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Huysmans, Joris-Karl (1848-1907)  

J. K. Huysmans, an important figure in the Aesthetic and Decadent movements, exemplified a style of homosexuality at a pivotal moment in the emergence of a gay identity.

He was born Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans on February 5, 1848, in Paris, the only child of a French mother and Dutch father. He earned his degree under a private tutor, studied law at the University of Paris, and worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of the Interior, where he remained for thirty-two years.

A cosmopolitan man of refined taste and sensibility, Huysmans admired the descriptive writing of Charles Dickens, but practiced a poetic novel, a form known in France as the prose poem. This genre, which typically emphasized sensation and an elaborate or exotic setting, was perfectly suited to his elegant style and rich vocabulary.

Huysmans was a prolific writer of novels, art criticism, essays, short stories, and prose poems. His most renowned work, Against the Grain or Against Nature (À rebours, 1884), celebrated the decadent movement in European art and literature, later to be embraced by Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and others. In this novel, the protagonist, Duke Jean Floresas des Esseintes, embodies the aestheticism found in Wilde.

A wealthy aesthete living a life of pleasure in his country house, Des Esseintes is characterized by his addiction to exquisite sensations, exoticism, flowers, decoration, perfume, and art. Against the Grain ranks with Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray and Moore's Confessions of a Young Man as important examples of the decadent movement.

Huysmans's other significant novel is Down There (Là-bas, 1891), which describes the world of the occult of the 1880s, a world of Satanism, demonology, magic rites, and black masses, both imagined and actual in Paris and Lyon of the day, a subject matter also appearing in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and others. Another novel, Marthe (1876), explores the world of prostitution.

Since Huysmans was one of the first to describe or record the major impressionist painters, his Art Criticism (L'Art Moderne, 1883), particularly the section on "The Impressionist Salons of 1880, 1881, 1882," is valuable because it provides insights on such luminaries as Whistler, Degas, and Renoir. The artistic creed of impressionism, which stresses the importance of capturing the moment, is somewhat analogous to the emphasis on sensation in Huysmans's novels.

Huysmans maintained a correspondence with numerous writers of his day, including the homosexual symbolist poet Jean Lorrain and the novelist André Gide. Huysmans met Paul Verlaine in the summer of 1884, and in 1904, he edited and prefaced Verlaine's Religious Poetry.

Although Wilde was a more notorious figure than Huysmans, Huysmans influenced several of Wilde's artistic principles, especially those associated with "art for art's sake," "Art Nouveau," "decadence," and "impressionism."

Huysmans exemplified a style of homosexuality at a pivotal moment in the emergence of a gay identity. He was an inveterate collector of antiques and an art reviewer who praised the fine arts. He surrounded himself with male companions, the artistic and poetic circle of his day; and in his novels, he depicted an ornate, sumptuous world of beauty and sensation.

His fictitious characters resemble certain members of French society, a class of rich, aristocratic, decadent aesthetes, whom Wilde and Proust also later cultivated as central characters in their novels.

Clarence McClanahan


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   Related Entries
literature >> Overview:  Aestheticism

A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

literature >> Overview:  Decadence

Nineteenth-century Decadent literature either describes aspects of decadent life and society or reflects the decadent literary aesthetic.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Nineteenth Century

Several artists and art critics of the nineteenth century achieved a self-aware homosexual identity that is expressed in both their lives and their works, but lesbianism is only rarely depicted in terms of identity during this period.

literature >> Overview:  French Literature: Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth century gay and lesbian sexuality becomes a significant subject in French literature.

literature >> Overview:  Poetry: Gay Male

The gay tradition in literature from ancient times to the present is primarily a tradition not of prose but of verse.

literature >> Baudelaire, Charles

Baudelaire was among the first French poets to include lesbians as subjects.

arts >> Beardsley, Aubrey

English decadent and Symbolist artist Aubrey Beardsley made a lasting contribution to the art of illustration; a satirist with a gift for caricature and grotesquerie, Beardsley attacked Victorian sexual values.

literature >> Gide, André

André Gide, one of the premier French writers of the twentieth century, reflected his homosexuality in many of his numerous works.

literature >> Lorrain, Jean (Paul Duval)

Almost as renowned for his homosexuality and depravity as for his literary achievements, Jean Lorrain was a French poet, novelist, and journalist of the "decadent movement" during the Belle Époque.

literature >> Montesquiou-Fezensac, Count Robert de

Count Robert de Montesquiou was a writer during France's Belle Epoque, but he is best remembered as a dandy and an aesthete, who inspired the literary creations of others.

literature >> Proust, Marcel

Marcel Proust is the author of A la recherche du temps perdu, one of the major achievements of Modernism and a great gay novel.

literature >> Rimbaud, Arthur

Because his writing stresses liberation, the French "boy-poet" Arthur Rimbaud, whose art is based solely on his individual creativity, is a progenitor of modern gay poetics.

literature >> Verlaine, Paul

The poetry of Paul Verlaine celebrates both heterosexual and homosexual activity, including lesbian relationships.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Baldick, Robert. The Life of J.K. Huysmans. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955.

Banks, Brian R. The Image of Huysmans. New York: AMS Press, 1990.

Brombert, Victor. The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Cevasco, George A. J.K. Huysmans in England and America: A Bibliography. Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1962.

Garber, Frederick. The Anatomy of the Self from Richardson to Huysmans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Kahn, Annette. J.K. Huysmans: Novelist, Poet, and Art Critic. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.

Laver, James. The First Decadent: Being the Strange Life of J.K. Huysmans. London: Faber & Faber, 1954.

Ridge, George Ross. Joris-Karl Huysmans. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968.


    Citation Information
    Author: McClanahan, Clarence  
    Entry Title: Huysmans, Joris-Karl  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 24, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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