Summary of Paul Delvaux
Paul Delvaux's career developed in the shadow of Nazi Germany. It should not come as a surprise then, that his work is known for a distinct sense of anxiety and unease. Surprisingly, that anxiety is not expressed in overtly political subjects. Delvaux was instead interested in exploring humanity and the hidden recesses of the subconscious. He began his artistic training studying architecture in 1916, but soon shifted his focus to painting. While he initially found inspiration in European Expressionism, his mature style was inspired by an altogether different source: The Surrealists. Although he was not an official member of the Surrealists, he shared the group's interest in plumbing the depths of the mind. Like his contemporaries Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte, Delvaux used bizarre subject matter rather than abstraction as a means of expressiveness. In so doing, he created uncomfortable scenes that were designed to emotionally shock the viewer.
- The architectural settings of Delvaux's paintings were much more than background; in fact, they were some of his most engaging subjects. This is not surprising given that his earliest artistic training was in architecture. The Classical buildings, city squares, and train stations that staged his mysterious scenes were essential to achieving his distinct moods.
- Nude women are a hallmark of Delvaux's work. They exist somewhere between the realm of statuary and of sex objects, and their very ambiguity is one of the most arresting and confounding features of Delvaux's paintings.
- Delvaux's paintings depict bizarre scenes that bring together elements that don't make sense. His highly naturalistic painting technique compounds the uneasy feeling of his scenes. That such peculiar things are depicted within such believable spaces - without any abstraction of forms and with a bright light that leaves nothing in murky shadow - is disquieting.
Important Art by Paul Delvaux
The Awakening of the Forest
The Awakening of the Forest was inspired by Delvaux's childhood fascination with Jules Verne. Here, he depicts his interpretation of a scene from Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the protagonists stumble upon an untouched, primeval forest. A full silvery moon illuminates a forest where primal nude figures frolic, recline, climb trees, and play instruments. They seem at one with the forest, embracing the trees with leaves in their hair. Clothed figures, the protagonists from the book, intrude on the naked revelers. At the left foreground, Professor Lidenbrock from the novel, wearing evening dress and a red bow tie, examines a stone. The man standing directly behind the professor is a self-portrait of Delvaux as the character Axel from the book. At the far right of the composition, a woman in a red dress walks alone with her back to the viewer. The rich reds of these figures' clothing contrast with the dark green of the forest and the creamy hues of the nudes' skin. The viewer's eye is drawn to the full moon at the center of the painting, which casts an unearthly glow over the scene.
There is no communication between any of the figures. The scientists, forest people, and mysterious clothed woman are all oblivious to one another. All of the elements that make this image bizarre, even disturbing, are hallmarks of Delvaux's work: the mixing of opposing elements, the ethereal light, the distinct perspectival space, the interest in nudes, and, perhaps most importantly, the still eerie mood. This painting seems largely indebted to Édouard Riou, whose illustrations of moonlit underground forests were tremendously influential on Delvaux in his formative years.
Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
Le Rue de Tramway
In this discomfiting painting, enigmatic nude women in various architectural spaces compete with the eerie lighting and mysterious subject matter for our attention. As was typical of Delvaux's works, there are many incongruous elements vying for our attention here, creating a feeling of anxiety. A tram, which seems to be heading straight toward the viewer, moves through the center of the composition; behind a wall in the distance there are industrial-looking buildings; and flanking the tram tracks are seemingly ordinary buildings. As ordinary as each of these features may be on their own, their convergence gives the painting a dreamlike quality. The harsh light that falls across one side of the painting contributes to the mysterious tone. While it thrusts the foremost figures into the spotlight, the other nudes across the street are cast into murky shadows. Furthermore, the nude women in the buildings are not ordinary domestic figures. The calm anticipation of the nudes, who are posed in doorways, might suggest that these women are prostitutes awaiting their clients. They also allude to classical sculpture, but their fleshy coloring suggests reality - real women in a real house. The association of the women with prostitutes is also founded in the real world, since there were red light districts near the train stations of Brussels. Thus, the citizens of Brussels may already have had an association between nude women and trains. Sigmund Freud, whose work was seminal for the Surrealists, had suggested that trains were a sexual symbol, but Delvaux said that he found such Freudian theories unimportant. For Delvaux the tram was a means of expressing his own personal childhood interests, and the nostalgia inherent to that. Ultimately, the contrast between opposites and the inability of the viewer to reconcile those opposites creates distance and discomfort.
