PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
3 More
PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)

Le soir tombe

PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
Le soir tombe
signed and dated ‘P. Delvaux 1-70.’ (lower right); signed again and inscribed ‘P. DELVAUX -LE SOIR TOMBE-' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
55 1⁄4 x 71 in. (140.4 x 180.3 cm.)
Painted in January 1970
Private collection, Brussels, by whom acquired directly from the artist in 1971, and thence by descent to the present owners.
'Paul Delvaux: Retrospective te Knokke', in De Volksgazet, Antwerp, 26 July 1973 (illustrated).
I. Lebeer, Paul Delvaux: Voice and Paintings [Interview with Paul Delvaux], Brussels, 1974, no. 32 (illustrated slide 32).
M. Butor, J. Clair & S. Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux, Brussels, 1975, no. 315, p. 272 (illustrated).
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Paul Delvaux, April - June 1973, no. 67, p. 155 (illustrated).
Knokke-Heist, Casino, Paul Delvaux, June - September 1973, no. 56, p. 156 (illustrated).
Tokyo, National Museum of Modern Art, Paul Delvaux, March - May 1975, no. 33 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art, June - July 1975.
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Paul Delvaux, March - July 1997, no. 110, p. 167 (illustrated).
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

Brought to you by

Olivier Camu
Olivier Camu Deputy Chairman, Senior International Director

Lot Essay

Rife with potential narrative interpretations, Le soir tombe is an absorbing and poetic work executed in 1970 which exemplifies the mystery of Paul Delvaux’s artistic vision, and the minutiae of his practice. This large enigmatic canvas uses the key themes of Delvaux's oeuvre, namely ethereal female nudes, deserted trains, and abandoned classical temples juxtaposed anachronistically to architectures from the 18th and 19th centuries, to create a puzzling, almost otherworldly scene. Finally, the brushwork, which is significantly softer than it is in Delvaux’s earlier works, aided by a brighter, more vivid colour palette, participates in creating this atmosphere of destabilising pensiveness. Acquired directly from the artist in 1971, the work has remained in the same private collection in Brussels for over 50 years, and is offered to the market for the very first time.

Le soir tombe strikingly illustrates Delvaux’s fascination for fantasy worlds which blend together seemingly anachronistic elements. The scene that is offered here sits outside of time, with all elements of the real being stripped of their rational trappings in an attempt to reach the realities of the unconscious mind. Attempting to accomplish what Apollinaire outlined as representing ‘dreams, desires, the secret stirrings of the unconscious,’ Delvaux eerily assembles figures caught in a trance, all disengaged from one another and placed in a setting at the cusp of classical antiquity and modernism (quoted in J. Edwards & S. Basch, Delvaux and Antiquity, exh. cat., Brussels, 2009, p. 21). Doing so, he creates a sense of Surreal beauty, melancholy, and poetic shock that is unique to his oeuvre.

In a setting of Magrittean illogicality, a group of somnambulant women, accompanied by a sole androgenous man, gather to inhabit a disquieting nocturnal scene. The composition is divided into three key spaces, each telling a story, each functioning as well on its own as in combination with the other two. In the foreground, three naked golden-haired women are arranged in a diagonal. One sits with her back turned to the viewer, her hands resting peacefully on her lap. Opposite her, another woman kneels with her head tilted down and her arm raised up gracefully, while behind, a third figure stands straight, seemingly walking through an open door. She is crowned with a halo of flowers, an optical illusion conjured by her placement in front of a distant tree. These women seem to be enthralled in a meditative world of their own, unaware of each other and oblivious to their surroundings, caught in a trance-like state.

In the middle distance, another narrative appears to play out, between a half-dressed woman facing an open gate and a nude couple seemingly frozen mid-conversation. The background is equally legible, presenting a tram, aglow with electric light, as it passes by the vestiges of a classical construction. The train, plucked from the artist’s personal memory, is frozen directly below the Acropolis-like temple, conjuring a tension between the ancient past and modernity. Its movement is followed by the seated woman in the foreground, her gaze tracking its path through the landscape. Her posture does not hint at any action or impending movement, yet the figure sits expectantly.

Delvaux’s use of architectural divisions, meanwhile, also owes a great deal to ideas of perspective developed during the Renaissance. The immobile women in the foreground as well as the figures caught in mid-action in the centre, the frozen tram, and finally the temple in the background are all arranged according to a strict and flattening linear perspective. This formal perspectival structuring, which affords varying degrees of importance to the different planes according to their position, is however deconstructed in the present work, as each element of the composition is painstakingly detailed and attention-grabbing. This use of perspective together with the association of absurdly eclectic pictorial elements, also evocative of Rene Magritte’s works, impedes any attempt at finding a unique interpretation for the work.

