An Unconventional Art Critic of La Belle Epoque

Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville, “The Dispatch-Bearer” (1880), oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 84 inches (image via

Having declared himself sick of “the incessant deluge of human stupidity,” Jean Des Esseintes, the protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Against Nature (À Rebours, 1894), enters into an extravagant self-quarantine in a house outside Paris. There, he engineers sense experiences more affecting than anything he’s known in society. He remakes one room to look and smell like a ship’s hull; he tragically encrusts a pet tortoise with gemstones; he hybridizes exotic plants with colors so original they resemble artificial flowers. His homemade perfumes and cocktails are so invigorating they activate multiple senses at once, simulating poetry and music.

Against Nature riveted an up-and-coming generation of European writers and artists, further liberating them from realism by showing it to be as artificial as any other artistic approach. The novel distilled ideas Huysmans had been developing in extensive writing about contemporary art; this writing formed the basis for the exhibition Joris-Karl Huysmans Art Critic. From Degas to Grünewald, in the Eye of Francesco Vezzoli at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which wrapped up this past March.

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