Oil on canvas - Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
La Ville Inquiète
Naked citizens stumble around on the outskirts of a jumbled city of Greco-Roman buildings and chimneystacks. They run, point, embrace, and undress as they cross the bare ground from the city towards a lake in the distance. Under the tiny sliver of a crescent moon the pale skin of the nude figures contrasts with the yellow glow that emanates from the foreground to the stone city gate in the background. Men wearing bowler hats calmly observe the scene, one staring inscrutably at a skull. At the top right corner of the painting, a woman in a red dress stands out from the crowd; she is the only person in the composition who enters the city.
Delvaux began this painting during the Nazi invasion of Belgium and noted that "the psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish." This might account for the intense drama and tension of this scene, whose title translates rather fittingly as "The Concerned City." The prominent man in the bowler hat was based on a real man Delvaux had observed in the street. By including this man in the painting, Delvaux illustrates a certain apprehension. He said that "his very mediocrity tells us something." The tension created by the odd juxtapositions, such as the clothed and naked figures, along with the collective sense of impotence and panic among the figures, powerfully suggests Delvaux's personal struggles living under Nazi occupation, while also suggesting that painting was, for him, a form of escapism.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
A Siren in Full Moonlight
A pearly-skinned siren, or mermaid, bathed in moonlight lies on a plinth at the center of a city square, surrounded by classical architecture. Under the bright moon the colors of the inky blue sky, the green trees, and the purple stone plinth seem rich and velvety. The mermaid admires - and perhaps puzzles over - the glittering scales of her tail. The classical architecture, trees, and streetlamps are all arranged according to strict linear perspective, showing Delvaux's interest in Renaissance painting. The combination of the rational order of linear perspective and the irrational scene of a seemingly living mermaid sitting atop a plinth like a statue is unsettling. Mermaids themselves have a sense of mystery and danger, for they were mythological femme fatales who seduced men and led them to their demise.
As a child Delvaux loved the story of the Sirens in The Odyssey. A deadly beauty, the sirens enchant men with their magical song, but at the end of the song the sirens pull their victims beneath the waves to their deaths. The cool blue tones of the classical buildings match the blue of the distant sea, emphasising the mermaid's dual nature; both aquatic and terrestrial, sea-creature and woman. Although there is little action in the image, the atmospheric shadows and the strange color of the moonlight add drama to the already peculiar scene, leaving the viewer questioning the meaning behind this painting.
Oil on panel - Southampton City Art Gallery
In the 1950s Delvaux painted a series of religious paintings on the subject of the Passion of Christ, which had been a popular subject in Medieval and Renaissance art. In this image, Christ is depicted as a skeleton on the cross between two other crucified skeletons. Below the skeletons gather the armoured centurions. The skeleton of Christ is illuminated in bright light, but all the other figures are in shadow.
When he approached the traditional Christian subject of The Passion, he did not want to simply follow the precedents set by the Old Masters, instead deciding to replace the human figure. His intention was to use the skeletons to draw our attention to life and its absence, to remind us of the drama and the fragility of life. Either oblivious or indifferent to the shock these paintings would have on the public, Delvaux submitted them to the 27th Venice Biennial in 1954. The Patriarch of Venice, (who would later become Pope John XXIII) was horrified when he saw the paintings, denouncing them as blasphemous.
