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Paul Delvaux - Biography and Legacy

Belgian Painter

Born: September 23, 1897 - Antheit, Belgium
Died: July 20, 1994 - Veurne, Belgium
Movements and Styles:

Biography of Paul Delvaux


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."

Early 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).

Mature Period

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.

Later Period

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."

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Content compiled and written by Jen Farren

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ellen Hurst

"Paul Delvaux Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Farren
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ellen Hurst
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First published on 29 Feb 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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