Jean Delville’s ‘La Meduse’ (1893)

La Méduse (1893)

Jean Delville (1867-1953), La Méduse, 1893. Ink, blue pencil, pastel, watercolour on paper, 355 x 150 mm, signed and dated below left. Chicago Institute of Art


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Jean Delville’s inscrutable La Méduse (1893) is a skilfully executed invention – a disturbing sphinx-like creation that is an outstanding example of contemporary anti-realist tendencies that valued the imagination and ideas as the primary source of artistic expression.

This exceptional work is an unique re-interpretation of the theme of the frightful Gorgon of antiquity, whose glare petrifies all those who look upon her. She also embodies the archetypal, but complex, emblem of the fatal feminine, popular in contemporary Symbolist art. His treatment of the theme, however, is highly original. On the one hand he resorts to key iconographic elements derived from the traditional myth – notably the head of serpents – but then he also introduces features and motifs that are entirely original: such as the poppies, the saucers filled with indigo liquid and the motif of the veil. This results in a powerfully evocative work whose narrative is equivocal and mysterious, and not easy to interpret in a strictly reductive way. This attribute is a notable feature of Symbolist art generally, which is defined by its suggestive, allusive and ambiguous expressive tropes that invoke an order of reality lying beyond the surface appearances of the sensual world.

La Méduse is a key example of Delville’s sophisticated and expert draftsmanship. His refined linear technique and subtle modulation of form seen here is evidence of his disciplined academic training. He enrolled at an early age in the Belgian Academy of Fine Art and displayed, from the very beginning, a prodigious artistic skill, winning many of the prestigious prizes for drawing while still quite young. His adherence to the spirit of the Classical tradition in art remained with him throughout his life, but he continually updated this tradition, reinventing its principles in line with the vibrant new tendencies in art during the 1890s, as is evident in La Méduse. However, he used his classical technique principally as a vehicle to express more vividly his intellectual and artistic ideas, based on a belief that the transcendental world should be the goal of artistic expression. In other words, the emphasis on a disciplined linear technique employed here is deliberate and reflects Delville’s deeply felt belief that spiritual values are more clearly articulated through line. In this regard he was profoundly influenced by Quattrocento artists whose linear techniques he emulated – at times quite literally – as seen in his tempera masterpiece L’Amour des âmes of 1900 (Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels). In an article published a few years after creating La Méduse, he expressed a clearly mystical formulation in his approach to line: ‘L’Art a commencé par le Dessin, par le ligne et la Ligne, c’est l’âme de l’Equilibre, c’est l’essence même de la Plastique. … Le dessin est la partie la plus élevée, la seul indépendante de la technie picturale et où le génie seul peut se montrer…’ What Delville is suggesting here is that an intimate relationship exists between line and form and the expression of the Ideal in art. In other words, line is an analogic expression of the union of the material and the spiritual, of nature and the Absolute: ‘… La Ligne, dans les choses de la Nature, c’est la signature de Dieu. La Ligne, ne l’oublions jamais, est l’expression symbolique des affinités primordiales qui existent entre l’Esprit et la Matière. La Ligne, ou la Forme, est le mystère du monde physique, le mystère de l’Art, le mystère de la Beauté.’[i]

He places the Medusa in a highly simplified and largely indeterminate setting dominated by a menacing reddish-orange, almost apocalyptic, glow, which creates a lively tension in the work as it contrasts with the green-blue of the serpents and the blue liquid in the saucers as well as the blue of the veil that partly conceals the face of the Medusa. This colour also vaguely suggests the colour of blood – hinting towards the violent murder of the Gorgon described in Classical sources. The composition of this work is narrow and cropped, and he places the figure right up against the picture plane, truncated at the top and bottom. As a result, our attention is not only strongly focussed on the enigmatic and mysterious face of the Medusa, but this cropping also contributes to a tense, disquieting and claustrophobic atmosphere in the drawing as a whole. The Medusa’s delicately articulated, broad face, moreover, is expressionless apart from the very slightest hint of an enigmatic, almost seductive, smile. The lower part of her face is lit up while the remaining areas around her eyes are in darkness. This sets off her glowing, pale blue eyes that stare upwards behind the veil, suggesting that she is in a trance. The veil softens her facial features which are articulated in a subtle sfumato, concealing the details of her neck and shoulders. This gives the impression that the head is disembodied – a hint perhaps of her future fate. It is, however, worth noting that her facial features are those of a contemporary woman, and Delville has in no way tried to idealise her or to create a derivative from classical forms. This gives the image a presence and immediacy and forces one to confront her as a figure that belongs to contemporary reality, and not of the past. In other words she lacks any mediating guise derived from the classical tradition or the Antique. Contemporary viewers would therefore have seen her as someone belonging to their world, which would surely have resulted in a disquieting, if sensational, response.

