When the Belgian artist Félicien Rops worked on this image in 1878, he was in a state of fever, brought on by the stifling heat and intoxicating perfumes of cyclamen and opopanax in his room, which he considered to be very beneficial to the end result.
The image, called Pornocrates or The Lady with the Pig, challenges us to decide who is leading who. After all, the woman has the pig on a leash; at the same time, she is blindfolded, so perhaps it is the pig that is actually controlling where she goes. What does the pig represent? Is it man, bestial and ignorant, or does its golden tail represent the lure of worldly goods? And what does its title tell us?
Looking at this picture, it is not hard to imagine that Rops belongs to a movement called Decadence. Rops’ works are often sexually explicit and in the eyes of many, perverted. Religion is ridiculed. He was fascinated by the dark side of life: death, satanism and sin. Most of all, he was intrigued by the contemporary woman: assertive, seductive, ruthless and devouring, a Femme Fatale. Just like men were possessed by women, women were possessed by Satan.
To Rops, his art showed scenes which typified the 19th century. Living in Paris, he saw the excesses of modern city life and their consequences. A degenerate society, driven by sexual urges, with fancy clothes concealing the dangers within. Several in his circle of friends, like Baudelaire, Flaubert and Manet, died of syphilis. It was a world where the fine arts would suffer, as we can deduce from the frieze below the lady with the pig.
While it is often assumed that Rops harbored feelings of hate against women, the perversities of the city and its women energized him. Towards the end of his life, he expressed his greatest fear: ‘I am afraid of being old and of no longer being able to inspire love in a woman, which is a true death for a man of my nature and with my needs for madness of mind and body.’
(text: Pauline Dorhout)