Oil on wood - Royal Beaux-Arts Museum in Brussels
Homage to Jules Verne
In this late work, Delvaux depicts an assortment of nude and clothed figures in a dark, glossy space reminiscent of a train station. In many ways, this painting is a convergence of Delvaux's lifelong passions, as it includes many of his themes. In the far background, a ship sails at sea. The relationship between the artificially lit architectural space of the foreground and the seascape in the background is unclear and seems to defy reality; it seems as though the central platform under the roof is some sort of magical portal to the world beyond, adding to the paintings mood of confusion and disquiet. This is the culmination of Delvaux's artistic aims, and his interest in "poetic shock."
This painting emphasizes the conflict between the human and the industrial, nostalgia and modernity, emotion and reason, and private and public. The effect is an atmosphere that is at once familiar and unknowable. Our eye is led to the ship on the horizon, suggesting the possibility of adventure elsewhere - beyond. But, as always, it is the assemblage of figures who seem not to notice one another that creates the sense of surreal beauty, melancholy, and nostalgia that is so unique to Delvaux's oeuvre.
Oil on Canvas - Fondation de Paul Delvaux, Saint-Idesbald
Biography of Paul Delvaux
Childhood and Education
Delvaux was born into the new technological age, one of imagination and invention. He was fascinated by trains and trams, but his overriding passion was for Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), which he loved because of the fantastical worlds it created and its haunting illustrations by Édouard Riou. As the son of a lawyer, Delvaux was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, and so he embarked on a classical education. His imagination was fueled by the myths of Ancient Greece, most notably the story of Odysseus. He recalled a childhood fear of a skeleton that was displayed in his school music room. The skeleton's leering grin haunted his nightmares and served as fodder for his active imagination. All of these childhood influences left a lasting mark on his memory; he once explained that "youthful impressions, fixed once and for all in the mind, influence you all your life."
From 1920 to 1924 Delvaux studied at the Belgian Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. His family pressured him to enroll as an architect, but he later transferred to the painting workshop of Constant Montald. He studied life drawing and practiced landscape painting in the ancient Forêt de Soignes, or Sonian Forest, at the outskirts of the city. Looking back on this period later in life he wryly called his method of painting nudes in the morning and landscapes in the afternoon his "complete education." His landscapes were influenced by the Expressionists Constant Permeke and Gustave de Smet, and by the early 1930s he began to incorporate nudes into his landscapes. This coincided with a period of personal suffering for Delvaux, when, after falling passionately in love with a young woman named Anne-Marie de Martelaere, his mother forced him to break off the relationship.
When he saw the Surrealist Minotaure exhibition in 1934, a spark caught in his imagination. Exposure to Surrealist art and ideas revolutionized his own ideas about painting. André Breton, founder of Surrealism, had claimed that Surrealism allowed you to relive your childhood - a time of "adorable unrealities" - closer to 'real life' than the adult world could. Delvaux's great interest in his childhood desires and fears began to tumble out onto his canvas: nudes, skeletons, temples, trains, myths, and Jules Verne characters all began to appear. His vivid, odd, and timeless spectacles depict a child's eye view of the adult world. His work is imbued with an adult nostalgia for lost emotion and for the magical imagination of childhood. He greatly admired Giorgio de Chirico's works, especially their atmospheric silence and shadows, as in Nostalgia of the Infinite (1913).
In the late 1930s Delvaux began using the Surrealist technique of "poetic shock" in his paintings. The technique had been used by Surrealists to create collage, or "cut up," poems, which involved literally cutting and reconfiguring text in the manner of collage to create poetry. Delvaux sought to find a visual equivalent to this method by bringing together forms, subjects, and ideas that were unrelated to one another in his paintings. André Breton loved Delvaux's bizarre worlds, and in 1936 Delvaux's work reached a wider audience when he exhibited jointly with René Magritte. Autonomous Surrealist groups had emerged in Belgium. Some of their members were critical of Breton's theories of dreams and the unconscious, but others, like René Magritte, were more closely allied to Breton and the Paris Surrealists. Delvaux claimed to find Freud's psychoanalytic ideas unimportant. He stated that he did not paint his dreams but rather "tried to transcribe reality to make it into a kind of dream." While he maintained professional and personal relationships with many Surrealist painters, he always remained independent and did not consider himself a Surrealist.
