Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff was among the leading Symbolists at the turn of the twentieth century, admired by contemporaries including Gustav Klimt and Jan Toorop. Academically trained in Brussels and Paris, Khnopff went on to develop a trademark style that married fidelity to nature with an atmosphere of reverie and mystery. He earned success in genres ranging from book illustration to society portraiture, but is perhaps best known for his images of women personifying mystical and spiritual concepts, which appealed to the era’s penchant for fantasy and the occult (e.g., The Offering
, The Met, 2007.49.651
). He often drew inspiration from literature and poetry, a reflection of his deep engagement with vanguard authors of his day, most notably the firebrand Belgian group La Jeune Belgique
. Khnopff was one of the most cosmopolitan figures in an intensely extroverted and dynamic Belgian art world: in 1883, at age twenty-five, he helped found Les XX, an exhibition circle based in Brussels that showed works by an international roster of pioneering artists. He went on to forge friendships and exhibit with progressive colleagues in Austria, England, France, and Germany, and to serve as correspondent for the English art journal The Studio
(for Khnopff’s biography see Croës and Ollinger-Zinque 1987, pp. 494–511, and Draguet 1995, pp. 415–20).
The firstborn son of a well-to-do family, Khnopff cultivated a persona of extreme sophistication, from his dapper appearance to the fabulous home and studio that he completed in 1902. Designed as a modernist "temple of art," it featured spare white rooms adorned with emblematic objects and artworks (among them an altar with a winged mask of Hypnos) which visitors progressed past before being permitted to enter the sanctuary of the studio, where Khnopff worked inside a gilded circle inscribed on the floor (Robert L. Delevoy in Fernand Khnopff
, Brussels, Lebeer-Hossman, 1987, pp. 47–60; Draguet 1995, pp. 337–48). Yet the refined Khnopff was also closely involved with the Maison du Peuple in Brussels, the seat of Belgium’s Socialist party.The Painting:
The early 1880s were a formative period for Khnopff. Having spent five years honing his crisp draftsmanship and delicate painting technique, he was confident in his abilities and, as he wrote a friend, "working more than ever for myself" (Croës and Ollinger-Zinque 1987, p. 496). He experimented widely with subject matter, trying his hand at landscape, allegorical decoration, religious painting, and portraits, among other topics. In 1883 he made a splash in Brussels with the exhibition of Listening to Schumann
(1883), an ambitious re-conception of the fashionable subject of piano-playing, and one of his few scenes of contemporary life (see Additional Images, fig. 1).
The following year, he undertook this work, which also restages a popular domestic genre subject—in this case, a woman reading. Khnopff titled the painting Hortensia
, the French word for the hydrangea that dominates the foreground. (At the time cultured Belgians largely spoke French.) Tzwern and Aisinber propose that the prettily-attired sitter may be the artist’s younger sister, Marguerite (1864–1946), who was his favorite model (p. 207). Ollinger-Zinque suggests that she may be either Marguerite or Khnopff’s mother; the last possibility seems doubtful, given that she would have been in her late forties, whereas the sitter appears youthful. Draguet sensibly finds that the woman’s features are too indistinct to permit identification. Draguet and Ollinger-Zinque both conclude that the setting is probably the Khnopff family’s summer home at Fosset in the Ardennes, near the Belgian border with Luxembourg. This is likely, given that hydrangeas typically bloom from April through August; Khnopff was in Paris in May and June but would have had ample time to visit Fosset while the hydrangeas were in flower. Ollinger-Zinque observes that the woman’s silhouette appears repeatedly in Khnopff’s sketchbooks from the village (Draguet 1995, p. 64, and Ollinger-Zinque 2003, p. 80).
Conceived so as to hint at, but not spell out, a narrative, this quiet, intimate interior scene is a modern variation on a tradition stretching back to Vermeer, who was a touchstone for nineteenth-century Belgian artists. Khnopff updated the motif by turning pictorial convention on its head. The figure—typically the focus of a composition—is set in the far left corner and partially cut off by the door frame; pride of place is given to the blossoming hydrangea, placed just off-center in the immediate foreground. This inventive layout, accentuated by the cropped, close-up viewpoint, creates the feeling of a private moment, glimpsed in passing.Hortensia
put Khnopff at the artistic cutting-edge. The informal view, with its skewed perspectives, compressed space, and all-over detail, has a clear kinship with photography, which was still something of a novelty (Khnopff experimented avidly with the medium later in his career). The technique of setting an object so close to the picture plane that its edges are cropped also recalls Japanese woodblock prints (Tzwern and Aisinber 1989, p. 207), then hugely au courant in Europe. Further notes of japonisme
may emerge in the hydrangea (also called the rose du Japon
) and in the abstract floral pattern on the tablecloth; it appears to show chrysanthemums, popularly associated with the Far East.
Khnopff’s approach also dovetails with the innovations of forward-thinking counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Draguet (1995, pp. 64–66) cites several precedents for the juxtaposition of a woman and a prominent floral element, including Degas’s A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers (Madame Paul Valpinçon?)
(1865; The Met, 29.100.128
). There is nothing to suggest that Khnopff knew such works specifically; rather, their similarities likely reflect a shared enthusiasm for unconventional ways of seeing. Hortensia
is distinguished by the relegation of the figure to the background and by the vague treatment of the woman’s face, which downplay her presence relative to the still life. The painting’s soft white and lilac hues—accented by the single red flower on the tablecloth—have been compared to the color harmonies of Whistler, whose paintings were exhibited with Les XX in February–March 1884 (Kraan et al. 1990, p. 110); the relationship with Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. III
, showing two women reclining on a couch with floral elements in the foreground, is particularly striking (see Additional Images, fig. 2).
Although Khnopff produced few works in the vein of Hortensia
, certain qualities developed in the canvas were key to his mature style: the muted palette, the carefully articulated geometries of the interior, and the sense of contemplative harmony. The association of woman with flowers became a leitmotif in his art, albeit with heightened symbolic resonance. Draguet interprets the present painting in light of the so-called "language of flowers," which had widespread currency in the nineteenth century; he suggests that the hydrangea may signify "you are cold but my love is constant" and identifies the red flower as a rose, with all its connotations of passion and voluptuousness. However, as Draguet notes, Khnopff generally preferred to leave the meanings of his pictures open-ended, allowing for the play of imagination and feeling (Draguet 1995, pp. 62–63, 68–69).
[Alison Hokanson 2015. With thanks to Jeff Rosenheim and John Carpenter for their insights on the painting’s formal affinities.]