Delville’s emphasis on the face and head is in fact a typical feature of many of his works as a whole. The head as a subject on its own is an ubiquitous subject of many of Delville’s paintings, especially during the 1890s, whether as a subject of conventional representation such as his many mysterious portraits in blue (the so-called bleuâtres; particularly his Tête de femme de profil of 1894) or represented in a more iconic mode as seen especially in his Mysteriosa (Portrait of Madame Stuart Merrill, 1892) and Parsifal (1890). One of the dominant themes in Delville’s paintings is the severed head, and most striking of these is his Orphée mort (1893) and La fin d’un règne (1893). The theme of the severed head was a key motif in non-realist iconography and predominates in representations of the theme of Salome[ii] and Orpheus.[iii]

The emphasis on the head can be traced to Delville’s hermetic writings where the head is seen to be the seat of the soul. For Delville, the soul animates thought itself through the brain.[iv] The seat of the brain, the head, has for Delville a particular significance: ‘La tête humaine est construite selon les rythmes des lois planétaires; elle est attractive et rayonnante, et c’est sur elle que l’influence astrale, d’ailleurs, se manifeste absolument. Il n’y a pas de différence entre les réseaux des attractions planétaires et les rayonnements des tissus nerveux.’[v] This probably explains why he often includes a radiant light around the head of his figures of hero-initiates and also why the illumination of the face is emphasised in most of his works.

Delville reduces his narrative to a few essential motifs concentrating on the veiled Medusa with her dense mass of serpentine hair; her hands holding bowls of fluid being consumed by the serpents; and surrounding her, four seemingly burnt-out poppy pods. His hieratic Medusa elevates, on either side of her head, the two saucers that contain an azure, blood-like liquid towards which the frenzied mass of serpents swarm – their mouths open as they greedily, energetically, and almost violently, consume the eerie fluid which slops menacingly over the edges of the saucers. The serpents appear to glow, ghost-like, in a green-blue haze. Their bodies are entwined and knotted in a complex writhing mass, which is a bravura demonstration of the artist’s inventive imagination and astonishing technical skill. In fact, the rendering of these serpents results in a finely articulated artistic passage that is highly memorable amongst his works of this period. This seething kinetic clot of serpents contrasts strongly with the static and contemplative face of the Gorgon. This contrast is further enhanced in the way she impassively nurtures her vampirish creatures that, in the original myth, replaced her beautiful locks of hair.

The group of four black poppy pods that surround the Medusa is enigmatic. Two pairs are placed symmetrically on either side of her, from which dark fume-like tendrils emanate resembling some funereal incense staining the morbid air surrounding the figure. This motif further enhances the stifling and claustrophobic atmosphere of this image. Delville condenses the idea of smoking opium – a practise common in European opium dens and popularised in contemporary art and literature – with its source, in depicting the intoxicating vapours emerging from the seed pods themselves, which of course has no basis in reality. Traditionally opium was obtained by scoring the immature seed pods and harvesting the latex which it emitted; this was then processed into the addictive narcotic and then ingested by mixing it with tobacco. Opium abuse was widespread during the nineteenth century and its use is celebrated in many literary texts including Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater of 1822 and Edgar Allen Poe’s story Ligeia   of 1838 – which was referred to by Baudelaire in his Paradis artificiels (IV: ‘L’Homme-Dieu’). In this work Baudelaire, who was admired by Delville, railed against the enslaving effect of opium abuse, referring to opium as, ‘le maître de l’horrible, le prince du mystère.’ His journey into altered worlds induced by narcotic substances, including opium, is well known and widely documented in his writings. The inclusion of this motif in this drawing is therefore a deliberate reference to this key aspect of fin-de-siècle culture.

