Saturday, April 18, 2009

My carnal life I will lay down

I’ve always been fascinated by the Shakers, and so was pleased to come across this etching of a female Shaker at the piano, leading the congregation in song – A Handful of Gospel Love, perhaps, or Walk Softly; Simple Gifts, or Come Life, Shaker Life. It could be any one of scores of haunting Shaker songs. It’s a softground etching (vernis mou, in French) with additional drypoint, and I think it a very powerful piece of work. The combination of the elongation of the woman’s body, the spidery agility of her fingers, and the transfixed intensity of her stare, combine to convey a sense of spiritual rapture and otherworldliness.

The artist has scratched the placename Buffalo and the date 88 in the plate with the drypoint needle. He has also etched in his own initials, F.R. And this is where this post takes a weird turn, because the author of this scene of joyful austerity is none other than Félicien Rops, the Belgian Symbolist known for his decadent and Satanic images of absinthe drinkers, prostitutes, and lost souls. I wasn’t even aware that Rops had visited the USA, never mind contrived to visit a Shaker community.


Félicien Rops
Une pianiste Shaker
Etching, 1888
ref: Exsteens 274 iii/iii

When published in its third and final state in the revue L’Artiste in 1893 (with the alternative title Diseuse de psaumes chez les Shakers), the etching was accompanied by a letter from Rops dataed 12 avril 1893 to “Mon cher Alboize” describing his experience. I won’t transcribe the whole letter, but here is the most relevant part:

Les dames qui aident les Shakers à reproduire leur sous-genre, passent leur dimanche à chanter des terribles psaumes, tristes à faire pleurer les oiseaux, et qui célèbrent les futurs voluptés et les petites folies d’outre-tombe. C’est moins gai que le Moulin-Rouge, mais à Philadelphie c’est déjà de la “festivité”.
Je suis arrive, avec l’astuce particulière des aquafortistes, à pénétrer dans un de ces salons piétistes, et j’en ai gardé une mélancolie que la lecture des articles du joyeux Brunetière n’a pu dissiper, depuis.
J’y ai croqué la Chanteuse de psaumes, car cela se chante, ou bien on les dit “mélopéiquement” comme à la Comédie-Française, et cela n’en est pas plus jolie. Voilà tout!

The rather wonderful word mélopéiquement means, I believe, in recitative.

13 comments:

Jane said...

What a mystery. I wonder if Rops got his cities mixed up? Buffalo is at the west end of the Erie Canal and it is at the eastern end, in the Capitol District, that there was a large Shaker community in places like Niskayuna, Colonie, and Watervliet, not to mention further east, in western Massachusetts.

Amanda said...

Oh goodness, leave it to Rops to make a Shaker look a tad diabolical and not a little alluring (which I guess would be my interpretation of "spiritual rapture and otherworldliness" in this case!). As always, a wonderful post. I had no idea Rops was etching Shakers in the US either.

Neil said...

Jane - That's very interesting. I looked in various books I have for a Shaker community in Buffalo and didn't find anything - which just makes me wonder if there was some kind of public performance of Shaker songs going on in the 1880s, maybe by ex-Shakers. Because I find it hard to imagine Shakers welcoming Rops into their worship. So this is a bit of a poser.

Neil said...

Yes, Amanda, she does look a bit "possessed", doesn't she. But, in a way, for Rops a Shaker service and a witches' Sabbat would have been virtually identical.

Neil said...

Thinking about getting cities mixed-up, I haven't seen either of the two earlier states of this etching, and I wonder if they have the Buffalo inscription. Because if it was done several years later, it's perfectly likely he just got it wrong.

Jane said...

Neil, my mother lived in Buffalo for three years, a city that is quite art-proud, so to speak. I don't recall any mention of the Shakers at the Buffalo-Erie County Historical Society (which doesn't mean it wasn't there, of course). By the way, the building was designed for the 1901 International Exposition, the one that is remembered for President McKinley's assassination, sadly.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Rops among the Shakers: what a surprise. You could knock me down with a feather - or a broom anyway. I agree with Amanda about the appearance of the woman but however you see it, it's a strong image. Thanks once more for your continuing revelations.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit of a neophyte at this, but many years ago I grew up in Old Chatham, NY, home of the Shaker Museum (also not far from the incredible circular stone barn, which was part of the old Hancock Shaker Village on the way into Pittsfield, Massachusetts). I think Rops was exaggerating, and perhaps extrapolating (for his own kind of artistic drama). No self respecting Shaker woman would ever be seen without her hair covered by a simple white bonnet, or linen cap, and I think it unlikely that there would be a public performance away from the colony (of course it doesn't mean it didn't happen), because simplicity, humility, and modesty were the rule.
By-the-way, I'm not entirely anon. my great grandfather was the one from Drobak, Norway ... 1851-1935.

Neil said...

I think you're right, Ingrid. The woman depicted simply doesn't seem as modest and decorous as you would expect. Even if this was some kind of performance staged by Shaker breakaways you would expect them to adopt standard Shaker dress. So this print is a real mystery. Rops obviously thought he was witnessing a genuine Shaker service...

Anonymous said...

Neil, I don’t know if I am wearing this out (you appear interested), however; that Rops, with a touch of Aubrey Beardsley and Toulouse-Lautrec, was so taken by what he saw as Shaker mysticism is odd. No community considered themselves more sensible, and practical than the Shakers. And indeed they were. They were inventers, and efficiency experts, giving us today a long list of useful tricks, and simple machines, which we use, and don’t even know the origin of. Living the simple life in the extreme, but not weirdly, nor otherworldly, the Shakers seem to me the epitome of 19th C. American Yankee ‘can do’ (part of de Tocqueville’s American experiment?). Their problem was celibacy. You can’t enlarge, or continue a functioning community practicing it.

The Shakers I met in 1952, all three of the gentle old ladies, at the West Lebanon (now rebuilt as Hancock, Massachusetts Shaker Village Museum) community, were busy baking pies, and making jelly and jam when I (age twelve) was introduced. They wore simple grey-blue frocks, a bit above the ankles, white aprons, and a soft linen cap with their hair tucked away. They were about as un-mystical as any trio of busy old ladies could be. Their community was dying as they continued to try to support themselves on what they cooked. I still remember the circular stone barn with holes in the roof, and piles of old hay covering the missing planks in the floor. I was warned not to walk on it. Some time after, they moved to the Sabbath Day Lake community, in New Hampshire.


I wonder what the Shakers would have thought of Felicien Rops’ interpretation of Shakerisum. Enough. But fun. Thanks for your endurance, Ingrid.

Neil said...

How lovely to share your memories, Ingrid. I'm sure you're right that Rops didn't have a clue about the essence of the Shakers. But I also think that the element of spiritual elevation in Shaker worship - the bit that made them "shake" - was probably much more prevailing in the early years than by 1952, when the remaining Shakers must have realised that the Shaker movement was fading out. In England the Muggletonians (really, another more mystically-charged variation on Quakerism) were at a very similar stage.

[Tara] said...

Incredible image, with the usual, eerie "empty eyes" so characteristic of rop's women...I have never seen this one and appreciate you sharing!

Neil said...

Hi Tara, sorry to take so long to reply! Yes, those empty eyes are spooky, aren't they. I saw someone with eyes just like them in Gatwick Airport last week. But it may just have been jetlag...