Khnopff’s sister and favorite model, Marguerite, may have posed for this painting in the family’s summer home in the Belgian countryside. Made when Khnopff was only in his mid-twenties, his inventive composition reconceives the tried-and-true subject of a woman reading in a domestic interior. As highlighted by the artist’s title, the blossoming hydrangea (hortensia in French) is unusually prominent, boldly upstaging the sitter; the close-up, cropped viewpoint enhances the snapshot-like effect, akin to the work of French contemporaries Degas and Caillebotte. Such scenes of modern everyday life are rare for Khnopff, who became renowned for his mystical, otherworldly imagery.
The Artist: 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, MMA 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; MMA 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.]
The painting support is a fine canvas that was prepared with a white ground. The architectural elements were underdrawn with a carbon-containing material, probably graphite, with the aid of a straightedge. No other underdrawing was detected with infrared reflectography, but the composition–which shows no changes–must have been carefully planned. In general, the technique depends on multiple layers of thinly scumbled paint, applied with brushes and a palette knife. The artist used red lake underpaint (probably madder, judging by its strong fluorescence in ultraviolet light) below the ocher-colored doors, the face of the woman, and the bright red flower on the table, imparting a warm undertone to these areas. In the white tablecloth some of the thicker passages of paint appear to bear the imprint of the artist’s hand, or possibly a fine-toothed comb. Khnopff’s interest in texture extends to the signature, which was inscribed into the (dry) paint of the tablecloth using a fine point, and then painted over again with white. Unusually, the canvas support was lined while the work was in process: a number of brushstrokes along the top, left and bottom edges continue onto the brown paper tape used by the liner to neaten and protect the turnover. The early lining may have been done for stability, or to mount a section of a composition cropped from a larger canvas. The very carefully considered format suggests the latter, but in either case, this early intervention contributed to the painting’s excellent state of preservation. [Charlotte Hale 2015]
Inscription: Signed and dated (incised into paint, lower left): FERNAND KHNOPFF 1884
the artist (until d. 1921; his studio sale, Galerie Georges Giroux, Brussels, November 27, 1922, no. 7, for 700 Belgian Fr.); sale, Galerie Nova, Brussels, December 6, 1979, no catalogue, to Tzwern; [Maurice Tzwern, Brussels, first as a dealer and then as a private individual, 1979–2003; sale, Christie's, London, June 19, 2003, no. 80, bought in; sold on November 24, 2003, to Kredietbank Luxembourg]; Kredietbank Luxembourg (2003–15; sold through Christie's to Hack, the Hearn Family Trust, and MMA)
Liverpool Art Club. "Oil Paintings, by Belgian Artists," May 18–November 15, 1886, no. 78 (as "Un Hortensia," for sale at £40).
Munich. Königlichen Glaspalaste. "Zweiten Münchener Jahres-Ausstellung," ca. July 15–October 20, 1890, no. 649 (as "Hortensia," for sale).
Brussels. Palais des Beaux-Arts. "Art Nouveau Belgique," December 19, 1980–February 15, 1981, no. 449 (as "Un hortensia," 1884, lent by a private collection, Antwerp).
Brussels. Tzwern-Aisinber Fine Arts. "Le Cercle des XX," May 10–June 24, 1989, no. 37 (as "Un Hortensia," 1884).
's-Hertogenbosch. Noordbrabants Museum. "A Feast of Colour: Post-Impressionists from private collections," September 15–November 25, 1990, no. 33 (as "Un Hortensia," 1884, lent by Galerie Tzwern-Aisinber, Brussels).
L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Association Campredon Art & Culture. "Des bords de l'Escaut aux rives de la Sorgue. 3ème exposition: Les Modernes du réalisme à l'expressionnisme 1880–1940," July 13–October 30, 1994, no. 31 (as "Un Hortensia," 1884, lent by M. Tzwern, Brussels).
Brussels. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. "Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921)," January 16–May 9, 2004, no. 15 (as "A Hortensia," 1884, lent by a private collection, Brussels).
Salzburg. Museum der Moderne, Rupertinum. "Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921)," June 15–August 29, 2004, no. 15.
Boston. McMullen Museum of Art. "Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921)," September 19–December 5, 2004, no. 15.
Vienna. BA-CA Kunstforum. "Der Kuss der Sphinx. Symbolismus in Belgien," October 16, 2007–February 3, 2008, no. 21 (as "Hortensie / Un hortensia," 1884, lent by a private collection).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "European Paintings: Recent Acquisitions 2015–16," December 12, 2016–March 26, 2017, no catalogue.
