In Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus, the concepts of the “artist” and of “art” are intertwined with those of “man” and “woman,” and serve to help Rachilde characterize the power relationship that exists between the genders. In Monsieur Vénus, artists are seen to hold three types of power over their art: they create it and are able to shape it and mold it into their ideal, they own and possess it, and they are able to destroy it. Raoule’s desire to obtain these three sources of power over Jacques, which are also portrayed as typical of a man’s relationship with a woman, forms the backbone of the novel. The question of whether she is successful or unsuccessful is the final mystery of the novel.
In the opening scene, the reversal of the traditional roles of artist and art are made clear when Raoule comments that painting for Jacques is “a strange profession…because you really ought to be a stone breaker, it would be more natural” (16). She later comments that “I can sketch a presentable nude in the time it takes you to throw together a peony” (36). Raoule’s skill at painting and fencing are portrayed as markers of her masculinity–while Jacques’s lack of talent in both reveals his femininity. That art, masculinity and privilege are intertwined is shown through the character of Martin Durand, who Jacques notices ” was happy, he earned his living by fighting with stone….Nobility, love, money, everything would flow his way, at a sign from him, because he was a man” (146). Power is derived from being the creator rather than the created. But when Raoule comments that it would be more “natural” for Jacques to be the subject rather than the artist, she is asking us to question whether such stereotypes of gender differences are inherent or imposed by society, and whether they can be bent and overcome or whether they are fundamentally tied to one’s sex and physique.
Though she claims to be a skilled painter, Raoule’s art in the novel does not consist of sketching presentable nudes. Rather, it is manifested in the “creation” of a feminine Jacques, through the shaping and conquering of his body and mind. The process of this transformation is portrayed as meticulous and careful on Raoule’s part: with Jacques reading “all kinds of books, science or literature pell-mell, whatever Raoule furnished him to keep his primitive mind under her spell” (93) and eventually “catching himself being a woman for the pleasure of art” (94). Here we are reminded of Dorian Gray, whose transformation into a piece of art took much the same path, and the “yellow book.” The S&M undertones can be attributed to the decadent desire for intense feeling, whether it be ecstasy or pain, and the use of objects to create that feeling.
Though Raoule clearly tries to treat Jacques as an “object” in this way, as “her thing, a sort of lifeless object who let himself be loved, because his own love was powerless” (93), it is questionable whether or not she ever truly owns him in the way that man can own woman in Rachilde’s eyes. In Chapter 7, Rachilde writes that, “man possesses, woman submits” (90) and in Chapter 9, that “in love all women are linked by the same chain…The honest wife, when she gives herself to her legal husband, is in the same position as the prostitute when she gives herself to her lover” (107). And by the end of the novel, Raoule has remained faithful to Jacques while he was unfaithful to her. She is unable to possess Jacques after he realizes that Raoule can never “be a man.”
The novel concludes with the death of Jacques, and the creation of a wax figure in his place. Destruction is ultimately the only way for Raoule to truly possess Jacques. The ending seems somewhat triumphant for Raoule, but it also seems that in death, Jacques has escaped her, leaving her only with his external features and memory. It thus ultimately seems to me that despite seeming to argue for the fluidity of gender boundaries, that in its ending Monsieur Vénus supports the idea that there are some differences between men and women, like those between artist and art, that cannot be crossed.