Master of Symbolism: The Belgian Artist Fernand Khnopff in 8 Works

Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff is considered a master of Symbolism in Europe. He painted imaginary worlds filled with androgynous figures and symbols. Read along to know more about Khnopff's mysteries.

Nov 8, 2020By Marie-Madeleine Renauld, MA & BA Art History and Archaeology
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Des Caresses by Fernand Khnopff, 1896, in Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, via Google Arts & Culture


At a time of prosperity for 19th-century Belgium and artistic emulation, Fernand Khnopff chose to follow his own creative path. The Belgian artist had no interest in illustrating the modern world. Instead, he focused on symbolic representations of his favorite themes: absence, impossible love, and withdrawal. Khnopff worked using different mediums such as paint, pastel, and pencil color. But he was a sculptor as well. He built his art as enigmas, leaving clues and symbols so the spectator could try to interpret his worlds. Khnopff took his inspiration from Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. Yet he also left an enduring influence on renowned artists such as Gustav Klimt and René Magritte.


Fernand Khnopff’s Youth In A “Dead City”

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Frontispiece of Bruges-La-Morte (novel by Georges Rodenbach) by Fernand Khnopff, 1892, via Creature and Creator


Born in Grembergen castle in 1858, in the Belgian East Flanders province, Fernand Khnopff was raised in the famous city of Bruges. His family moved to the city in 1859, only one year after his birth. Edmond Khnopff, Fernand’s father, was appointed as a Royal Prosecutor. The family lived in the city for five years before moving again, this time to Brussels, Belgium’s capital city. Fernand suffered from this relocation. He experienced it as being snatched from his hometown. The absence would always be an essential theme of his work.


Bruges had a strong influence on the painter’s work. Khnopff illustrated Bruges-la-Morte‘s cover page (The Dead [city of] Bruges), a short novel by Georges Rodenbach. This 1892 novel stands as a symbolist masterpiece. The city of Bruges plays a leading role in this story. Once a flourishing harbor city, one of the largest in Medieval Europe, and an economic leader, Bruges declined from the 16th century onward.  In fact, the city lost its role when its direct access to the sea, the Zwin, slowly silted up, blocking the boats and merchandise away from the city. At the end of the 19th century, it became an ideal subject for symbolist artists: the abandoned city. Today, a hotspot of Belgian tourism, counting millions of visitors each year, 19th century Bruges was instead a real “dead” city. 


Khnopff and Rodenbach shared several similarities in the ways they used to express themselves. Both spent their childhood in Bruges and were friends. Rodenbach had a rather pessimistic vision of the world, while Khnopff depicts melancholic sceneries. The illustration of Fernand Khnopff dialog perfectly with the text of Georges Rodenbach.


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An Abandoned City by Fernand Khnopff, 1904, via Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

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Between 1902 and 1904, Khnopff made a series of Bruges representations using pastel colors and pencils. We can see the city on a foggy day. The sea withdrew, and even Memling’s statue left its pedestal. These nostalgic illustrations represent the idealized past of his childhood city. Fernand promised himself not to ever set foot again in the town. His childhood souvenirs were strongly recorded in his memory. Yet, Khnopff went to Bruges for the 1902 exposition about Memling, one of the Flemish Primitives he admired. He wore tinted glasses and stayed hidden in his carriage so he would not have to look at the beloved but falling city.


The Quest For Impossible Love And Idealized Femininity

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Hortensia by Fernand Khnopff, 1884, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


An essential feature in Fernand Khnopff’s work is the idealized feminine figure. Tall stern-looking women with pale and cold eyes populate his paintings and drawings.


In the 1884 Hortensia (Hydrangea) painting, we can see a bouquet of fading flowers at the forefront while a woman is reading in another room. Flowers always played a powerful symbolic role throughout history.  In 1819, French writer Louise Cortambert, also known as Charlotte De Latour, wrote Le Langage des Fleur (The Language of Flowers). She describes the symbolic meaning of each flower. Symbolist artists like Khnopff abundantly used flowers to deliver a message. Khnopff chose hydrangeas for their cold beauty, as defined by Charlotte De Latour.  Faded Hydrangeas symbolize the unattainable woman and impossible love.  A red flower bud stands on the table, next to the vase. Fernand’s family name, “Khnopff,” translated in German, means knob, which in French can also mean bud. Generally speaking, in Khnopff’s art, women appear as distant and indifferent androgynous figures. 


As a true introvert, the painter rarely socialized with women. He married a widowed lady with two children at the age of 51. They separated three years later. Instead, the real important women in Khnopffs’ life were his mother and his sister.


Marguerite: Khnopff’s Beloved Sister And Muse

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Portrait of Marguerite by Fernand Khnopff, 1887, via Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels


Fernand Khnopff painted the portrait of a famous French opera singer Rose Caron. She worked at La Monnaie, Brussels’ opera house. However, as she discovered her image at the exhibit of Belgian avant-garde group Les XX, which Khnoppf was a member of, she was horrified to see her head on a nude body. The offended painter destroyed his canvas.


After that event, Khnopff worked with the collaboration of his beloved sister Marguerite. He almost exclusively used her as a model to depict the ideal woman. Khnopff transformed the shapes of his figures so they would look like Greek gods‘ angular faces. After getting married in 1890, Marguerite moved away – Fernand felt an additional abandonment experience. 


In 1887, Khnopff painted the “Portrait of Marguerite Khnopff.” Fernand always cherished this full-length portrait of his sister, illustrating their obsessive relationship. Marguerite stands in front of a closed door, looking in another direction. She represents the ideal woman yet out of reach.


