PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
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PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
4 More
The Collection of Jerry Moss
PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)

La ville oubliée

PAUL DELVAUX (1897-1994)
La ville oubliée
signed and dated 'P DELVAUX 6-10-64' (lower right)
oil on canvas
55 3⁄8 x 70 7⁄8 in (140.5 x 180 cm.)
Painted on 6 October 1964
Dr. Blavier, Liège (acquired from the artist, by 1967, then by descent); sale, Sotheby's, London, 27 June 1989, lot 71.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.
P. Aloîse de Bock, Paul Delvaux: Der Mensch, der Maler, Hamburg, 1965 (illustrated, pl. 41).
P. Aloîse de Bock, Paul Delvaux, Brussels, 1967, p. 300, no. 158 (illustrated, p. 233).
P. Caso, "La vie artistique: Paul Delvaux au Musée d'Ixelles" in Le Soir, 30 November 1967, p. 2.
L'Express, 26 May 1969 (illustrated).
A. Fermiger, "Les femmes nues de Paul Delvaux" in Le Nouvel Observateur, 3 June 1969, p. 51.
A. Terrasse and J. Saucet, Paul Delvaux, Paris, 1972, p. 45 (illustrated).
J. Vovelle, Le Surréalisme en Belgique, Brussels, 1972, p. 200.
M. Butor, J. Clair and S. Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux, Paris, 1975, p. 264, no. 289 (illustrated).
B. Emerson, Delvaux, Antwerp, 1985, p. 197 (illustrated in color).
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, De Generatie van 1900: Surrealisten, Animisten, February 1966, no. 67.
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paul Delvaux, November-December 1966.
Brussels, Musée d'Ixelles, Paul Delvaux, November-December 1967, no. 52.
Venice, Belgian Pavilion, XXXIV Biennale di Venezia, 1968, no. 13.
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paul Delvaux, May-July 1969, no. 65 (illustrated).
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Paul Delvaux, April-June 1973, p. 153, no. 63 (illustrated).
Knokke-Heist, Casino, Paul Delvaux, June-September 1973, p. 152, no. 52 (illustrated).
Tokyo, The National Museum of Modern Art and Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art, Paul Delvaux, March-July 1975, no. 30 (illustrated in color).

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Lot Essay

La ville oubliée is a prime example of Paul Delvaux’s meticulously rendered painted reveries, worlds which are at once compelling yet tantalizingly impenetrable. Inherent in these paintings is a particular sense of unreality which, by evading exact periodization, allows it to function not only as a mythic history unbound by time, but also within an eternal interval between the real and the imaginary. Unsettlingly silent, strangely static, and featuring motifs that recurred throughout his oeuvre, the present painting envisions a fictional place in which desire, death, invented pasts, and impossible futures come together.
La ville oubliée plunges its viewer into a scene redolent with psychological drama. A group of people, a mix of the formally dressed and entirely nude, gather beneath a pergola at once comfortably domestic and open to the elements. Who they are, however, and how they found themselves in this in-between place remains unknowable. Three of the figures gaze into the distance towards the titular forgotten town, now but a collection of skeletal edifices that line the horizon—visits to Florence, Rome, the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and Greece were particularly influential on Delvaux's work. Set among the landscape are free-floating red curtains, perhaps a nod to René Magritte’s iconic leitmotif. For Magritte and Delvaux, the curtains point to an artificiality in both the scene at hand as well as the nature of painting itself. Positioned at the threshold between antiquity and modernity, between remembering and forgetting, as suggested by the painting’s title, and between truth and invention, this atmospheric tableau invites endless interpretations even as it resists a fixed reading.
Born in 1897 in Antheit, a small Belgian village, Delvaux enrolled at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels to study architecture. After failing his first-year exams and quitting the program, Delvaux decided he wanted to be an artist and, with an eye to precision and graphic linearity, his initial canvases drew from academic masters such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The traces of this formal study continued to influence Delvaux’s Surrealist scenes throughout his long career—to structure La ville oubliée, he borrowed from Medieval and Northern Renaissance painting traditions, emphasizing architectural forms, geometrical construction, and linear perspective. The nude women in the foreground as well as the besuited man, the building’s columns, the lamppost, and the hills in the background are all arranged according to the strict and flattening visual system. Here, this perspectival ordering, which conventionally ascribes varying degrees of importance to each pictorial plane according to its position within the composition, has been destabilized as each element itself is eye-catching and equally detailed.
Like many Surrealists, Delvaux’s visual idiom had shifted away from his classical training after an encounter with Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical canvases. It was the mystery of De Chirico’s paintings, as well as his use of color, that so enchanted Delvaux. In works such as La ville oubliée, the palette feels similarly rich and evocative. The artist later reflected, “It was on seeing the work of De Chirico that I discovered that there was an extra dimension to painting” (quoted in B. Emerson, Delvaux, Antwerp, 1985, p. 60).
Delvaux’s paintings exist to provoke moods, and from the dreamlike phantasmagoria of La ville oubliée emerges a world of enigmatic beauty. Imbued with a cryptic potential, the painting exhibits the artist’s instantly recognizable blend of anxiety, nostalgia, and indolence, the latter emphasized as much by the artificial lighting as by the figures’ intense contemplation and inescapable ennui. The artist acknowledged that his paintings embraced layered interpretations. “All my life,” Delvaux reflected, “I’ve tried to transcribe reality, to make it into a kind of dream, where objects, while preserving the appearance of reality, take on a poetic meaning. Thus, the painting becomes fiction. But each object has its logical place. What’s strange is that, to create a painting everything seems complicated at first, when in fact the solution is always simple. Why can’t I begin at the end?” (quoted in Art Lives: Paul Delvaux, documentary film, San Francisco, 2015).

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