Interestingly, the trailing smoke from the poppies in Delville’s drawing, as well as the poppy pods themselves, are treated in an abstract, decorative and linear manner. In other words, they are reduced to a series of parallel meandering contour lines that echo the curvilinear interlaced serpents. It is worth noting how this stylised treatment of the smoke drifting from the poppy pods contrasts distinctly with the finely rendered figural treatment of the Medusa herself. This combination of decorative abstraction and naturalistic representation reinforces the ideographic fiction of the drawing and the subject it portrays. This decorative linear element is, moreover, a significant formal feature, often seen in the woodcuts of Toorop, which prefigures the stylistic conventions of Art Nouveau. The beauty of this serpentine line as a formal device to express an altered reality was emphasised by Baudelaire in his Paradis Artificiels when describing the effect of opiates on the imagination. He wrote: ‘La sinuosité des lignes est un langage définitivement clair où vous lisez l’agitation et le désir des âmes. Cependant se développe cet état mystérieux et temporaire de l’esprit, où la profondeur de la vie, hérissée de ses problèmes multiples, se révèle tout entière dans le spectacle, si naturel et si trivial qu’il soit, qu’on a sous les yeux, – où le premier objet venu devient symbole parlant’ (IV: ‘L’Homme-Dieu’). This idea, as already seen, is fundamental to Delville’s aesthetic and he would later use abstracted sinuous linear forms to great effect in works such as L’Amour des Ames (1900) and L’Homme-Dieu (1901-1903, Bruges: Groeninge Museum).

Finally, one is reminded of the fact that these flowers are not commonly associated with the Medusa theme in Classical sources, but are, however, commonly linked to sleep and death. The narcotic fumes enveloping the Medusa could suggest that she is enacting some kind of trance-induced, chthonic ritual – as though she were some sort of sorceress. In this regard she could also be associated with the Classical Sibyls whose prophetic utterings were often induced after inhaling earth-borne fumes. In the visual arts one is reminded of Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (c.1867-70), where the conflation of the image of the poppy and the feminine, with an overriding suggestion of sleep and death, is powerfully invoked. The association between the femme fatale and the poppy is also present in Rossetti’s sonnet Lilith which accompanied his painting Lady Lilith (1863, Delaware: Delaware Art Museum) in the lines: ‘The rose and poppy are her flower; for where/ Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent/ And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?’ The emblem of the poppy in relation to the idea of sleep and death is also frequently invoked in the work of Fernand Khnopff, most notably in his I Lock My Door upon Myself (1895) and Une Recluse (1909), where it is linked directly with Hypnos, the god of sleep and dreams. The black desiccated poppy pods in Delville’s image probably serve as a reminder of death, an attribute closely associated, of course, with Medusa herself.

The balance of heightened, dramatic energy in the articulation of the serpents and the passive, controlled expression of the Medusa creates an unsettling tension in Delville’s drawing. Compositionally, however, he manages to achieve a sense of balance through the relationship between the narrow horizontal format of the work and the rigidly symmetrical placing, around the centrally positioned head, of the vertical pillar-like arms carrying the two saucers. The placing of the poppy pods on either side further enhances this symmetry and the concomitant sense of regularity and balance seen elsewhere. Moreover the vertical thrust of the arms and veil are offset by the horizontal undulating (and chaotic) mass of serpents and the meandering fumes emerging from the poppies – especially the two lugubrious plumes cutting across the figure in the foreground – all of which enhance the sense of movement and repose that sustains the underlying logic of this image. It might be worth noting that an absolute symmetry is avoided in the difference in the number of smoke plumes on the left and right hand side: he arranges these in a non-parallel placing of six pods on the left and five on the right.

One ought also to comment very briefly on the obvious number symbolism implicit in these poppy pods depicted in the work. Three smoky streams emanate from three of the pods, while from the fourth – to the extreme right – only two emerge. Added together there are, in other words, ten smoke streams. This configuration therefore results in the representation of the numbers two, three, four, nine and eleven. Delville stated explicitly throughout his writings that number plays a significant role in artistic expression, and his interest in the occult would have drawn him to the works of contemporaries who wrote extensively on the significance of number symbolism such as Gerard Encausse (better knows as Papus), whose writings such as Traité élémentaire de Science Occulte, Traité Méthodique de Magie Pratique and La Science des Nombres, deals exhaustively with this aspect of the hermetic world view to which Delville subscribed. The significance of the numbers represented in La Méduse is dealt with extensively in the writings of Papus.

