Fernand Khnopff’s Le Portrait de Marguerite and La Sphinge by Félicien Rops, both acquired by the King Baudouin Foundation, are on loan to Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie until 17 January 2021. The works bear testimony to the significant role played by Belgium in the development of Symbolism in Europe.
The end of the 19th century witnessed the birth of a new artistic movement that was characterized by sensuality, mystery and irrationality, as well as a certain fascination for magic. Brussels, being located mid-way between Great Britain and the rest of Continental Europe, was a popular meeting place for artists of the period and Belgium thus became something of a hub for the development of Symbolism in Europe.
With his Portrait de Marguerite, Fernand Khnopff introduced the image of the mysterious woman, a theme that would become central to Symbolist artists. The woman in the painting is Khnopff’s own sister and muse, Marguerite, whom he represented as the ideal, but also mysterious and inaccessible woman.
Belgian Symbolism is particularly distinctive through its predilection for macabre and decadent subjects. An example is La Sphinge (the Female Sphinx) by Félicien Rops, which he painted for the collection of stories Les Diaboliques, written by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. The work represents a woman hugging a stone sphinx, but who is being spied upon by Satan, dressed as a Dandy. Rops seized his period’s spirit of modernity by spectacularly associating sensuality and morbidity.