L'Encens is closely related to the composition of the same title executed by Khnopff in 1898 (fig. 1). One of the peaks of the artist's decadent Symbolism, L'Encens is a complex pictorial allegory of the mystical vapour, subtly conveying its intrinsic elements: the pearly grey fluidity of the smoke, the sensuality of its heavy perfume, and its ritual destination.
The sophisticated use of grisaille, the nuanced play of almost imperceptible, yet varied tones of monochrome pastel capture the hieratic solemnity of this enigmatic priestess, officiating an even more mysterious rite. Her medieval-looking cape, made of sumptuously embroidered silk, covers her almost entirely, leaving her face bare - the only visible part of her body, expressing an extasis 'à la fois frémissante et contenue' ('at the same time quivering and controlled', R. Delevoy, C. de Croës and G. Ollinger-Zinque, op. cit., p. 141).
The woman holds, with hands covered in white gloves, a silver monstrance delivering the exhilarating incense. The 1898 work, a quintessential manifesto of Symbolism, took Vienna by storm at the Second Secession exhibition. In the role of the priestess was, once again, Marguerite, the artist's sister, the model for Khnoppf's most important compositions.
The cryptic, symbolically intense ceremonial context of L'Encens suggests the artist's connection with the activities of Brussels' esoteric circles (close to the liberal, haut-bourgeois milieu from which he came) of the Freemason organisations and, in particular, of the Ordre de la Rose-Croix du Temple et du Graal (see ibid., p. 143). One detail is revealing: the artist's insistence on the woman's white gloves. A fundamental item, charged of symbolic values of purity and virginity, of both the Catholic and the Freemason rite. Yet, her white gloves carry a fetishistic, clearly phallic object, which she displays with a secret erotic pleasure. Khnopff's Symbolism hardly gets more sexually charged.
Nineteen years later, in 1917, on the occasion of his niece's First Communion, the artist returned to the same theme in the present sheet. The level of completion and richness is alike. The attention to detail, to the shading of the passages of colour, is similarly painstaking. There is, though, a more suspended atmosphere. Marguerite's features are less readable in the priestess' traits; the woman becomes one of Khnopff's archetypal heroines, fair-eyed, distant, supremely elegant. The background is less defined: the vaults of the 1898 work are simplified in a more suggestive, glowing, luminous background, emphasising the more metaphorical quality of this later version.
The first edition of the catalogue raisonné dated the drawing to August 1917, on the basis of an inscription at the lower right of the sheet, under the dedication (which was not visible in the published image). The second, reviewed edition of the catalogue raisonné (op. cit.) maintains the date of August 1917. In the present sheet, though, it is not visible anymore under the dedication.