To be included in the Paul Delvaux catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Paul Delvaux Foundation.
Jeunes filles à la campagne is a large and historic painting dating from around 1928, early in Paul Delvaux's career. This large picture features what was to become Delvaux's signature motif: naked women. Here, they are presented as static figures within a bucolic landscape reminiscent of classical or Renaissance pictures. In this way, Delvaux has introduced a potent timelessness to this image of feminine beauty.
These larger-than-life female figures stretch across the expanse of the canvas, monumental in scale, recalling the mural decorations of some of the Old Masters as well as more contemporary trends. Delvaux himself explained some of the gestation of influences that occurred in his pictures during the early years, and which are in evidence in Jeunes filles à la campagne. He discussed his fascination for Italian art of the Fifteenth Century in particular, and the way that it ceded its dominance following his Pauline conversion upon seeing the works of Giorgio de Chirico:
'there are all the great Italians, there is Piero della Francesca, there is Mantegna, and above all among those I admire there is Paolo Uccello. All those great Italians of the Early Renaissance. I admire them greatly... When I started to paint, I only thought of trying to express something which at that time was quite undefinable. So I sought in the art of others the nourishment that would allow me to discover my own identity... I was influenced by all those artists I admired, but I did not know exactly what that could be. It was then that I discovered Giorgio de Chirico, who immediately put me onto my path' (Delvaux, quoted in G. Ollinger-Zinque, 'The Making of a Painter Poet', pp. 14-27, Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen (ed.), Paul Delvaux 1897-1994, exh. cat., Brussels, 1997, p. 17).
It was in 1927 that Delvaux had seen the work of de Chirico at an exhibition in the Paris gallery of the legendary dealer Paul Guillaume (see G. Carels & C. Van Deun, Paul Delvaux - His Life, Saint-Idesbald, 2004, p. 66). For many artists of the day, de Chirico's influence would be vital, bringing around complete transformations in their understanding of what painting could show. This was the case for Delvaux' contemporary in Belgium, René Magritte, who adopted the Italian artist's use of unusual juxtapositions and pushed it to new extremes. For Delvaux, it was more the atmosphere that was revelatory: de Chirico's paintings, filled with such a potent, dreamlike atmosphere, often showed classical or Renaissance figures and features with the modern world. That basis in the iconography of the Italian Renaissance was something that Delvaux himself shared, as is clear in Jeunes filles à la campagne. By the time this picture was painted, Delvaux had had his own studio in the attic of his parents' home in the rue d'Ecosse in Paris for half a decade. This generous dispensation from his father allowed him to work not only in private, but also indoors. Gone were the landscapes that had featured so prominently in his early oeuvre; instead, he was now able to roam freely in his own imagination, using it as a source. Thus the impact of de Chirico was timely and fell on fertile ground.
De Chirico's pictures hinted at the confluence and overlapping of different periods, and this was something that Delvaux would also use. However, within a short time he had also discovered the evocative potential of the female nude as a vehicle for the expression of the ambience he sought to create. The women in Jeunes filles à la campagne are still, static, yet clearly erotic. Their languid poses, combined with the inclusion of a mixed couple in the background and another man wandering towards the hills, highlights the sexualisation of these figures, unlike some of the more oneiric figures who would come to haunt many of Delvaux' later pictures. Perhaps the explosion of female nudes that came to appear in Delvaux' pictures during the late 1920s was a reflection of the fact that it was only the previous year that his young cousin Walter had, 'decided to "educate" Paul and took him to visit some girls' (ibid., p. 61). This theme would immediately take hold of Delvaux, for instance in a picture entitled Le couple showing a naked man and woman in a landscape strewn with other figures; that work, which dates from 1929, was acquired by the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique the year it was painted.
Discussing the statuesque female nudes that dominate his pictures, Delvaux would later speak in terms that are apt when considering Jeunes filles à la campagne: '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 & F. Leen, ed., Brussels, 1997, ibid., p. 23).
In Jeunes filles à la campagne, this erotic dimension is perhaps accentuated by the influences of other artists on Delvaux during this period. The classicism of the landscape and the presence of these naked figures all evoke the work of Delvaux's compatriot Peter Paul Rubens, while the composition also echoes the French painter Puvis de Chavannes. At the same time, this picture was painted during the period when Delvaux himself explained, 'In 1928 my work was influenced by Modigliani, whose exhibition I had seen in Paris' (Delvaux, quoted in Carels & Van Deun, ibid., 2004, p. 67).