Delvaux's works of the 1920s began first under the influence of the Flemish Expressionists, and later the metaphysical images of the Surrealists. During the post-war period four essential themes permeated Delvaux's work: railway stations, the Greek temple, females, either nude or alluringly draped in diaphanous gowns, and skeletons. To recreate these scenes, he employed an academic method of capturing minute, realistic detail, while rendering the effect of the whole as it were magically seen in the mind's eye. The application of both academic conventions and surrealist effects therefore make Delvaux's work difficult to categorize; unlike René Magritte, he did not make it his first intention to amuse or cajole his audience with a deliberately preposterous pictorial conundrum. Nor did he set out to assault the emotions of his audience with an outrageously provocative image, as Salvadore Dalí might have done. Rather, Delvaux predominantly channeled his favorite modern painter, Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, whom he called "the poet of emptiness...because he suggested that poem of silence and absence" (quoted in Z. Barthelman and J. Van Duen, Paul Delvaux: Odyssey of a Dream, Saint-Idesbal, 2007, p. 14). "De Chirico shifts the pictorial landscape to metaphysical interiors, barren spaces, framed in architectural lines from Antiquity or the Renaissance, spaces with forced perspectives and illogical shadows, and he uses such established pictorial motifs as decors of palaces and frozen places with deserted arcades, locomotives and dehumanized figures (statues, mannequins) applied to the canvas with unified colors and in an unusual order" (M. Rombaut, Paul Delvaux, Barcelona, 1990, p. 14). All of which are tools Delvaux added to his own arsenal, imbued with his own unique brand of Naturalism.
In Promenade la nuit the desolate streets are bathed in a nocturnal light, with warm pools of light emitting from the lampposts. The classical buildings create a backdrop for two beautiful young women who absently wander the avenue with no apparent purpose, as though somnambulists in a dream. The women are dressed in turn of the century garments, with breasts exposed and arms outstretched in poses reminiscent of Christian iconography. There is a sense of physical and mental displacement between the half-clothed women and their environs; their abrupt placement in a public space renders them vulnerable, underlining the fact that in Delvaux's paintings there is no privacy and that even the most personal acts are exposed to the scrutiny of the viewer/voyeur. "At once near and elusive, provocative and innocent, she is a dreamed of and coveted woman, always on the threshold of virginity. And no matter what the metaphorical or analogical representations may be, Delvaux arouses our desire to dream of their origins, to pursue their mysterious wanderings and to capture their poetry this is where Delvaux's genius lies--'the spectacle of a chaste eroticism'" (ibid., p. 21).
(fig. 1) Paul Delvaux in Saint-Lambert square, Liège.
(fig. 2) Giorgio de Chirico, The Soothsayer's Recompense, 1913. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection.