At the retrospective of Fernand Khnopff's work at the McMullen Museum in 2004, his early painting After Gustave Flaubert. The Temptation of St. Anthony (1883) was displayed next to Salome Dancing by Gustave Moreau. Moreau (1821-1898), a French Symbolist whose pronouncements on art sound familiar to admirers of Khnopff, said "I am dominated by one thing, an irresistible, burning attraction towards the abstract." Truer in Khnopff's case than in Moreau's. Khnopff made no secret of his admiration for Moreau, and the obvious influence it had on him before he discovered the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Edward Burne-Jones, who became his friend.
Imitation, being the sincerest form of flattery, comparing Villa Khnopff with the Musee Moreau in Paris is enlightening. In Moreau's case, he tore down the place where he had lived and worked for years in order to build the perfect showcase. Khnopff's project was much the same, except that he chose his site near the beautiful rose gardens of the Bois de Cambre in Brussels and then built.
The area of the Faubourg-Montmartre remained determinedly seedy throughout Moreau’s lifetime. In a manner familiar to Americans from the fight over the Alfred Barnes Collection, Moreau, who willed his house and its contents to the French state, made his gift conditional on its maintenance as is. With museums, in perpetuity seems to mean a century more or less.
The similarities between the two artists are many and obvious. Khnopff also came from a well-to-do family. He had regular, appreciative patrons. Like Moreau, he refused to offer the key to his symbolic language, although he was the more diplomatic, talking genially but revealing little. Moreau, on the other hand, was known to simply refuse to answer his collectors’ questions about what it all meant. Moreau, too, was asked to draw a self-portrait that was to hang in the Vasari Corridor of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, an honor accorded to a select company of the world’s greatest painters. But, unlike Khnopff, whose sister Marguerite donated his auto-portrait to the Uffizi, Moreau never delivered his. Apparently he considered himself undeserving of such an honor.
Moreau completed his museum in 1896, two years before he died and it is quite likely that Khnopff would have known of it and may have visited it on one of his Parisian trips. The first indication that Khnopff had something similar in his mind was a letter in autumn of 1899 to an English friend, John Parker-Compton. Khnopff didn't draw a comparison but that wouldn't have been his style.
I am left with the disquieting thought that Fernand Khnopff may have intended Villa Khnopff to become a museum for his work. He had the means and it may explain why he stayed there during the German occupation when so many Belgian artists fled to England that his countryman Jean Delville became the head of the League of Belgian Artists in London. What if Khnopff's feuding heirs thwarted his intentions by allowing the destruction of Villa Khnopff?
1. Fernand Khnopff - After Gustave Flaubert.The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1883, private collection.
2. Gustave Moreau - Interior of Saint Mark's Basilica. Venice, undated, Musee Gustave Moreau, Paris.
3. Fernand Khnopff - Requiem, 1907, Hearn Family Trust, New York.