Delville left very few written accounts of his art and only a small number of his personal letters survive, which means that we have few definitive starting points when attempting to interpret his drawing and paintings. This is ironic – given that he was a prodigious author of many books, articles, and essays on art; but perhaps it was also deliberate as it forces one to confront his paintings in an unmediated way in order to recreate their meaning as one would a symbol. The theme does, however, have strong contemporary resonances and it is worth noting that the image of the Medusa was very popular amongst his contemporaries. It should therefore be emphasised that this drawing is one of the earliest expressions of this motif in Symbolist art – Khnopff’s more iconic Blood of the Medusa, would follow much later in 1898, and his allusive Sleeping Medusa in 1909. Precursors to Delville’s work include Arnold Boecklin’s late-Romantic interpretation of the theme evident in his Medusa of 1878 – depicting a face that is resigned and dying, an effect enhanced by the flaccid serpents sagging around her. But Delville’s interpretation of the theme does not focus on the more canonical episode of the decapitation of Medusa and the use of the head by Perseus as a weapon. A dramatic early example of this kind expressing the anguish of the Gorgon is evident in Caravaggio’s Medusa (1597, Uffizi) and Rubens’s Head of Medusa (1615, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The writhing mass of snakes in the former share the same energy and dynamism seen in Delville’s image. A variation of this theme is also evident in Burne-Jones’s The Baleful Head (1886-7, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart) with which Delville was most probably familiar, given his enthusiasm for Burne-Jones and other pre-Raphaelites. But the suffering of the Medusa is absent in Delville’s treatment of the theme. She is passive, in control and, in fact, a nurturing figure; an image that is far removed from the gruesome, bleeding and disembodied head commonly found in artistic images representing this Gorgon.

The great achievement of Delville’s work lies in the fact that he creates an allusive and ambiguous motif existing in its own iconographic and pictorial reality – an autonomous visual emblem not uncommon to Symbolist art. The ambiguity of his Medusa lies in the fact that she is at once gentle and nurturing, but at the same time expressing an understated and subtle cruelty and malevolence. The sense of menace in this work is implicit in the eerily luminous eyes gleaming through the surrounding darkness. It gives her a surreal and inhuman character, as if she were a creature of prey whose eyes glow in the dark, or a vampirish figure of the dead. The effect is mesmerising and haunting and reinforces her chilling allure. Delville actually repeats this motif from his earlier evocation of a lubricious, malevolent and ambivalent fatal female depicted in his L’Idole de la Perversité of 1891, which shares many features seen in La Méduse – including an aureole of luminous serpents and the fact that she wears a veil. When conjuring this motif Delville might have had in mind a passage from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, especially the lines from ‘L’Irrémédiable’ describing the descent of the damned soul into darkness while surrounded by ‘des monstres visqueux/ Dont les larges yeux de phosphore/ Font une nuit plus noire encore’.

