Radical Classicist: Alexander Adams visits the museum dedicated to Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1887-1994)

Delvaux: Acropolis, 1966

If you have heard of Belgian painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) then it is likely to have been in connection with Surrealism. He gets a couple of illustrations in thematic surveys of Surrealism, rarely more. Unless you locate a specialist publication on the artist, it is hard to get an overview of his development. Delvaux is poorly represented in British public collections.

Born near Liège in 1897, Delvaux initially studied architecture in Brussels, though he abandoned his studies because his grades in mathematics were insufficient, transferring to the painting course.  Delvaux’s earliest pieces are landscapes composed with a naturalistic palette, later leavened by Impressionism. As is usual for Belgians of this period, the Impressionism is more a form of vivacious naturalism with vibrant lighting effects and vigorous brushwork rather than sustained application of complimentary colour theory. Throughout the late 1920s he picked up and attempted to blend a welter of (often conflicting) influences: Renoir, Cézanne, Modigliani, Ensor. After 1925 one constant emerges: the human figure, often as a nude, as the

principal subject. In the late

1920s Delvaux came into the orbit of Flemish Expressionists (less bold and strident than the Germans, they evolved a dull-hued, restrained style dwelling on figures in domestic settings, clearly displaying an attachment to realism).

Yet even as he was painting the most accomplished works of his career, something was nagging at him. He had seen the art /* xin-1 */ of de Chirico and pondered Wiertz’s


La Belle src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> Rosine (see Jackdaw no. 95) and felt there was
new territory to be discovered. (In 1922 he painted a view of the entrance to Musée Wiertz.) The example of Magritte proved a decisive spur. By 1935 his figures were becoming more normally proportioned, the palette broader and more conventional and the settings ever more precise and significant. He had arrived at his classic google_ad_height = 90; mature style.

What is the typical Delvaux? Although there are

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distinct phases, we can make some generalisations: /* xin2 */ the subjects are females, often nude, with dreamlike repose in the surrounding of
fantastic architecture, generally a blend of classical, neo-classical and 19th century Belgian. Frequently used settings included train stations, town squares, beaches and temples, often nocturnal and
deserted and almost exclusively google_ad_height = 90; urban rather than pastoral. The technique is
direct, the lighting pellucid, the brushwork unobtrusive.

A typical work is Echo (1943) (currently in a Japanese museum): between ancient buildings at night time a woman walks

years before Delvaux (who lived in Brussels most of his life and spent long periods on the coast) moved permanently to the area. The opening rooms cover the early years of tenebrism and Impressionism. A room is dedicated to
views in


Perhaps the most psychologically charged painting (and, to my mind, his most remarkable

and she gazes at his pre-pubertal genitals. Overhead tiny angels trumpet the occurrence. It bears comparison with Balthus’s Guitar Lesson (1934) as a study
of psychic tension and sexual google_ad_width = 970; discovery. It must have taken a degree src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> of courage for Delvaux to paint such a picture. It is a tremendous, fraught, haunting image, all
the more so for being unforced.

A painting such as Horizons (1962)

​ shows what a playful painter Delvaux could be, beyond being a consummate image maker. It is one of a group of strongly horizontally orientated paintings of railways. Cadmium yellow powerfully illuminates the horizon and only slowly does one notice myriad sources


of light: streetlamps,

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lanterns, house lights, train lights, signals, a paraffin lamp, the
moon.  Seats from old-fashioned train carriages have been situated in the galleries. (Tellingly most of the few British visitors to Museum Delvaux are train enthusiasts rather than art enthusiasts.)

In a number of lit niches are puppets and model trains that Delvaux made while young, as well as