I just finished reading J.K. Huysmans’ A Rebours (“Against the Grain” or “Against Nature”). For all his faults, Des Essientes has excellent taste in art. Here are the specific works he supposedly hangs in his home, with Huysman’s breathless descriptions:
Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing Before Herod, 1876 (or thereabouts)
Des Esseintes saw realized at last the Salome, weird and superhuman, he had dreamed of. No longer was she merely the dancing girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old ice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs the flesh and steels her muscles, a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like Helen of Troy of the Classic fables, all who come near her, all who see her, all who touch her.
Gustave Moreau, The Apparition, 1874-76
Jan Luyken (1648 - 1712)
He possessed a whole series of studies by this artist in lugubrious fantasy and ferocious cruelty: his Religious Persecutions, a collection of appaling plates displaying all the tortures which religious fanaticism has invented, revealing all the agonizing varieties of human suffering – bodies roasted over braziers, heads scalped with swords, trepanned with nails, lacerated with saws, bowels taken out of the belly and wound onto bobbins, finger-nails slowly removed with pincers, eyes put out, eye lids pinned back, limbs dislocated and carefully broken, bones laid bare and scraped for hours with knives.
These pictures, full of abominable fancies, reeking of burnt flesh, echoing with screams and curses, made Des Esseintes’ flesh creep whenever he went into the red boudoir, and he remained rooted to the spot, choking with horror.
But over and above the shudders they provoked, over and above the frightening genius of the man and the extraordinary life he put into his figures, there were to be found in his astonishing crowd-scenes, in the hosts of people he sketched with a dexterity reminiscent of Callot but with a vigor that amazing scribbler never attained, remarkable reconstructions of other places and periods: buildings, costumes, and manners in the days of the Maccabees, in Rome during the persecution of the Christians, in Spain under the Inquisition, in France during the Middle Ages and during the time of the St. Bartholomew massacres and the Dragonnades, were all observed with meticulous care and depicted with wonderful skill.
Rodolphe Bresdin, The Comedy of Death, 1854
…in an improbable landscape bristling with trees, brushwood and thickets assuming the forms of demons and phantoms, and covered in birds with rat-like heads and vegetable tails, on a patch of land strewn with vertibrae, ribs and skulls, gnarled and splintered willow trees rise up, on which skeletons, arms in the air, wave bouquets of flowers and chant a song of victory, while Christ flees into a dappled sky and a hermit meditates at the back of a grotto, his head in his hands, and a miserable beggar lies dying, exhausted by privation, prostrated by hunger, stretched out on his back, his feet pointing towards a stagnant pool.
Rodolphe Bresdin, The Good Samaritan, 1861
(Incredible detail shots here.)
…a wild entanglement of palms, service-trees, oaks, growing all together in defiance of seasons and climates, an outburst of virgin forest, crammed with apes, owls and screech-owls, cumbered with old stumps shapeless as roots of coral,—a magic wood, pierced by a clearing dimly revealing far away, beyond a camel and the group of the Samaritan and the man who fell by the wayside, a river and behind it again a fairylike city climbing to the horizon line, rising to meet a strange-looking sky, dotted with birds, wooly with rolling clouds, swelling, as it were, with bales of vapour.
Odilon Redon, Melancholia, 1876
Odilon Redon, Crying Spider, 1881