The eyes are turned upwards, highly reminiscent of his treatment of the head in Madame Stuart Merrill – Mysteriosa (Musées des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), which he created the previous year in 1892. This motif is also included in the expression of the young boy in his Ange des Splendeurs (1894, Musées des Beaux-Arts, Brussels). This trance-like attitude is significant and suggests that the Medusa is a more ambivalent figure than one initially suspects. A reference to this expression can be sourced in the writings of Eliphas Lévi, whose works were influential in Delville’s occult circle of writers and poets with whom he was closely associated. In a cogent passage from his Histoire de la Magie, Eliphas Lévi described exactly this ecstatic visionary attitude, with its rolled-back eyes, as a condition induced through a concentration of astral light – and it would be entirely relevant to read this motif in La Méduse in exactly this sense; suggesting that Delville’s sphinx-like Medusa is experiencing an hallucinatory episode – a moment of introspective, perhaps even visionary – clairvoyance: ‘Quand le cerveau se congestionne ou se surcharge de lumière astrale, il se produit un phénomène particulier. Les yeux, au lieu de voir en dehors, voient en dedans; la nuit se fait à l’extérieur dans le monde réel et la clarté fantastique rayonne seule dans le monde des rêves. L’œil alors semble retourné et souvent, en effet, il se convulse légèrement et semble rentrer en tournant sous la paupière. … Là est la source de toutes les apparitions, de toutes les visions extraordinaires et de tous les phénomènes intuitifs qui sont propres à la folie ou à l’extase.’[vi] In this regard, the motif suggests that his Medusa is a figure that alludes to the world of the occult and the transformative magical practises associated with that tradition with which Delville was familiar. Like Mme Merrill – with her iconic hermetic book – this Medusa is more of a clairvoyant sorceress of the Mysteries, than a malevolent monster derived directly from classical mythology. Delville’s Medusa is, in other words, a highly textured symbol relating to contemporary ideas, and less a literal representation derived from classical sources.

This hermetic aspect of La Méduse is further reinforced by the addition of a non-canonical veil draped in front of her. The veil motif is used extensively during the period. The connotations of the veil are numerous and one is immediately reminded of the veils of Salome – temptress supreme – a figure, as Huysmans put it, ‘with a haunting fascination for artists and poets’ of the fin-de-siècle.[vii] The theme of Salome was represented obsessively during the period, notably in Aubrey Beardsley’s The Dancer’s Reward (1894) and Franz von Stuck’s Salome (1906). Other typical examples include Félicien Rops’ Modernité – a contemporary transformation of the theme, and Lucien Levy-Dhurmer’s Salome Kissing the head of John the Baptist (1896). The veil, however, also suggests the notion of the Bride. There are several notable examples of the theme of the Bride during the fin de siècle. Significantly most of these are contemporary with Delville’s Medusa, for example: Jan Thorn Prikker’s The Bride (1893), Jan Toorop’s The Three Brides (1893), or works created later such as Alfred Kubin’s The Bride of Death (1900). But the image of a woman concealed behind a veil was, of course, already present in the work of Delville’s compatriot, Fernand Khnopff, notably his funereal The Veil (c. 1890), which might have been a starting point for this motif in Delville’s drawing.[viii] Delville used, however, this motif of the veil in his earlier Idole de la perversité.

The sense of mystery conjured by the veil is emblematic of the notion of concealment, of arcane or mystical secrets revealed to initiates in the hermetic and esoteric tradition. It is often associated with the tradition of a mysterious figure that is the source of higher knowledge, found especially in Romantic poetry in the figure of the inspirational muse, for example, in the novellas of the German Romantic author Novalis and especially his The Pupil of Saïs and Heinrich of Ofterdinge. In the context of the occult tradition, the veil also suggests the figure of Isis whose veil conceals the mysteries of esoteric wisdom and initiation, ‘the thick veil which conceals the invisible wonders from the eyes of men’.[ix] Plutarch records an inscription at the shrine of Isis at Sais, frequently quoted in esoteric literature, which states: ‘I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and my veil no mortal has hitherto raised.’[x] The veil of mystery was an important image in Theosophical writings. Blavatsky refers to this in the title of her first theosophical work Isis Unveiled. A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Theology. Lifting the veil was frequently referred to by theosophists (Delville became an ardent Theosophist) as a metaphor for revealing the mystery of the secret doctrine of occultism or the attainment of spiritual enlightenment, or initiation.[xi]

The image of Isis is a central symbol in mythology and esoteric thought representing the principle of the ‘Eternal Feminine’. She commands the cycles of birth and death in her role as goddess of nature, not only the cycles of physical birth and death but the symbolic birth and death experienced in the ancient rites of initiation. The analogy between death and the awakening to occult knowledge, signified through ‘lifting the veil’, is clearly suggested in de Nerval’s incantation to Isis: ‘O nature! ô mère éternelle! était-ce là vraiment le sort réservé au dernier de tes fils célestes? Les mortels en sont-ils venus à repousser toute espérance et tout prestige, et, levant ton voile sacré, déesse de Saïs! le plus hardi de tes adeptes s’est-il donc trouvé face à face avec l’image de la Mort?’ [xii]

