casteras, “Winged fantasies: constructions of childhood, innocence, adolescence, and sexuality in Victorian fairy painting” in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 129.

[xxxi] Ibid, 127.

[xxxii] Ibid, 130.

[xxxiii] Ibid, 132.

[xxxiv] Ibid, 131.

[xxxv] Walkerdine, Daddy’s Girl, 9.

[xxxvi] Iain Mclean. Classics of Social Choice. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 52.

[xxxvii] Diane Waggoner, “Photographing childhood – Lewis Carroll and Alice” in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 152.

[xxxviii] Ibid, 158.

[xxxix] Ibid, 153.

[xl] Carol Mavor, “Introduction: the unmaking of children” in Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud, ed. Marilyn R. Brown. (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002), 27.

[xli] Holland, Picturing Childhood, 180.

 

Bibliography

Brown, Marilyn R. ed. Picturing Children: Constructions of childhood between Rousseau and Freud. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002.

Fortescue, William. The Third Republic in France 1870-1940: Conflicts and Continuities. London: Routledge, 2000.

Heywood, Colin. Growing Up in France: From the Ancien Régime to the Third Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Holland, Patricia. Picturing Childhood: The myth of the child in popular imagery. London: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2006.

King, Constance Eileen. Jumeau. Atiglen: Schiffer Publishing, 1983.

Mclean, Iain. Classics of Social Choice. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

‘The National Gallery’. www.nationalgallery.org.uk (accessed 1st March 2016).

Rewald, John. The History of Impressionism. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973.

Schafer, Sylvia. Children in Moral Danger and the Problem of Government in Third Republic France. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Walkerdine, Valerie. Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.