The figures depicted act as characters in an imaginative game which the viewer is at liberty to play ceaselessly. To the left of the seated figure, a piece of red velvet fabric protrudes, recalling the curtains which one would find in a theatre. It becomes possible to imagine that the women in the foreground are actors in a complex play. That being said, as is often the case in Delvaux’s compositions, the distinction between interior and exterior spaces is almost non-existent. Therefore, figures and objects alike become players within the melancholic and curious story, whose shape ambiguously shifts each time a new glance is taken at the work. As the artist explained, there was never a sole interpretation to his works: ‘I see no need to give a temporal explanation to what I do, neither do I feel the need to account for the human subjects who exist only for the purpose of painting. These figures recount no history: they are. Further, they express nothing in themselves...’ (quoted in Jaques Meuris, 7 dialogues avec Paul Delvaux accompagnés de lettres imaginaires, Paris, 1971, p. 22).

Delvaux’s inspiration for his poetic and mysterious works lay in a series of important leitmotifs, which activated his imagination again and again. Indeed, Le soir tombe is a testament to the artist’s unfaltering interest in the female figure, which is omnipresent throughout his oeuvre. More specifically, Delvaux experimented profusely with representations of nude or semi-nude women in groups who gaze languidly into space as if hypnotized, and became well-known for such iterations of the ‘surrealised’ female nude. His approach to the female form was revitalised in 1966, when he began to work with the 22-year-old Danielle Caneel who may be the inspiration for several of the women represented here. Indeed, Danielle was the artist’s regular model until 1983, her slim body, symmetrical face and long hair inspiring his creative work. Though most often represented with fair hair, Danielle was not originally blond. The hair is false and the scenery fictitious, thus creating a visual construct designed to stimulate, but also to frustrate desire. Disengaged and incomplete yet beautiful, these figures appear attractive whilst also unsettling.

Executed at the end of Delvaux’s career, Le soir tombe epitomises his experimentations with Surrealism and exemplifies his personal approach of the movement’s key artistic and intellectual tenets. As Zachary Barthelman and Julie Van Deun have observed, ‘[Delvaux] appropriated many of the ideas that characterized the movement, such as the emphasis on the unconscious, the significance of dreams, the creation of a poetic atmosphere’ (Paul Delvaux: Odyssey of a Dream, Saint-Idesbald, 2007, p. 27). Yet, ‘he differed from the Surrealists, for he was not caught up in the dogmatic rules of André Breton's Manifesto, nor was he interested in approaching his paintings as if they were somehow revolutionary. Instead, Delvaux appropriated those surrealistic elements that appealed to him, and diverged from the constraining boundaries of any one particular artistic movement. Unlike the Surrealists, Delvaux never forced himself to probe his unconscious through automatic writing, hypnotic dreams, or other surrealist experiences […but] draws upon elements that came directly from reality, both past and present’ (ibid., pp. 28-29). Despite his intentional distance from the Surrealists, Breton greatly admired the odd worlds which Delvaux created.

Among the elements drawn from Delvaux’s personal life to feature prominently here, is the train which cuts through the background and the elements of Classical architecture behind it. During his childhood, the artist became enthralled with the trams that ran through Brussels. This passion lasted the course of his life and re-appeared in many of his strongest works. Blessed with a faultless memory, Delvaux reportedly astonished railway engineers by the exactitude with which he was able to reproduce tramways he had seen in his youth. However, to aid his memory and satisfy his obsession for detail, he also used a collection of model trains, trams and a railway carriages he kept under glass. The architectural elements which are wielded in this work and seem to be borrowed from classical antiquity, are also likely to be taken from his past – a visit to Greece in 1956 left a permanent mark on his pictorial vocabulary.

The work’s dark palette together with the classic architectural motifs and the spaces represented, strikingly document the lasting impression Giorgio de Chirico made on Delvaux who encountered his works for the first time in 1926. The unusual perspective, coupled with the anachronistic setting, creates a stage-like structure which, together with the stillness of the enigmatic figures, gives Le soir tombe an appearance of a drama caught mid-performance, evoking Delvaux’s repressed memories by ways of a dreamlike world where realism, whilst present, is only a mirage.

More from The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale

View All
View All