PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994) Les mystérieuses (Painted in December 1981 )

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Lot 15AR
Les mystérieuses

Sold for £ 175,000 (US$ 218,563) inc. premium
PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
Les mystérieuses
signed, inscribed and dated 'LES MYSTERIEUSES P. DELVAUX 12 - 81' (lower right); signed and inscribed 'Ceci est une peinture à l'huile sur papier representant "Les mystérieuses". Boitfort, le 11 - 2 - 82 - P. Delvaux' (verso)
oil, pen and India ink on paper
76.6 x 107.8cm (30 3/16 x 42 7/16in).
Painted in December 1981


  • The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by the Fondation Paul Delvaux.

    A gift from the artist to a descendant (late 1980s); their sale, Christie's, London, 5 February 2008, lot 596.
    Acquired at the above sale by the previous owner; their sale, Christie's, London, 5 February 2009, lot 157.
    Private collection, Belgium (acquired at the above sale).

    Osaka, Daimaru Museum, Umeda, Paul Delvaux, 1 - 13 November 1989, no. 45 (later travelled to Kyoto, Tokyo, Himéji & Yokohama).
    Paris, Grand Palais, Rétrospective Paul Delvaux, 7 - 24 November 1991.
    Osaka, Daimaru Museum, Umeda, Paul Delvaux, Exposition du centenaire, 9 October - 27 October 1996, no. 39 (later travelled to Yamaguchi, Chiba, Kyoto & Tokyo).
    Niigata, Niigata Museum of Art, Portraits et autoportraits de Paul Delvaux, 19 June - 25 July 2004, no. 20 (later travelled to Miyazaki, Fukuoka, Nagoya & Fukushima).
    St. Idesbald, Musée Paul Delvaux, on loan 2006 - 2007.

    Depicting his most beloved and enduring subject, Les mystérieuses issues from Paul Delvaux's mature period when he was already a celebrated and publicly recognised artist. The 1960s and 1970s had been an immensely fertile and prolific time for the artist, described by one commentator as 'the second flowering of his genius' where he 'combined and reinterpreted elements in his paintings that were fundamental to the structure and iconography of the ones he had painted thirty and forty years before' (D. Scott, Paul Delvaux, Surrealising the Nude, London, 1992, p. 112). By the early 1980s, when the present work was executed, Delvaux had begun to create compositions which were less fraught, and to distil his imagery, choosing to focus on certain key motifs while other subjects – such as the train, skeleton and architectural elements - began to fall away.

    The portrayal of women continued to be a major preoccupation for Delvaux, as it had been since the late 1920s when he first incorporated the subject of the female nude into his oeuvre. In the later works the women adopt more meditative personae, yet they remain, clothed or nude, his omnipresent protagonists and signifiers of the unfathomable mystery which pervades his compositions.

    From a biographical perspective, there were several important women in Delvaux's life who could have acted as the catalyst for his obsession with the subject. From childhood Delvaux was unconditionally devoted to his caring though severe mother. Later, he suffered emotional distress following the prevention of his marriage to Tam due to his parent's strong opposition to their union (it was only a fortuitous meeting in 1952 which would bring them together again). Indeed, the representation of seemingly the same almond-eyed woman time and again in his works can be read as the echo of Tam's lingering presence. Delvaux was, however, resistant to any such explanations of his work: 'It's always the same woman that comes back with – when clothed – the same dress or clothes. When they are nude, of course I have a model that gives me approximately the same anatomy as a consequence. But the question is not to change the element – the question is to change the climate of a painting; even with people who are the same we can make things completely different' (Paul Delvaux quoted in Z. Bathelman & J. Van Deun, Odyssey of a Dream, Saint-Idesbald, 2007, p. 47). In Les mystérieuses, the fact that each woman, though distinguished by differing hair colour and styles, bares a striking facial resemblance to his model of almost twenty years, Danielle Caneel, is incidental to the atmosphere evoked.

