Félicien Rops, the Belgian printmaker and illustrator, had an undeniable connection to decadence. In particular, that decadence which emphasized decay of the moral order of the relatively young Bourgeoisie in Europe was something Rops reveled in. One must look no further than his broad portfolio of etchings and lithographs which celebrates a remarkably De Sadeian eroticism to confirm this. In 1864, he became personally acquainted with the paragon of decadence Charles Baudelaire. The painting Death at the Ball (1865) was likely a product of that encounter, and of the familiarity with Baudelaire’s works that ensued.
Death at the Ball appears to reference Baudelaire’s poem Danse Macabre, wherein death appears as a beautiful woman who manages to dupe the young rakes of society into desiring her. Alternatively, men perhaps mistake a young woman for life and desire her as an escape hatch from the cycle of mortality, which is an inherently flawed notion given that a young woman is equally mortal as a gentleman. In any case, this ushers in the standard analysis that Death at the Ball is about the Femme Fatale archetype.
So much has been written about the Femme Fatale in both Rops and the broader Fin de Siecle culture of Europe that it would be pointless for me to rehash it here. The connection is so flagrant, the viewer who is acquainted with this archetype might feel the temptation to take exegesis of this image no further. That impulse would be premature.
The image in question is not literally an “illustration” of Baudelaire’s Danse Macabre– it features its own title and creates its own imagery. It would be short-sighted to rely too much on the text of Baudelaire’s poem for insight into this work of Rops. Nonetheless, a particular stanza from that poem might give the viewer some insight into the heart of the image. Coincidence or no, there appears a kinship of spirit (starting with line 35):
Who of these mortal hearts can grasp the joke?
The charms of horror only suit the strong!
In short, the joke is on us as much as it is on the unwitting suitor of death in both the poem and the image. What’s really at issue here is that mortality is itself a joke on its possessors that is so cruel by nature, only the strongest mortals can laugh in the face of it. The comedy of the skeletal Femme in Death at the Ball is suggested by the exaggeration of the gesture of the skeleton- apparently an intentional dance step- and the hapless condition of the dance partner, who is lyrically obscured in the image. This indicates that he is not the focus of the image, that he is perhaps somewhat anonymous and could be exchangeable for any other male partner, and that the two figures are less than intimate. They are not showing each other their true natures.
Much has also been made of Rops’ sense of humor. Images such as The Ecstasy of St. Theresa– where ecstasy is comically suggested to have a profane nature as she graphically pleasures herself- and L’Incantation– where a man of the cloth projects the image of a nude female only to gaze at her with desire- should indicate to us that Rops was persistently amused by the fallibility of man. His amusement at man’s failings extended to an amusement at death and mortality. He produced many more images of a similar theme to Death at the Ball which are more explicitly comical, as conveyed by the use of the instruments of caricature and exaggeration.
In light of the implied humor of this image, it would be unfair to the painter Rops to stop short and name this an image of pure, sincere, hand-wringing decadence and fear of femininity. There were certainly many artists (literary and visual) in the Fin de Siecle who were obviously guilty of this. Critics who does so with Death at the Ball may find themselves in the position of the skeleton’s unwitting counterpart in the scene here depicted- unable to recognize and enjoy a humor that presumed only those willing and able to confront the comedy of their own mortal condition could laugh along.