Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)
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Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)

La veillée

Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)
La veillée
signed and dated 'P.DELVAUX 2-40' (lower right)
oil on canvas
39½ x 35 5/8 in. (100.3 x 90.4 cm.)
Painted in February 1940
Paul Aloïse De Bock, Boitsfort.
Mme Y. Dardenne, Brussels.
Roman Norbet Ketterer, Campione d'Italia (Lugano).
J. Aberbach, New York.
Private collection, by whom acquired from the above circa 1975.
R. Gaffé, Paul Delvaux ou les rêves éveillés, Brussels, 1945 (illustrated pl. 6).
E. Langui, Paul Delvaux, Venice, 1949, p. 9 (illustrated pl. XI).
J. Vovelle, Le Surréalisme en Belgique, Brussels, 1972, pp. 176, 191 and 207.
Pourquoi pas?, Brussels, 12 July 1973.
M. Butor, J. Clair & S. Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux: catalogue de l'oeuvre peint, Brussels, 1975, no. 103 (illustrated p. 187).
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paul Delvaux, February 1940, no. 9.
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paul Delvaux, December 1944 - January 1945, no. 15.
Charleroi, Salle de la Bourse, XXXIe Salon du cercle royal artistique et littéraire de Charleroi, Hommage à Marc Chagall, rétrospective Paul Delvaux, March - April 1957, no. 36.
Ostende, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Paul Delvaux, July - August 1962, no. 12.
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Exposition rétrospective des oeuvres de Paul Delvaux, November - December 1966, no. 15.
Brussels, Musée d'Ixelles, Paul Delvaux, November - December 1967, no. 8.
Campione d'Italia, Galerie R. N. Ketterer, Moderne Kunst VI, 1969, no. 11 (illustrated p. 23).
Rotterdam, Musée Boymans-van Beuningen, Paul Delvaux, April - June 1973, no. 20 (illustrated pp. 58 and 124).
Knokke-Heist, Casino, Paul Delvaux, June - September 1973, no. 13 (illustrated twice).
Tokyo, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paul Delvaux, March - May 1975, no. 8 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Kyoto, Musée Nationale d'Art Modèrne, June - July 1975.
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Lot Essay

The paintings that Paul Delvaux made during the Second World War are widely regarded as being among his greatest creations. Painted in 1940, La veillée (The Vigil) is one of the first of these paintings - a series in which the artist first reached beyond the visual gimmickry and provocative anti-rational unreality of Surrealism to point to a strange and timeless poetry hidden within the nature of picture making itself.

Delvaux had been first drawn to Surrealism, and in particular the work of Giorgio de Chirico, because it awoke in him an awareness of what he called the 'secret relationship' between things. It was in particular de Chirico's Mystery and Melancholy of an Autumn Afternoon, with its little girl rolling a hoop across a deserted town square towards the ominous shadow of a statue, that had proved a revelation. 'For me', Delvaux recalled, 'Surrealism represented freedom to disobey the rationalist logic that to some extent at least had governed, up to then, the act of painting as well as relations between what I call the elements, as much in nature as in painting. This logic once transcended, these relationships appeared in a new light as much at the intellectual level as the visual, and there suddenly sprang up an awareness of quite different mental relations between objects and people' (J. Meuris, 7 dialogues avec Paul Delvaux accompagnés de lettres imaginaires, Paris, 1971, p. 87). These relationships, Delvaux sought to both exploit and explore in his work, but it was only in the late 1930s, when he 'dared paint a Roman triumphal arch with, on the ground, lighted lamps,' that he realized that 'the decisive step had been taken.' This event, he said, 'was a major revelation' as it enabled him to 'understand that all constraints on creativity disappeared when painting finally uncovered to my eyes its deepest and thus its most essential revelatory powers. Painting could, I realised, have a meaning of its own, it confirmed in a very special way its capacity to play a major emotional role' (Delvaux, quoted in J. Meuris, ibid.).

From this point onwards in his work, the objects and figures of Delvaux's work ceased to have any autonomous meaning, symbolism or significance and became purely pictorial elements, tools or devices through which Delvaux sought to express a convincing pictorial enigma that evoked a strange silence or unconscious shock of recognition. Fixating on certain elements from his childhood memory that had provoked a deep emotional response in him, Delvaux populated his paintings with a range of disparate though seemingly ordinary-looking figures; scientists from the Jules Verne novels he had read as a boy, a bowler-hatted Belgian clerk from his neigbourhood, a wandering naked Everyman, skeletons and Sleeping Venuses of the kind that had fascinated him in the Spitzner Museum and, of course, the cold, bare-breasted, seemingly sleepwalking women that evoke both eroticism and the peaceful nature of a dream.

Delvaux did not - he was always quick to point out - paint his dreams, nor did he intend his paintings to be seen as dreams. Painstakingly arrived at from a conscious and considered constructive process, Delvaux intended his pictures to be seen as proffering fascinating and alternate realities - ones that could only exist in painting and which assert themselves solely through the practice of painting. There is no meaning or narrative that Delvaux has imposed upon his paintings, only the pictorial enigma that emerges from the painting and which defines itself while Delvaux is making it.

Under the dark wooden roof of a large building at either dawn or twilight, a naked maiden stands coolly observing a procession of large stone boulders that trail behind her as if following her. Laying a trail through an entrance to invade the house, these rocks articulate a journey through the mysterious landscape of the painting. Frozen in time and illuminated in the act of disrobing, the magic aura of the moment is captured and conveyed in the elegant pose and disdainful expression of the nude who stands at the centre of this painterly enigma.

This woman, a generic naked figure whom Delvaux uses repeatedly as a life-affirming and erotic element in his art, is one of the tree-women that populates many of the artist's most important canvases from this period. She is no Daphne transforming into a laurel tree to escape Apollo. Delvaux's tree-women are erotic transmutative creatures of the night - the forerunners of his later 'Sleepwalkers of St Idelsbald', those semi-naked nymphs clad in Edwardian costume who, in so many of his later paintings, wander the train stations and waiting rooms of the Belgian night.

With her head adorned with a crown of leaves, apparently growing out of her hair, this tree-woman's disrobing seems an act of revelation. The youthfulness of the vegetal growth and the aura of light around her figure reinforces this and suggests an atmosphere of spring and of lightness standing in direct contrast to the dark and heavy procession of rocks behind her. This contrast both announces and expresses the mystery inherent within this twilight hour. Entitled La veillée (The Vigil), the painting poetically expresses the enigma of the hour as either a journey into the mysteries of the night or perhaps, the final revelation of the dawn.

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