Jean Delville. "Notice sur Fernand Khnopff." Annuaire de l'Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique 91 (1925), p. 27, calls it "Hortensia," lists it with works painted between 1908 and 1914, and identifies the site as Fosset.
Kris Lenaerts inArt Nouveau Belgique. Exh. cat., Palais des Beaux-Arts. Brussels, 1980, p. 354, no. 449, ill., erroneously states that the canvas is unsigned.
Catherine De Croës and Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque inFernand Khnopff. 2nd revised and augmented ed. Brussels, 1987, pp. 225, 415, no. 63, ill., call it "Un hortensia," date it 1884, and locate it in a private collection.
Maurice Tzwern and Philippe Aisinber inLe Cercle des XX. Exh. cat., Tzwern-Aisinber Fine Arts. Brussels, 1989, pp. 206–7, no. 37, ill. p. 77 and on cover (color), state that the composition testifies to Khnopff's familiarity with Japanese prints and the paintings of Whistler; identify the sitter as possibly the artist's sister and favorite model, Marguerite; note the "reversal of traditional pictorial priorities" in the emphasis on the hydrangea over the figure.
Hans Kraan et al. A Feast of Colour: Post-Impressionists from private collections. Exh. cat., Noordbrabants Museum, 's-Hertogenbosch. Zwolle, 1990, pp. 110–11, no. 33, ill. (color), date the painting to 1884, but state in the entry that it was made in 1886; note that the subject matter was unusual for Khnopff; compare the composition to "a random snapshot"; liken the subject matter and handling to Whistler's, noting that his work was shown with Les XX in Brussels in 1884.
Els Desmedt inDes bords de l'Escaut aux rives de la Sorgue. 3ème exposition: Les Modernes du réalisme à l'expressionnisme 1880–1940. Exh. cat., Association Campredon Art & Culture, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. [L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue], , pp. 60, 123, no. 31, ill. pp. 56, 59 (color, overall and detail), suggests that the white tones symbolize the purity and spirituality of the young woman.
Michel Draguet. Khnopff, ou l'ambigu poétique. [Ghent], 1995, pp. 64–9, fig. 74 (color), calls it "Un Hortensia," dates it 1884, and locates it in the collection of Maurice Tzwern; suggests that the site is probably the Khnopff family's summer home in Fosset; states that the woman's features are too vague to permit identification; analyzes the composition and compares it to precedents in nineteenth-century French art; contextualizes the work within the growing popular and artistic appreciation for flowers during the period; with reference to floral symbolism, suggests that the scene may be interpreted as a statement of fidelity for an aloof lover; identifies the single blossom on the table as a rose.
Joséphine Le Foll. La peinture de fleurs. Paris, 1997, pp. 120–21, 123, fig. 67 (color), incorrectly states that it is painted on wood; locates it in the collection of Maurice Tzwern, Brussels; follows Draguet's interpretation of the scene in terms of flower symbolism; agrees with Draguet's identification of the blossom on the table as a rose.
Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque inFernand Khnopff (1858–1921). Exh. cat., Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Brussels, 2003, p. 80, no. 15, ill. (color), suggests that Khnopff almost certainly intended to keep this work for himself, as it was included in his studio sale; identifies the site as probably the family summer home in Fosset; proposes that the sitter may be either the artist's mother or his sister, Marguerite, and notes that the same woman appears in Khnopff's sketchbooks from Fosset; observes that the motif on the tablecloth recurs in Khnopff's work and in the frames he designed; compares the innovative composition to that of Khnopff's "Listening to Schumann" (1883, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels).
Michel Draguet. Fernand Khnopff: Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer. Los Angeles, 2004, pp. 74–5, associates the flowering plant in this work with the floral motif that Khnopff originally included in "Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer" (1885, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).
Anne Adriaens-Pannier. Spilliaert: le regard de l'âme. [Ghent], 2006, p. 221, fig. 322 (color), states that Khnopff introduced formal elements such as the pot of flowers and the decorative medallions on the tablecloth in order to reveal hidden meanings and play with multiple connotations; observes that his interest in flower symbolism is well known.
Michel Draguet inDer Kuss der Sphinx. Symbolismus in Belgien. Exh. cat., BA-CA Kunstforum, Vienna. Ostfildern, 2007, p. 272, no. 21, ill. p. 110 (color).
Michel Draguet. Le Symbolisme en Belgique. Exh. cat., Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. Brussels, 2010, pp. 51–52, ill. (color), interprets the organization of the composition and the use of color in symbolic terms, comparing the palette to that of Whistler; restates the interpretation of floral symbolism found in Draguet 1995; suggests that the painting is a metaphorical portrait or self-portrait that uses symbolism to transform and give depth to a realist subject.