Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921) was probably the most important of the Belgian Symbolists. Brought up in the Medieval town of Bruges, a place that would appear in many of his works later in life, he was influenced when young by the literary works of Flaubert and Baudelaire. At first he studied law, but turned to painting under the influence of Xavier Mellery and showed his work at the Salon de la Rose + Croix. In 1879 he went to Paris where he discovered the work of Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and the Symbolist Gustave Moreau and other Symbolists.
The English Burne-Jones, with whom his work shares elements, and the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren were strong supporters of Khnopff’s work. He had very close ties with the Belgian Symbolist poets and adopted their themes of “silence, solitude, deserted towns.” He had a fanatical interest in precision: every effect and detail in his paintings is precisely and deliberately placed.
Dreams and the unconscious were central to Khnopff’s art; he frequently quoted these words of Paul Bourget: “Dreams are but lies,” says an old maxim; but when our last hour is at hand, and but a few brief minutes are left to what was “I,” pale lights that are fast growing dim, who can tell by what mark to distinguish you, O memories of the actual life, from you, O mirages from the dream life.”
This work takes its title from a poem by Christina Rossetti, “Who Shall Deliver Me” (a title Khnopff used himself for another work of the same year):
“I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?…
Myself, arch-traitor to myself;
My hollowest friend, my deadliest foe,
My clog whatever road I go”.
“His painting is a self-indulgent but nonetheless penetrating portrayal of neurosis. The expression on the young woman’s face suggests she is savouring a morbid state with all its familiar ambiguities and subterfuges…This female anima, obedient to the familiar Symbolist pattern, has withdrawn from the world and enclosed herself in her own solitude. The moral of this strange painting is that a world devoid of any generally acceptable meaning locks each individual into the intimacy of his own solitary experience. This experience becomes the sole foundation of a meaning that is private and largely inadequate, since such solipsistic make-believe naturally finds its refutation in the individual’s death.” (Michael Gibson, “The Symbolists”,1984)
An eternal favourite subject of the Symbolists, the Sphinx was portrayed both as a creature of supreme sexual attraction, and as a metaphor for revelation through sensual experience. Khnopff’s image of the sphinx with a woman’s head and leopard’s body, pressing its cheek against that of a pensive youth, may have been influenced by Oscar Wilde’s poem, “The Sphinx” which had been published in 1894:
“Half woman and half animal!
Come forth my lovely languorous sphinx! And put your head upon my knee!
And let me stroke your throat and see your body spotted like the lynx!
And let me touch those curving claws of yellow and ivory and grasp
The tail that like a monstrous asp coils round your heavy velvet paws!”