• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 7543

    The Art of the Surreal (immediately following the Impressionist and Modern Art, Evening Sale)

    4 February 2008, London, King Street

  • Lot 180

    Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)


    Price Realised  

    Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)
    signed, dated and inscribed 'P. Delvaux Anderlecht 7-45' (lower right)
    oil on canvas
    61¾ x 23 5/8 in. (157 x 60 cm.)
    Painted in Anderlecht in July 1945

    Contact Client Service
    • info@christies.com

    • New York +1 212 636 2000

    • London +44 (0)20 7839 9060

    • Hong Kong +852 2760 1766

    • Shanghai +86 21 6355 1766

    'When I was at primary school at the age of seven there was a museum where there was skeleton. We had our music lessons in the museum and you had to go into this museum and I was afraid of the skeleton in the cage. It was black and red with an unpleasant grin and it had a tremendous effect on me. I would say to my mother when I got home, "You know I saw a skellington!". The skeleton of which I was so terrified as a child, I suddendly grasped the beauty of it, grasped the expression a little later' (P. Delvaux, speaking in Paul Delvaux; the Sleepwalker of Saint Idesbald, a film by Adrien Maben).
    During the Nazi occupation of Belgium in the Second World War, Delvaux began to make regular visits to the natural History Museum in Brussels where in 'an extraordinary room' there were many skeletons 'of all the animals in Creation... in rows, as if in battle formation' (P. Delvaux, quoted in exh. cat., Paul Delvaux 1897-1994, Musées Royaux de Beaux Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1997, p. 26). There Delvaux began to make a number of serious studies of skeletons and, as in Squelette of 1945, this structural frame of the human being began to make appearances in his work as if alive, sitting in chairs, conversing in offices and later enacting scenes from the Passion.
    'For me', Delvaux said, 'the skeleton is a very, very, very strong expression of the human being for under the skin there are bones. the skeleton is the image of the human being. It is alive, and I wished to create expressive scenes with skeletons' (ibid.). In Squelette, Delvaux has painted a portrait of a skeleton as if it were alive and sitting for the painter. Centred around the strange grin, this simple subversion of a traditional portrait imbues the entire scene of the painting with a bizarre netherworld atmosphere. In a twist on Delvaux's usual theme of nocturnal sleepwalking women, where night becomes like the day, here it is bright daylight. The presence of an animated skeleton seems to undermine the brilliant daylight, making it appear strange, unreal and even nocturnal. For the presence of this cheerful skeleton, alive and active in the bright light or morning, goes against all our conventional associations for skeletons who, if we think about them at all, are inanimate, dead objects associated primarily with ghoulish science, graveyards and the night. By bringing this essentially nocturnal figure to life and to light into his painting, Delvaux manages once again to create a powerful pictorial enigma that challenges and questions the logic of the way we look at the world.

    Special Notice

    No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 15% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.


    Gustave van Geluwe, Brussels.
    Mme Jean Krebs, Brussels.
    Dr. Purnal, Brussels.
    Galleria Internazionale, Milan.
    Anonymous sale, Christie's, London, 4 April 1978, lot 40.
    Private collection, Belgium, by whom acquired at the above sale.
    Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 1998.

    Saleroom Notice

    Please note the dimensions should read: 61¾ x 23 5/8 in. (157 x 60 cm.) and not as stated in the catalogue.

    Please note the additional exhibition history:
    Knokke-Heisst, Christian Fayt Art Gallery, Selection I, June - July 1978, no. 16.
    New York, Chein & Read, I am as you will be - The Skeleton in Art, September - November 2007.

    Pre-Lot Text

    Property from a Private Belgian Collector


    M. Butor, J. Clair & S. Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux: catalogue de l'oeuvre peint, Brussels, 1975, no. 159 (illustrated p. 213).


    Ostende, Musée des Beaux-Arts, July - August 1962, no. 76.
    Bordeaux, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Surréalisme, May - September 1971, no. 57.
    Charleroi, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Le Hainaut, terre de surréalisme, October 1971, no. 19.