Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property from The Museum of Modern Art, sold to benefit the Acquisitions Fund
Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)

Les Mains

Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)
Les Mains
signed and dated 'P. DELVAUX 3-6-41' (lower center)
oil on canvas
43¼ x 51¼ in. (110 x 130 cm.)
Painted on 3 June 1941
Claude Spaak, Choisel (acquired from the artist, circa 1948).
Staempfli Gallery, New York (1959).
Richard S. Zeisler, New York (by 1959).
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (by bequest from the above, 2007).
E. Langui, Paul Delvaux, Venice, 1949, p. 10 (illustrated, pl. XII).
R. Genaille, La peinture en Belgique, de Rubens aux surréalistes, Paris, 1958, pp. 148 and 202 (illustrated in color, p. 147).
H. Read, A Concise History of Modern Paintings, London, 1959, p. 139 (illustrated in color).
G. Lo Duca, Histoire de l'érotisme, Paris, 1959, p. 101.
S. Houbart-Wilkin, "Paul Delvaux, peintre surraliste ou classique de la surréalité" in Savoir et Beauté, March 1961, p. 244.
G. Lo Duca, Dictionnaire de sexology, Paris, 1962, p. 412.
Nouveau dictionnaire de la peinture moderne, Paris, 1963, p. 92 (illustrated, p. 93).
50 ans d'amitiés littéraires et artistiques franco-belges, exh. cat., Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1964, p. 93.
G. Lo Duca, Dictionnaire de sexologie, Supplément A-Z, Paris, 1965, p. 412.
S. Houbart-Wilkin, "Les dessin de Paul Delvaux. A propos de six dessins offerts aux Musées Royaux par Claude Spaak" in Bulletin des Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, 1966, p. 202.
P.A. De Bock, Paul Delvaux, Brussels, 1967, pp. 108 and 291, no. 48 (illustrated, pl. 48; titled Les Mains [Le Songe]).
G. Zwang, Le sexe de la femme, Paris, 1967, p. 17 (illustrated).
Dictionnaire universel de l'art et des artistes, Paris, 1967, p. 384 (illustrated).
W.S. Rubin, Surrealism and Their Heritage, New York, 1968, p. 138.
H.L.C. Jaffe, Vingt mille ans de peinture dans le monde, Paris, 1969, p. 339 (illustrated).
G. Lo Duca, Histoire de l'érotisme, Lille, 1969, p. 101 (illustrated).
S. Alexandrian, Surrealist Art, London, 1970, pp. 126-127 and 249, no. 134 (illustrated in color, p. 133).
P.H. Roberts-Jones, From Realism to Surrealism, Brussels, 1970, p. 153 (illustrated, p. 142, pl. 84).
J. Meuris, 7 dialogues avec Paul Delvaux accompagnés de 7 lettres imaginaires, Paris, 1971, pp. 46-47, 50 and 134 (illustrated, pp. 44-45 and 51).
Le Arti, Milan, October 1971, p. 44 (illustrated).
W. Gaunt, The Surrealists, London, 1972, p. 266, no. 85 (illustrated in color, pl. 85).
J. Vovelle, Le Surréalisme en Belgique, Brussels, 1972, pp. 188, 192, 198 and 203.
M. Butor, J. Clair and S. Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux, Paris, 1975, p. 191, no. 109 (illustrated).
D. Scott, Paul Delvaux: Surrealizing the Nude, London, 1992, p. 76 (illustrated).
G. Carels and C. van Deun, Paul Delvaux: His Life, Saint-Idesbald, 2004, p. 125.
Paris, Galerie René Drouin, March 1948, no. 7 (illustrated).
Brussels, Palais international des Beaux-Arts, 50 ans d'art moderne, April-July 1958, no. 71 (illustrated, pl. 199).
New York, Staempfli Gallery, Paul Delvaux, October-November 1959, no. 7 (illustrated).
New York, Finch College Museum of Art and The Stamford Museum, Art from Belgium, January-February 1965, no. 1.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Art Institute of Chicago, Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage, March-December 1968, pp. 138-139, no. 69 (illustrated, fig. 202).
New York, Staempfli Gallery, Delvaux, March 1969, no. 4 (illustrated in color on the cover).
The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Spirit of Surrealism, October-November 1979, p. 129, no. 77 (illustrated).
Paris, Musée national d'Art Moderne, Paul Éluard et ses amis peintres, 1985-1952, 1982.
Canberra, The National Gallery of Australia; Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery and Sydney, Art Gallery of South Wales, Surrealism, Revolution by Night, March-September 1993, p. 187, no. 51 (illustrated).
Brussels, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Paul Delvaux 1897-1994, March-July 1997, p. 98, no. 43 (illustrated in color).
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

Lot Essay

Painted in 1941, Les Mains, which is also sometimes known as Le Songe, or "The Dream", is a masterpiece by Paul Delvaux. Many authors consider the few dozen paintings that Delvaux so painstakingly created during the years of the Occupation of his native Belgium to be the greatest of his entire career, as he channelled his anxieties into the richly atmospheric, oneiric scenes for which he is so renowned. It is a mark of the importance of Les Mains that it has been so widely published both in monographs on the artist and in more general books, and also that it has been in the collections of two highly eminent collectors, Delvaux's own friend Claude Spaak and, later, the generous benefactor Richard S. Zeisler, who bequeathed it to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as part of an important group of works.

