We would like to thank Fondation Paul Delvaux for their assistance in cataloguing this work.
‘First you will raise the island of the Sirens,
those creatures who spellbind any man alive,
whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close,
off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air –
no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him,
no happy children beaming up at their father’s face.
The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him …’
(Homer, The Odyssey, 12.44-12.50, transl. R. Fagles, London, 2006, p. 272)
From a young age, the epic poetry of Homer had fascinated Paul Delvaux, its tales of heroes and gods, ambitious voyages and grand battles, prompting the artist to fill the margins of his school papers with sketches and drawings of the famous characters and monsters he read about. The rich mental imagery conjured by the ancient prose remained with Delvaux throughout his life, bleeding into the otherworldly, dreamlike compositions that marked his unique brand of Surrealism. Indeed, one of the most enduring motifs within the artist’s oeuvre was that of the siren, the infamous creature who lured sailors to their deaths with the beauty of its enchanting song, and who had tested both Odysseus and the Argonauts on their legendary journeys. Often conflated with the mythical character of the mermaid in the artist’s imagination, Delvaux’s sirens were typically portrayed as dangerously beautiful women, half-human, half-fish, whose spellbinding magnetism could mesmerise and captivate men, drawing them to their doom. In Delvaux’s paintings from the early 1940s, these hybrid figures would typically remain in the distance, frolicking in the shallow waters that lapped against the shore in the background, or waiting, mysteriously, on a far-off beach, their long, sinuous tails flashing in the sunlight. However, as the decade progressed, the artist began to relocate them to the familiar surroundings of an urban landscape, placing them within classically colonnaded squares and atop marble plinths, further heightening the disquieting effects of their presence.
In the present composition, two such creatures drift along the shoreline, a slipway to the sea visible just behind the figure on the right, suggesting they are passing through a harbour or shipyard. Indeed, a tangle of nets can be seen in the background, most likely dangling from the outriggers of a fishing vessel which remains hidden behind the sirens. Filling the entire frame with their sensual beauty, their lithe bodies poised in an almost perfect S-shaped curve, the sirens appear completely absorbed in their own world, fixing their hair as it tumbles down their backs in loose waves or is caught by the sea breeze, completely oblivious to the presence of the viewer. An intense silence blankets the scene, as if every sound has been temporarily extinguished by their presence, from the gentle lapping of the waves, to the whistling of the wind, and the sound the sirens make as they move through the landscape. The complete absence of any human presence, meanwhile, generates an ominous atmosphere, as if the sailors who usually hustle and bustle about the dock, tending to their nets and hauling the daily catch, have already been lost to the spell cast by these enigmatic, alluring creatures.
At the time of Les sirènes creation, Delvaux was living in the coastal town of Saint-Idesbald, in a small cottage-studio nestled among the sand dunes. This quiet hamlet had become something of a refuge for the artist during a period of personal turmoil, as he separated from his wife Suzanne and embarked on a new life with his sweetheart, Tam. The pounding waves just metres from his home, the smell of salt in the air as it drifted through his open window, along with the daily activities of local fishermen may have fed the artist’s imagination, bringing the siren to the fore in his dreamlike compositions. Indeed, the mythological creature was deeply connected to this evocative location within Delvaux’s mind – it had been central to the murals he painted on the exterior walls of the studio of his close friend and long-time resident of Saint-Idesbald, the sculptor George Grard, in 1949.