Photography As A Creative Support

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Memories (Du Lawn Tennis) by Fernand Khnopff, 1889, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels


Fernand Khnopff did not paint from nature and loathed painting with models, so he used photography as a help. As other artists did, he took himself several photographs. 


In 1919, Khnopff said: “the photographer’s intervention is limited to immobilizing his models in living painting’s attitudes; and while printing the photograph, to disturbing lights and shadows, to blurring their relationship, to destroying the shapes and to overloading the effect. However, even the most talented photographer will not be able to dominate his model’s shape and light.”


With this citation, he refers to the pictorialism movement dominating the end of the 19th-century and the beginning of 20th-century photography. This artistic movement believes photography should mimic paintings or engravings. Only human intervention can confer an artistic value to photography. Pictorialism artists oppose themselves to documentary photography, for which the photographer tries to give a neutral reflection of reality. There are certain similarities between photography and Khnopff’s style. He worked slowly but with a very meticulous and steady hand. His paintings and drawings are filled with tiny details, such as the perfect representation of skin texture. He blurred the figures’ lines just like pictorialist photographers did. The fading figures and landscapes stand for the impression of loss and absence.


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Preparatory photographs of Marguerite for Memories by Fernand Khnopff, 1889, via Mieux vaut art que jamais


Khnopff did not consider photography as an art. Instead, he used it to prepare his illustrations. He even took pictures of his paintings and colored them with pastels or pencils. He reproduced the paintings’ colors or completely changed tonality. In a way, his work became accessible to everyone and not only to the rich. Thanks to his photographs, some of his art pieces that disappeared were not completely lost.


In the 1889 Memories pastel, seven women play tennis in melancholic autumnal background. On closer look, we can see that these women all look alike and do not interact with each other, representing withdrawal. They are all portraits of his sister. Khnopff based his work on a series of photographs he took from Marguerite taking different poses.


Hypnos: A Recurring Figure In The Belgian Artist’s Work

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I Lock My Door Upon Myself by Fernand Khnopff, 1891, Alte Pinakothek Munich


Symbolist artists used dreams to reach a world beyond appearances. They were on the search to discover what laid behind the visible world. Fernand Khnopff abundantly used the representation of Hypnos, the Greek god of Sleep, to illustrate this other reality.


Khnopff came across the divinity for the first time in 1890, during his first trip to London. He had a real interest in British artists such as Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Khnopff visited the British Museum, where he saw an antique bronze head from a statue of Hypnos.  With a missing wing on one side, Fernand found it fascinating. In 1891, he represented Hypnos and his missing wing for the first time in the “I Lock My Door Upon Myself” painting.


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Bronze head from a statue of Hypnos, 350 BC – 200 BC, via the British Museum, London


He based this work on a poem by the English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti. A woman is looking at us with her pale eyes, without really seeing us. A bust of Hypnos stands above her, next to a poppy flower, a symbol of sleep and escape. Three lilies in the front stand for three lifecycle stages. The painting illustrates withdrawal, dreams, and death. Khnopff made its counterpart, “Who shall deliver me?” a colored pencil on paper.


The “Temple Of The Self:” Fernand Khnopff’s House And Studio

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Blue Wing by Fernand Khnopff, 1894, via Artchive; Head of Hypnos by Fernand Khnopff, ca. 1900, via Artcurial


From the 1900s onward, and with the Vienna Secession artists’ help, Fernand Khnopff’s fame grew massively in Europe. He decided to build a house to be his studio and an altar for his art’s glory. Since the mid of the 19th century, artists’ homes or studios were considered an integral part of their artistic world. For most artists, their houses were an extension of their work, giving keys to capture it in full. This was also the case with James Ensor‘s house in Ostend. Khnopff met James Ensor in 1876 when he joined the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. 


Khnopff built his house in Brussels in 1900; it was destroyed probably between 1938 and 1940. Only handwritten descriptions and photographs remain of his home and studio. We know that he lived in a stark and secluded place. The Brussels journal Le Petit Bleu du Matin published the comment of a visitor: “What is it, wonder passersby. A church? Or the temple of a strange and distant religion? A dilettante’s museum?”


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Portrait of Fernand Khnopff in “La Belgique d’Ajourd’hui”, ca. 1900


Khnopff was indeed looking for isolation. However, he wanted exposition too. He limited the number of visitors, but he gladly offered photographs of his house for publications or the press. The house contributed to the carefully built self-image of the artist. Khnopff conceived his home with Belgian Art Nouveau architect Edouard Pelseneer. The Belgian artist took inspiration from other artists’ homes, which he visited in Britain: Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema, and Ford Madox Brown. He presented his existence completely devoted to art.


The house was poorly furnished and decorated. Visitors could still admire a few selected items, such as a bust of Hypnos, and his work carefully exposed. Khnopff placed a cast of Hypnos above a glass cabinet, making an altar dedicated to the Sleep god. The “Blue Wing” painting, featuring once more Hypnos, hanged in of the rooms.


His Temple du Moi (Temple of The Self), as others named his house, was the perfect illustration of total art. Khnopff featured all his work as an initiation ritual. Still today, only attentive visitors will spot the Belgian artist’s clues and symbols and try to solve some of the enigmas. Fernand Khnopff, the Master of Symbolism, left a durable footprint on modern artists such as Vienna Secession painter Gustav Klimt and surrealist artist René Magritte.


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By Marie-Madeleine RenauldMA & BA Art History and ArchaeologyMarie-Madeleine is a contributing writer and antique furniture restorer. She holds an MA and BA in Art History and Archaeology from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium. She also followed training in antique furniture restoration. In her free time, she enjoys creative activities, and hiking through the Swiss mountains where she now lives.