    For Delvaux, the women of his works were outside of narrative, outside even of finite time, and so, free from our historically bound interpretations of the nude. As Mira Jacob explains: 'The woman who reigned over the world of Paul Delvaux is Eve rather than Venus. She is not unclothed but naked and therefore outside of the realms of sensuality...Real yet inaccessible, recognizable yet mythical, these personages belong not to this world but to the magical world of poetry, they are participants in a rite at whose meaning we can guess but to which access is denied us' (M. Jacob, Paul Delvaux, Graphic work, Monaco, 1976, p. 9).

    In the present work, aptly titled Les mystérieuses, Delvaux presents an enigmatic grouping of seven women, naked to the waist. In accordance with Delvaux's habitual depiction of women, despite their close proximity to one another, they appear isolated and estranged. Engaged in their own particular reverie, each figure appears entirely self absorbed, with eyes never meeting and averted from the viewer. As Delvaux explained in an interview to the writer, Jacques Meuris, 'I have at times depicted several women...yet each one of them was always alone' (Paul Delvaux quoted in M. Jacob, ibid, p.16). This pervasive sense of solitude was deliberately evoked by Delvaux to emphasise alienation from the beholder. Crucially, these women remain unaffected by an outside presence and yet our encounter with them prompts an appreciation of 'poetry' which arises from a strange anachronism of unexpected elements.

    In Les mystérieuses, the depiction of nude women is, of itself, not an uncommon motif in the academic tradition of painting. Yet, despite their association with the serene beauties of Botticelli or Bouguereau, Delvaux deliberately adds surprising elements to subvert our taught responses to the genre. The modern hairstyles of the figures disassociate them from the female protagonists of the Renaissance or classical antiquity, while the appearance of the blue hat is so incongruous in the context of the subject's otherwise total nudity that it provokes a rupture in our appreciation. In contrast to Dalí's fantastical dreamscapes or Magritte's impossible grouping of objects – Paul Delvaux presents us with a scene drawn from reality but fundamentally mysterious, here transfiguring his women into focal points for the uncanny, namely, the intersection between the strange and the familiar:'My entire life, I have tried to transcribe reality to make it a sort of dream where the objects – although keeping a realistic appearance – take on a poetic significance. The painting becomes, then, a fiction where each object has a logical place. What is curious is that my paintings all seem complicated at the beginning even though the solution is always simple' (Paul Delvaux quoted in Z. Bathelman & J. Van Deun, op. cit., p. 62).

    According to David Scott, it is this skewing of conventionally recognisable elements and its subsequent problematizing which makes his work Surreal. Delvaux, on the contrary, remained persistently equivocal with regards to his relationship with the movement: 'I have been told I'm a Surrealist. I don't say I'm not, but I'm not really sure that I am one...I'm not interested in defining myself' (Paul Delvaux quoted in A. Terrasse, Paul Delvaux, Paris, 1973, p. 13). An individualist to the end, what remained indispensable for Delvaux was the emotion caused, not by the image itself, but by the interstices of meaning it provoked. A sensation which Delvaux attributed as stemming from the realm of poetry.

    Exceptionally large and widely exhibited, Les mystérieuses is richly worked with impastoed oil, imbuing it with a luminosity more akin to a painting on canvas rather than a work on paper. The major compositions on this support were of a more domestic size than his monumental canvases yet conceived of as finished works in and of themselves. Importantly, the tightened format forced Delvaux to concentrate the essence and poetry of his scene and to foreground the process of its creation. In the present work, the hand of the artist is keenly felt through the multitude of feathered brushstrokes, while the close cropping of the figures, captured as if through the lens of the camera, serves to heighten the mystery of the scene implied through the countless possibilities of what is to be seen outside of the image frame.

    Formerly on loan to the Musée Paul Delvaux, Les mystérieuses is one of the most important and exemplary works on paper from Delvaux's mature period. Executed at a time when Delvaux preferred to use paper rather than canvas for his primary compositions in oil, Les mystérieuses remains exceptionally painterly in its handling, displaying an unparalleled intensity of light and colour.
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