Sunday, 13 November 2016


“The road to freedom lies not through mysteries or occult performances, but through the intelligent use of natural forces and laws.” - Ernest Holmes

Fernand Khnopff, in full Fernand-Edmond-Jean-Marie Khnopff (born September 12, 1858, Grembergen, near Termonde, Belgium—died November 12, 1921, Brussels) was a Belgian painter, draughtsman, photographer, sculptor, and writer associated with Symbolism and known best for his paintings that blend precise realism with an ethereal dreamlike atmosphere.

Khnopff was one of three siblings and was born into a well-to-do family. He spent his childhood in the old Belgian city of Bruges, a place that he was obviously impressed by and would feature in many of his works later in life. The family then moved to Brussels, spending summers in the country in Fosset, Belgium, another place appeared in his paintings later in life.

In 1875 he set out to study law at the Free University of Brussels, but within a year he left to study art and literature at that city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. There he studied painting with Xavier Mellery. Throughout his years at the academy, Khnopff spent his summers in Paris to broaden his studies in the arts, and at the 1878 Exposition Universelle (world’s fair) he discovered works by Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and by Symbolist Gustave Moreau, artists who would have a major impact on the direction of his painting career.

His painting career began with landscapes, which he began exhibiting in 1881 with the Belgian exhibition society called “L’Essor”, and by 1882 he was showing his own Symbolist works, many of which had subjects that were inspired by literature, especially by the writings of Gustave Flaubert. He soon found the support of poet Émile Verhaeren, who went on to connect Khnopff to the writers and poets of “La Jeune Belgique”, Brussels’s avant-garde literary review that led to a movement of the same name.

In 1883 Khnopff became a founding member of the Belgian avant-garde artists’ group “Les Vingt”, which at its founding included 19 other artists, James Ensor among them. Khnopff created notable works such as “Listening to Schumann” (1883), “After Joséphin Péladan: The Supreme Vice” (ca 1884), and “In Fosset. An Evening” (1886). “After Joséphin Péladan: The Supreme Vice” served as the frontispiece to French writer and Symbolist Joséphin Péladan’s popular erotic novel “Le Vice supreme” (1884).

By the time Les Vingt dissolved in 1893, Khnopff’s career had taken off. While holding a firm position within the avant-garde circles of Brussels, he also became known as a portraitist of the city’s elite. His best-known portraits from that period include “Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer” (1885), “Portrait of Marie Monnom” (1887), “Portrait of Jeanne de Bauer (1890), and “Portrait of the Children of Louis Nève” (1893). Khnopff used his sister Marguerite as a model repeatedly, even after her death when he used his photographs of her as guides. In 1896 he painted “The Caresses” (The Sphinx), his best-known work. The painting’s subject is an interpretation of Moreau’s “Oedipus and the Sphinx” (1864) and features a hybrid human-leopard nestled next to an androgynous Oedipus.

Khnopff designed a lavish house and studio for himself at 41 rue des Courses in Brussels (demolished 1936). During the decade beginning in 1903, he collaborated regularly with Brussels opera house Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, designing costumes, scenery, and sets for many productions. He also decorated interiors for landmark buildings in Brussels: Stoclet House and the Hôtel de Ville, Saint-Gilles.

In his paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures of the 1900s, he continued to focus on mythological subjects and themes of introspection, memory, temptation, and mystery. Reflecting an ongoing interest in dreams and sleep, he turned to the Greek god of sleep Hypnos numerous times as a subject in his paintings and sculptures. Through the early 1910s he exhibited widely throughout Europe to great acclaim. Khnopff stayed in Brussels during World War I (1914–18), and, though his health and eyesight were declining, he taught painting classes, wrote on art and artists, and continued to create his own works.

The drawing above is titled “The Offering” and is drawn in pastel, graphite, and chalk on paper (34.9 x 74.9 cm), exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY City. A nude woman makes an offering to a portrait bust on an altar. She looks out as though the viewer’s appearance has interrupted her ritual. Khnopff’s Symbolism mixed an admiration for medieval and Renaissance imagery with a fascination with the occult, ritual, and the dream world. The altar here resembles one in his home, created to revere Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. The blue cartouche at the centre is inscribed with a partially effaced NEVER MORE—a quote from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”. This soft pastel drawing is characteristic of Khnopff’s muted and hazy style.

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