The significance of the image of Isis, as the embodiment of the esoteric power, would have been familiar to the artists of the fin de siècle from various obvious sources, most notably in the writings of Edouard Schuré’s (a friend of Delville), and particularly his The Great Initiates. Schuré explains that Isis has three different meanings: ‘Literally she personifies Woman, and from this the universal feminine gender. Comparatively, she personifies the fullness of terrestrial nature, with all its reproductive powers. In the superlative, she symbolises celestial and invisible nature, itself the element of souls and spirits, spiritual light, intelligible in itself, which initiation alone confers.’[xiii] Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, with whom Delville was acquainted, invoked the Egyptian goddess in his occult novel Isis of 1862 as the protagonist, the enigmatic Tullia Fabriana, meditates on the enigma of the Sphinx:

Sphinx !… ô toi, le plus ancien des dieux! … murmura la belle vierge prométhéenne, je sais que ton royaume est semblable à des steppes arides et qu’il faut longtemps marcher dans le désert pour arriver jusqu’à toi. L’ardente abstraction ne saurait m’effrayer ; j’essaierai. Les prêtres, dans les temples d’Egypte, plaçaient, auprès de ton image, la statue voilée d’Isis, la figure de la Création; sur le socle, ils avaient inscrit ces paroles: « Je suis ce qui est, ce qui fut, ce qui sera: personne n’a soulevé le voile qui me couvre.» Sous la transparence du voile, dont les couleurs éclatantes suffisaient aux yeux de la foule, les initiés pouvaient seuls pressentir la forme de l’énigme de pierre, et, par intervalles, ils le surchargeaient encore de plis diaprés et mystérieux pour mettre de plus en plus le regard des hommes dans l’impuissance de la profaner. Mais les siècles ont passé sur le voile tombé en poussière ; je franchirai l’enceinte sacrée et j’essaierai de regarder le problème fixement.[xiv]

It would not be too far fetched to suppose the Delville’s Medusa embodies qualities of the Sphinx as well – an iconic symbol of the period and that she therefore embodies the qualities of an initiatory figure, which populated his art generally. Although he never created literal representations of Sphinxes (apart from his poster designs for the Salons d’Art Idéaliste), many of his female creations express implicitly qualities commonly associated with the sphinx, i.e., the mysterious feminine with her air of mystery and wisdom as well as her ambiguous relationship between the material and transcendental orders of reality. Delville invoked these aspects of the motif in his poem ‘Sphinge Blanche’ from his anthology Les Horizon Hantés:

En son profil sacre d’archange hiératique
ravi dans sa mysticité d’un marbre divin,
comme un lys transparait l’idéal féminin
qui séraphise son blanc visage extatique
L’infini de ses yeux s’illumine aux splendeurs
sereines, flammes de l’azur élégiaque,
et, vierge immaculée et paradisiaque
vestalement rêve son âme d’albes candeurs
Sphinge, sa lèvre énigmatique renie
le verbe impur et profane de la vie
– et nul songe humain n’a hante son front astral
ce saint front d’idole, ce pur front d’élite
en la spiritualité duquel palpite
la suprême ferveur d’un culte sidéral.

There are some notable passages in this poem which describe very well the enigmatic figure in Delville’s La Méduse; especially the description of ‘l’infini de ses yeux’, their ‘flammes de l’azur élégiaque’, her ‘lèvres énigmatique’ and the hieratic nature of this astral ‘idéal féminin’ with her ‘profil sacre’ and ‘visage extatique’.
Delville has created in his La Méduse a complex image that is allusive and highly suggestive. She feeds her frenzied brood of serpents in a trance-like demeanour, which is mesmerising – combining a sense of horror and beauty at the same time. The work tantalises with its reference to the classical source of the fatal Gorgon, but in adding motifs that do not belong to the original source he reworks the narrative, updating it, and giving it a contemporary gloss. She is a creature of mystery, familiar yet at the same time unknown, resulting in a classic reworking of the theme of the archetypal feminine. She is a synthesis of sphinx, sorceress and mythic monster combined to create a powerful evocation of the eternal feminine. The image is, in short, an ideal testament to Delville’s extraordinary power of invention, which is a hallmark of his work during the1890s.

