Key Paintings

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L’Ange des Splendeurs (“The Angel of Splendour”, 1894)

oil on canvas, 127 x 146 cm. Brussels: Musées royaux des beaux-arts de Belgique.
Delville (1)

This is undoubtedly one of Delville’s most visionary images of the early 1890s. The work refers to Delville’s interests in the idea of initiation and the spiritualisation of the soul. As seen in many of his works, Delville often plays on the tension between opposites: light and dark, spirit and matter, Nature and the Ideal, etc. These ideas are personified in this work in the duality between the androgynous Angel and the young androgynous youth who is ensnared in the natural or material realm. His lower torso is engulfed in serpents and surrounded by toads, spiders, butterflies and other life-forms of the natural world. The Angel, on the other hand is a vision of diaphanous gold, clothed in a dress that is more fluid than material, emanating a soft, but intense, light. Her face is of the exquisite beauty commonly seen in Renaissance portraiture, notably in the work of Leonardo, who Delville admired. The bright aureole that surrounds her face beaming light in all directions is a common signifier of her spiritual nature. Her proportions are odd, by human standards, and they were criticised by his contemporaries, but Delville understood that to humanise the angel would be to contradict her symbolic function in this work. She remains a being who is physically of her own, transcendental, realm.  She points upwards indicating the path to the Ideal realm of spirit and beauty while the youth reaches towards her in an attempted gesture to release himself from the material snares that envelop him from below. There is an obvious tension here, as it is not entirely clear whether the youth will make it, or sink back into the deadening material realm from which he is emerging. The first step on the path of initiation and transcendence is to overcome and control the limitations of the illusory material dimension, and specifically to control the passions and desires, in order to clear the path for the transcendence of the soul. This painting is a totem of that moment in the initiatory drama that Delville expressed in many of his paintings and poems at the time.


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 L’Amour des âmes (“The Love of Souls”, 1900)

tempera and oil on canvas, 268 x 150 cm. Brussels: Musée communal des beaux-arts d’Ixelles.

Delville (3)

This is undoubtedly one of Delville’s most subtly articulated and beautiful images of the period. Delville depicts the union of souls, male and female, in a cosmic setting. This painting suggests a theme important to Delville and his contemporaries regarding the return to unity in the dual male and female principles of human experience that results in spiritual androgyny. Male energy and female energy is united to form a state of wholeness and complete unity of Being. It is a cosmic conception of the goal of existence, beyond opposites, polarity and discord. This state signifies a return to the original state of perfection and integration of opposites that unites us to the Cosmic mind; beyond time and space and the duality of physical and material existence. This spiritual union gives birth to the transcendent being; the cosmic Christ within. Delville often wrote of the nature of duality and the forces of opposites, as well as the need to bring these into harmony, in other words achieving Equilibrium. In fact, he understood the experience of opposition in nature (human as well as in the natural world) as an underlying ‘law’ relating to what he termed the ‘Equilibrium in the Universal Order’, with regard to which, he wrote:

In spite of a contrary appearance, all the forces, all the manifestations of nature influence each other with currents of negative polarity and positive polarity, undeniable astral influences. … The great contrasts of life, however, are responsible for all the misery, all the hardship; are they responsible for the production of Chaos?

A huge mistake: The Great and the Small, the Strong and the Weak, the High and the Low, the Active and the Passive, the Full and the Empty, the Weighty and the Dense, Exterior and Interior, the Visible and the Invisible, the Beautiful and the Ugly, the Good and the Bad, Essence and Substance, Spirit and Matter are divergent forces which eternally constitute the great Equilibrium in the Universal Order. It is a Natural Law, and no philosophy, no dogma, no doctrine will ever prevail over It. (Delville, ”Dialogue Entre Nous. Argumentation Kabbalistique, Occultiste, Idéaliste” (Bruges: Daveluy Frères, 1895), pp. 77-8.)

The setting of this work is important. Delville places the figures in an indeterminate, cosmic setting, suggesting that they are not figures that have human substance, but are rather symbols of the transcendent spiritual nature of man and woman. The ribbons of colour surrounding them suggests a fluid energy field upon which they are buoyed; an idea that Delville and his contemporaries often referred to as ‘astral light’ — an energy-force that animates living entities; much like the idea of ‘the field’ in quantum physics.

Delville painted this work in Tempera, where pigments are mixed with egg white to create a luminous finish and a highly durable work of art. He was highly influenced by the artists of the Italian Renaissance who often used Tempera in their works, and which, to this day, retain their purity of colour and luminosity to a high degree. The close-up details reveal his technique of applying the paint in small strokes, rather than blend the colours on the palette, they are blended by the eye. To achieve this effect one has to be highly skilled as a draughtsman.


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L’École de Platon, (“The School of Plato”, 1898)

oil on canvas, 260 x 605 cm. Paris: Musée d’Orsay.

