La Médusa endormie
signed 'FERNAND KHNOPFF' (lower left, in the margin) and signed again with monogram (lower left)
pencil and pastel on paper
1158 x 518 in. (29.2 x 13 cm.)
Executed circa 1896.
Roland Wright, Brussels.
Anne-Marie Gillion-Crowet, Brussels.
The Picadilly Gallery, London, by 1970.
Wolf Uecker, Lausanne, by 1980.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 26 November 1980, lot 210.
with Barry Freidman, New York.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 27 June 1988, lot 712, where purchased by the present owner.
L. Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, Brussels, 1907, illustrated opposite p. 38.
E. Lucie-Smith, Symbolist Art, London, 1972, p.2, fig.1.
Brooklyn Museum, Belgian Art, 1880-1914, 23 April-29 June 1980, exhibition catalogue, p. 109, no. 35, illustrated.
J.W. Howe, The Symbolist Art of Fernand Khnopff, 1982, pp. 140, 148.
R.L. Delevoy, C. de Croes, G. Ollinger-Zinque, Fernand Khnopff, Catalogue de l’œuvre, Brussels, 1987, pp. 300, 447, no. 282, illustrated.
London, The Piccadilly Gallery, Drawings and Watercolours, December 1970-January 1971, no. 46.
Brighton, Art Gallery and Museum, Follies and Fantasies, 5 May-31 August 1971, no. 128.
London, The Piccadilly Gallery, Belgian Drawings since 1870, September-October 1971, no. 26.
Chicago, David and Alfred Smart Gallery, Fernand Khnopff and the Belgian Avant-Garde, 5 January - 26 February 1984, also New York, Barry Friedman Ltd, 12 March - 28 June 1984 , also Wilmington, Delaware Art Museum, 12 July - 26 August 1984, no. 17.
Vienna, Künstlerhaus, Zauber der Medusa, Europäische Manierism, April-July 1987, no. XII.22 (with incorrect measurements).
Special notice
Brought to you by

Lot Essay

The friendship of mutual admiration between the British Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and the Belgian anglophile symbolist Fernand Khnopff has been well documented. J.W. Howe suggests that Khnopff’s interest in the subject of Medusa was sparked by his following of Burne-Jones works, noting that Burne-Jones ‘had earlier executed a notable series of paintings in the Perseus cycle, including one entitled The Baleful Head (1886-87; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), which shows Perseus and Andromeda regarding the deadly head of Medusa in the reflection of a basin of water. Khnopff returned to the theme of Medusa in a bronze sculpture entitled La Tête de Méduse (circa 1900; D.C/O.-Z. 364) and the watercolour Sleeping Medusa (1896; D.C/O.-Z. 364)”. (J.W. Howe, The Symbolist Art of Fernand Khnopff, 1982, p. 140).

Both Khnopff’s sculpture La Tête de Méduse and lithograph La Sang de Meduse rely on familiar symbols to relay the story of Medusa – vicious snakes in particular feature dramatically in both works. However, the sculpture La Tête de Méduse added an unusual element to the mythical gorgon in the form of wings. These wings are reminiscent of the wing on Khnopff’s bust of Hypnos, a recreation of the antique statue in the British Museum. La Médusa endormie, shows the evolution of this merging of the personification of the winged Hypnos with the gorgon Medusa, resulting in the character becoming embodied in a bird-like sleeping form. Describing the composition, Andrea Domesle notes Khnopff's innovative approach to depicting one of the most famous characters of Greek myth. She describes the work as "a mystery in the guise of a painting… Khnopff has struck out in new directions away from the trodden iconographic paths and has hit upon a new formula for his Medusa: no serpents for hair, no female body but an aquiline body with a woman's head. The lonely creature has perched for the night on a rocky outcrop. Her eyes are closed and she is seen in profile, two favourite motifs of Khnopff's; here they emphasize the creature’s introspection and utter isolation. The Medusa bird is a painted statement about the predicament of the artist. Whatever bodes ill or is menacing or close to death or speaks of quietness is a source of inspiration for the Belgian artist." (A Domesle, "The Motif Repertoire of Symbolism" in Intermezzo: Gustav Klimt and Vienna around 1900, Salzburg, 2004, pp. 61-62).

Khnopff’s later pastel, La belle au bois dormant (1909, D.C/O.-Z. 466, no. 457), continued his exploration of this thematic content and grants a new perspective on the way in which he unites Hypnos and Medusa within his oeuvre. In the later pastel, the bust of Hypnos sits before a rocky landscape (reminiscent of the rocky support in the present lot). The cascading blue tones in Hypnos’ right wing create a flight-like energy which emanates from the inanimate stone statue. Meanwhile, an elongated bird sits motionless at rest atop the bust, mirroring the form of Medusa in La Médusa endormie.

Dreams and the unconscious were central to Fernand Khnopff's art. He often declared that "Sleep is the most perfect thing in life". In the present work, Khnopff reimagines the figure of Medusa during sleep. By the time that La Médusa endormie was executed, Khnopff was living in a house that had been created according to his own designs and desires. A zone of voluntary seclusion and contemplation, the house had several shrine-like areas: one was dedicated to his earliest Muse, his sister Marguerite; another featured a replica of a Hellenistic bust of Hypnos (the original is in the British Museum). Khnopff had been greatly inspired by this bust and its implications: sleep is the portal to dream and therefore to a world crucial to Symbolism. It is fitting that he displayed La Médusa endormie nearby. Khnopff had two studios, one for works in progress, and one for completed works. As Howe notes, a contemporary photograph of his studio of completed works shows how Khnopff liked to display the larger version of La Médusa endormie within his studio. (ibid., 148). The larger version of the present lot (D.C/O.-Z. 364, no. 276) which was displayed in his studio was later in the collection of the surrealist artist Felix Labisse (1905-1982).

The vast majority of Fernand Khnopff's work showcases his talent as a draughtsman and his small-scale works on paper are among his most celebrated works. The subtle nuances and gradations of tone on paper endow La Médusa endormie with a heavy and mysterious atmosphere, perfectly suited to the femme fatale he depicts.

We are grateful to Mrs Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque for confirming the authenticity of the present lot.

Related Articles

More from
The Isabel Goldsmith Collection: Selected Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist Art
Place your bid Condition report

A Christie's specialist may contact you to discuss this lot or to notify you if the condition changes prior to the sale.

I confirm that I have read this Important Notice regarding Condition Reports and agree to its terms. View Condition Report