In 1892, on the corner of the grand, tree-rimmed avenue of Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, a peculiar new art salon opened to considerable fanfare at the Galerie Durand-Ruel.
Paintings of damsels, sirens, and monstrous femmes fatales, as well as religious visionaries, mythical figures, and fantastical temples hung salon-style from the walls. Wafts of burning incense and the sound of the prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal, which was played on an organ throughout the opening night, filled the space.
The event’s master of ceremonies, the eccentric poet and novelist Joséphin Péladan, greeted the city’s cultural elite (including the French author Émile Zola) in a long robe and pointed beard and, one imagines, with a gravely serious air. A year earlier, in 1891, Péladan had initiated an offshoot of the Rosicrucian order—a religious brotherhood (symbolized by a rose on a cross) that combined elements of Christianity, Jewish mysticism, and occult practices with the belief that its practitioners were the recipients of ancient wisdom.