Magritte mocked Delvaux for his 'bourgeois' background and alleged that Delvaux was famous only because of the many nudes he painted. Although he did paint many nudes, they are somehow all identical to one another; they are similarly fleshy and trancelike - alluring but remote. Delvaux once explained their inspiration came from a fairground exhibit at the Spitzner freak show in Brussels. He had been captivated by a nude wax sculpture of a sleeping Venus. Delvaux's nudes often have a waxy quality that reveals the influence of this spectacle. They are unsmiling and uninviting. As if in answer to the aloof quality of his nudes, Delvaux said, "A nude is erotic even when indifferent, when glacial. What else would it be? The eroticism of my work resides in its evocation of youth and desire."
In 1937 and 1939 he visited Italy. The architecture of Florence, Rome and Pompeii became a foil against which, assisted by his unique use of light, his nudes could express emotion. The juxtaposition of nudes against architecture brought together contradictory elements: inanimate stone and living flesh, public and private, the restrained and the erotic. The "poetic shock" which Delvaux intended with such juxtapositions was enhanced by the inclusion of a man wearing a bowler-hat alongside the nudes. Sometimes these men represent the everyman, while other times they were based on real men that Delvaux had spotted in the street. Delvaux's men may also reveal the influence of Magritte, who was famous for painting men wearing bowler hats. Interestingly, Delvaux's men do not communicate with other characters in his paintings, which could be a reflection of the artist's turbulent life at that time. His marriage was struggling, and by 1940 Belgium was under Nazi occupation. Faced with these hardships, Delvaux retreated into the world of his paintings.
The post-war years marked a far happier period in his personal life. A chance encounter with his first love, Anne-Marie de Martelaere, allowed them to rekindle their romance. He divorced his first wife, Suzanne Purnal, and married Anne-Marie. In 1946 Delvaux was the subject of an iconic art film by Henri Storck called The World of Paul Delvaux, which was narrated by Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. These years also saw the re-emergence of his childhood obsessions. What had been a terror of skeletons during childhood had turned into fascination, and he studied and drew them in the Museum of Natural History, noting that he had now "grasped the beauty and expression of them." As with his nudes, Delvaux deliberately made his skeletons appear out of place in his bizarre settings. He showed them in lifelike poses, even in a controversial series on the Passion of Christ, believing that they brought a living quality when juxtaposed with his fantastical settings. His childhood love of trams and trains also re-emerged in many works. These paintings are often set in moonlit railway stations, populated by a single small girl. This reemergence of themes from his childhood reveals Delvaux's nostalgia for his origins. The girl who so often appears may have been intended to evoke Alice in Wonderland, whose surreal adventures were a theme in Surrealism. His love of trains earned him the nickname "the painter of stations."
In later life Delvaux received many honors and appointments while still continuing to execute important works. He created large murals at the Palais des Congrès (1959), painted Genesis (1960) in the Liège Institute of Zoology, and the 13-meter Our Old Trams of Brussels (1978) in the Bourse station in Brussels. In 1981 he met Andy Warhol who made a silkscreen portrait of him. In his final years his sight failed and he was forced to give up painting. However, he maintained his lust for life, reflecting on how he still enjoyed life's pleasures, such as "drinking a glass of wine, for example. It is not necessary to see to do that." Delvaux died on July 20, 1994 at the age of 96.
The Legacy of Paul Delvaux
The rich atmosphere evoked by Delvaux's paintings led to collaborations with Surrealist poets, including Paul Eluard, and also inspired the filmmakers Henri Storck and André Delvaux (no relation to Paul Delvaux). The author J. G. Ballard was passionate about Delvaux, referencing his works in many of his novels; he even commissioned the reproduction of two of Delvaux's lost works using photographs. Delvaux's magical worlds also inspired a symphonic piece by the composer Tory Takemitsu titled To the Edge of Dream (1983). Delvaux once said that he wanted his colors "to sing" and Takemitsu explained that his music sought to recreate Delvaux's beautiful worlds where "melodic fragments float in a transparent space like so many splinters of dream."