The work also expresses vividly key aspects of his aesthetic that he was developing at this early stage of his career, particularly his tendency to synthesise the traditional and the modern, using an expert technique to articulate his imagination in order to accomplish this. His development of the importance of line, derived from the Classical tradition and used here with such brilliance, is a key formal element of his style to which he adhered throughout his career.

In the spirit of the Renaissance invenzione, he has bodied forth the form of things unknown, bringing to life this creature of his imagination in a work of art that is startlingly persuasive. Idea, form and technique are perfectly balanced in this drawing to achieve a faultless and compelling realisation of his Idealist aesthetic. It is well to remember that Delville’s artistic goal was to initiate a school of painting that would pursue a form of hermetic Idealism. In other words, an aesthetic that is fundamentally intellectual in approach and concerned with spiritual ideas that are expressed through ideal forms and articulated in a polished classical-idealist technique. He formulated his aesthetic as a threefold system bringing together his notions of la Beauté spirituelle (idea), la Beauté plastique (form) and la Beauté technique (execution). This triple schema – with its emphasis on the expression of Ideal Beauty through the perfection of idea, form and technique – he termed l’Esthétique Idéaliste. He never wavered from this goal, and La Méduse is an impressive realization of its core principles.

[i] Delville, ‘Le Discours de Jean Delville Prononcé à sa réception dans la salle de l’Académie comme Lauréat du Prix de Rome.’ La Ligue Artistique. No. 22, November 1895, p. 4.

[ii] See also Moreau’s The Apparition 1876, Franz von Stuck’s Salome (1906), Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer’s Salome embracing the severed head of John the Baptist (1896), and Odilon Redon’s Head of a Martyr (n.d) are notable examples.

[iii] Vide Maria Luisa Frongia. Il Mito di Orfeo nella pittura simbolista francese. Università Degli Studi di Cagliari. Estratto de Annali delle Facoltà di Lettere-Filosofia e Magistero. Vol. XXXVI 1973. Gallizzi-Sassari 1974.

[iv] Vide. Delville, Dialogue entre Nous. Argumentation Kabbalistique, Occultiste, Idéaliste, Bruges, Daveluy Frères, 1895, pp. 11-15, 16.

[v] Delville, Dialogue entre Nous. Ibid., p. 17.

[vi] Eliphas Lévi, Histoire de la Magie. Avec une Exposition Glaire et Précise de ses Procèdes, de ses Rites et de ses Mystères. Paris : Germer Bailliére, Libraire-Éditeur, 1860, pp. 20-21.

[vii] Huysmans, Against Nature. A new translation by Robert Baldick, Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin, Great Britain, 1959, p. 65.

[viii] Other notable examples by Khnopff include: Tête d’une femme (1898), Un Voile bleu (c. 1909) and Un Rideau bleu (1909).

[ix] Edouard Schuré. The Great Initiates, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1961

[x] Plutarch, De Iside, 9, 354C. A hymn addressed to Isis-Net expresses this idea of the Veil Of Nature which hides the mystery of truth from human eyes:
Hail, mother great, not hath been uncovered thy birth!
Hail goddess great, within the underworld which is doubly
hidden thou unknown one!
Hail thou divine one great, not hath been unloosed!
O unloose thy garment [veil].
Hail [Hidden One], not is given by way of entrance to her…

  1. A. Wallis Budge, The Gods of the Egyptians, volume I, London, 1904, p. 459, cited in M Esther Harding, Woman’s Mysteries, Ancient and Modern, Shambhala, Boston and Shaftesbury, 1990, p. 182.

[xi] The inscription is quoted by G R S Mead in ‘Theosophy and Occultism’ published Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine, eds. Helena Petrova Blavatsky and Annie Wood Besant, September 1891 to February 1892, p. 112.

[xii] Gérard de Nerval, Isis. In, Nerval le rêve et la vie, Hachette, Paris, 1955, p. 166.

[xiii] Schuré, The Great Initiates, p. 191-192.

[xiv] Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Isis. Paris: Librairie Internationale, 1862, pp. 131-132. This mystery of the veil is vividly articulated in a late work by Khnopff, The Blue Veil, (1909).


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