Les Mains plunges the viewer into a scene that is redolent with the mystery that lies at the heart of Delvaux's greatest works. Within the fabric of a building which appears to have been created using a deliberately anonymous and timeless Renaissance style, several women, some naked and others barely draped in glowing garments, two of them accompanied by bowler-hatted men, wander. In the background, in a rugged rock-strewn landscape, lies a naked embracing couple, the man kissing the woman's breast. This underscores Delvaux's own assertion that his pictures, however static or statuesque his pictures may appear, are filled with eroticism. Howerver, the present work is among the very few where the carnal love is in fact consumated. "Naturally there is eroticism," he declared. "Without eroticism I would find painting impossible. The painting of the nude in particular. 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" (Delvaux, quoted in G. Ollinger-Zinque and F. Leen, eds., Paul Delvaux 1897-1994, exh. cat., Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1997, p. 23). That sense of youth and desire is evident in the lovers and in the bare flesh in Les Mains. At the same time, the dream-like atmosphere that has lent this painting its second title reflects Delvaux's innovative reinvention of the artistic tradition of the female nude.

At the left of the picture appears a figure who is the artist himself: barely visible because of the daring composition which sees him almost excluded from the scene, scarcely impinging upon it, he wears a jacket over his shirtless shoulders and holds a brush in a position that brings the viewer's attention to his hand. This provides a mysterious contextual symmetry with the hand gestures being performed by the two naked women in the foreground to the right of the picture, who appear absorbed as though performing some form of arcane ritual.

Despite the movements of the various people, for instance the walking couples, there is an immense stillness to this painting, or rather a sense of silence, as well as a timelessness, despite the chronological markers that Delvaux provides such as the jacket-wearing men and the architectural framework. This atmosphere links Les Mains to Delvaux's great artistic hero, Giorgio de Chirico, revealing the painter's own artistic lineage. Delvaux is sometimes referred to as a Belgian Surrealist, alongside his compatriot René Magritte. In reality, Delvaux's relationship to Surrealism was detached and perhaps even problematic. His own works were exhibited alongside the Surrealists, many of whom he knew, for instance in 1940. In the year that Les Mains was painted, the great figurehead of that movement, André Breton, had discussed his work as part of the fabric of Surrealism, writing: "Delvaux has turned the whole universe into a single realm in which one woman, always the same woman, reigns over the great suburbs of the heart, where the ancient windmills of Flanders make a pearl necklace revolve in an aura of glittering ore" (Surrealism and Painting, S. Watson Taylor (trans.), London, 1965, p. 80). However, Delvaux retained a distance from Surrealist ideas and ideologies, instead creating pictures that were very much the product of his own rich imagination.

What Delvaux shared with the Surrealists was his debt to de Chirico. On seeing an exhibition by the Italian painter, the pioneer of Pittura Metafisica, at the gallery of Paul Guillaume in Paris in 1927, Delvaux had an epiphany, just as Magritte had upon seeing de Chirico's Le chant d'amour (likewise, Yves Tanguy took up painting after seeing de Chirico's work for the first time, five years earlier). Spaak, who once owned Les Mains, recalled Delvaux discussing de Chirico's 1914 painting Mystery and Melancholy of a Street: "How many times he told me that the little girl pushing a hoop in an open street where only the shadow of a statue stands out awoke within him secret correspondences" (quoted in P.-A. De Bock, Paul Delvaux: L'homme, Le peintre, Psychologie d'un Art, Brussels, 1967, p. 56).

In Les Mains, the legacy of those "secret correspondences" is clear to see, especially in the way that it features chronological overlaps, for instance in the contrast between the women, the men and the architecture. These recall de Chirico's own depictions of, say, unpeopled Italian piazzas articulated by a classical statue and a passing locomotive in the background. That idea of revelation, of a mirage-like vision of all times coexisting, is made all the more potent in Delvaux' work because of the arcane, unknowable rituals which appear to be taking place before us. In Les Mains, the two women in the foreground appear to be wholly engaged in some sequence of movements, with the focus on the hands. They appear almost to be signing, but the meaning is impossible to grasp. Instead, they have an eloquent muteness as they attempt to communicate across the divide, both to the painter who intrudes into the world of the picture and to the viewers too. This adds a dynamism and directness to Les Mains which is particular to Delvaux: he has made the Stimmung, the particular atmosphere with which de Chirico's paintings are so redolent, more engaging and stimulating. He has included a sense of movement and of narrative fragments in Les Mains, yet ensures that the viewer remains unable to piece together overarching framework that binds these events, which remain tantalisingly recognisable yet ineffable. The dynamism of Les Mains is heightened by the contrast between the largely clothed males and the largely nude women. As the artist himself explained: "I paint myself, the artist, recognisable or not... My male figures are also elements of a reality that is transmuted by the way I situate them... Their intrusion into my paintings, particularly alongside female figures--naked women--is partly intended to create a shock, a shock that results precisely from that very juxtaposition" (quoted in G. Ollinger-Zinque and F. Leen, eds., op. cit., exh. cat., p. 23).

Both the artist's presence in the foreground and that of the bowler-hatted men elsewhere in the composition add a biographical dimension to Les Mains. In his wartime pictures, Delvaux can be seen to have become more introspective, hence perhaps the presence of the painter at the side of this work. Working holed up in his studio during the years of the Occupation, Delvaux saw and experienced the deprivations brought about by the Second World War. Initially, he had been persuaded to accompany his aunts as they attempted to flee Belgium, but after running out of fuel, they were forced to return and to endure. While Delvaux was not a combatant, the war nonetheless came to permeate his work, instilling an atmosphere of anxiety in pictures. As Guy Carels and Charles van Deun wrote of his wartime images, "During this period he began again to recount in his canvases the story of his life during this dark period of confinement," before going on to declare that "During this period of the war, Delvaux created some of that are probably the best canvases of his career" (G. Carels and C. van Deun, op. cit., p. 124).

Delvaux's paintings from this period occasionally featured near-apocalyptic scenes; by contrast, in Les Mains, the rational architecture and secret rituals present the viewer with a teasing glimpse of an ordered and orderly universe that was in stark contrast to contemporary events. The women in the foreground appear to know this, and seem to be trying to convey some of the information from their dimension to the hapless viewers and painter. In this sense, Les Mains provides an intriguing counterpoint to another of Delvaux's important paintings from the same year, La ville inquiète. In that scene of carnage, chaos reigns against a backdrop driven by lust and conflict. Through the midst of the scene, where skeletons walk among the robed figures before an ancient classical city, several suited figures weave their way, one of them in particular reminiscent of the bowler-hatted man in Les Mains. Delvaux made several statements about La ville inquiète which nonetheless are revelatory when considering Les Mains, its sister-picture. "What I am seeking to do is to bring out the poetry of certain aspects of my life," he explained. "Paradoxically, war is for me a very intense experience" (quoted in B. Emerson, Delvaux, Antwerp, 1985, p. 101). Delvaux, who did not exhibit his own works for the duration of the Occupation though continuing to paint, was very conscious of the conflict and of the way that life continued despite the turmoil that was tearing so much of the world apart. This awareness came to be expressed by the bowler-hatted man who picks his way through the insanity of La ville inquiète and who is likewise visible in Les Mains, oblivious to his surroundings.

Although bowler-hatted men had appeared before this time, for instance in 1938's Le Salut, it was now that they came of age as a personality in Delvaux's works. In his new incarnation, he appeared to pick his way through the mayhem without being touched by it; it comes, then, as little surprise to find that he was based on a figure that Delvaux himself had noticed from his window. "Who is he? Simply a man in the street who passed by here every day," Delvaux recalled. "He was probably a clerical worker of some sort or another, an employee going to and returning from work... I observed him several times. He impressed me and when I began this painting his presence had become indispensable. He came into being without any justification other than that he showed an ordinary man going about his daily business in a beleaguered city. His very mediocrity tells us something" (quoted in ibid., p. 97).

The importance of Les Mains is clear from its impressive provenance. It was initially owned by Claude Spaak, a playwright and author who was closely involved with Belgian Surrealism. Indeed, for some time, he provided his friend Magritte with a stipend after the collapse of the gallery that had previously represented him. Spaak was from an eminent family: one of his brothers, Charles, was a screenwriter and the other, Paul-Henri, who had been to the same school as Delvaux and who became an important politician, serving several times as Prime Minister of Belgium as well as Foreign Minister in exile during the War; Paul-Henri Spaak was also chairman of the first session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. A few years after the Second World War, Delvaux is known to have been a guest at Spaak's home at Choisel, and it has been posited that Les Mains may have been offered as a gift at this time.

Les Mains later entered the collection of the private collector Richard S. Zeisler, a man whose name was known to several charitable organisations and cultural institutions, upon the boards of several of which he served. Several museums benefited from Zeisler's generous bequest of his art collection including The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim and the Art Institute of Chicago.

(fig. 1) Giorgio de Chirico, La Solitudine, circa 1915. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio).

(fig. 2) Paul Delvaux, La ville inquiète, 1942. Sold, Christie's, 10 December 1998.

(fig. 3) Paul Delvaux, Les phases de la lune III, 1942. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

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