 Delville (4)

In this important painting, Delville invokes the serene beauty of the Classical world and its aesthetic and philosophical principles. Delville painted this work while he was in Italy on his artistic sojourn there after winning the coveted Belgian Prix de Rome. Delville was then, at last, able to study the classical works of the Renaissance and the ancient world that profoundly influenced his artistic ideas.
The scale of the painting is impressive, measuring 2.60 metres high by 6.05 metres long, and Delville certainly had in mind large-scale Academic History paintings which were the preserve of erudite artistic subjects painted in the classical tradition, which he sought to renew. The figures depicted are almost life size. The style of the painting is inspired by the Italian frescoes by Raphael and Maichelangelo that Delville would have seen while in Rome; characterised by bold articuation of forms with a matte (as opposed to a glossy) finish. The painting was first exhibited at Delville’s final Salon d’Art Idéaliste in Brussels in 1898. The work was universally praised as a masterpiece by his contemporaries. The leading avant-garde art journal L’Art Moderne, which was frequently hostile towards Delville and his art, praised his work in the following: ‘Jean Delville … has created a Work! A superb work of art: The School of Plato, to which he refers as “an essay in Fresco” – Go and see it! It is of a calm, a serene, a grand and delicious Beauty … Ideal, yes, truly ideal. The programme shows his worth and it is magnificent.… It is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! (‘Geste 3e des Salons d’Art idéaliste a la Maison d’Art’, L’Art Moderne, 12 (20 March 1898), p. 93.)

Delville was immersed in studying the esoteric tradition and the hidden philosophies that were popular at the time. This was a tradition that extolled the virtues of self-improvement and spiritual progress through initiation. Edouard Schuré already identified Plato as one of the ‘Great Initiates’, in other words, light bearers who guide humanity towards higher consciousness and deeper spiritual awareness during our earthly incarnation. Plato taught of the essential duality between the material and metaphysical dimensions; his gesture, pointing upwards and downwards alludes to this duality between macrocosm and microcosm. Attainment of the Ideal realm and the expression of its truths in physical form was the key notion in Delville’s aesthetic philosophy. He wrote often that the goal of art should aspire towards expressing Absolute, or Spiritual Beauty in physical form. He saw Classical art as the purest expression of this goal and he sought a revival of this idea in art, reworking it in a way that was appropriate for his contemporary cultural era. For Delville, moreover, the human body, was the purest expression of Ideal and Spiritual Beauty. He therefore often resorted to the depiction of nude male and female figures in his art as vehicles for the expression of this Ideal; as is clearly seen in this work. Concerning the spiritual importance of the nude as a vehicle for the expression of a Spiritual ideal he wrote:

The nude has the high quality of being synthetic and universal. … in evoking Mankind, it evokes Humanity and all the beauty of Life, not life as we modern beings understand it, comprising nerves, morbid fevers and agitation, but the great universal life, which enriches the spirit and the earth, makes stars and souls resplendent and makes space vibrate, which beats in substance as in essence, which rules and moves the Universe, the beings and the objects, mortal or immortal, in the infinite rhythm and the mystery of Eternity, divine macrocosm and human microcosm where Universal Beauty, made of Love, Wisdom and Light, shines and is reflected forever.

(Quoted in Delville, La Mission de l’Art, Brussels: Georges Balat, 1900, pp. 62-3.)

The men in this painting are conceived in an idealised androgynous form: a concept that Delville, following Péladan, developed to express the ideal of a non-erotic perfection of the human state that synthesises the male and female principle in an idea of wholeness and perfection, which emulates the original state of human perfection that precedes our split, dual experience of reality in our earthly incarnation.

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Above: Jean Delville. early study for “L’Ecole de Platon”, oil on board.
Below: Jean Delville. Drawing study for “L’Ecole de Platon”, pencil on paper with white highlights.

 

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Les Trésors de Sathan, (“Sathan’s Treasures”, 1895)

oil on canvas, 258 x 268 cm. Brussels: Musées royaux des beaux-arts de Belgique.

 Delville (7)


Delville exhibited his Trésors de Sathan (Sathan’s Treasures) at the Salon de Gand in September 1895 while he was working on his entry for the Belgian Prix de Rome. It was then exhibited in Brussels for the first time in 1896 at Delville’s first ”Salon d’Art Idéaliste”. This was one of Delville’s first ‘breakthrough’ paintings and one of his most important works from his artistic period up to 1895

On the whole, Delville’s works generally deal with the theme of the duality between nature (human or otherwise) and the transcendental world. Delville was an Idealist, in other words, he believed in the reality of a transcendental or spiritual dimension as the basis of reality. Our perceptual material world is, in this world-view, seen merely an illusion that brings suffering and discontent. Our goal is to spiritualise our being and refine our material selves, which includes our desires and need for the fulfillment of material satisfaction. Without a spiritual context in mind, men and women simply become deadened materialistic entities always governed by their desires, passions, greed and ego-driven need for control and power over others. This is the realm of matter, or in Delville’s cosmology, the realm of Sathan, who controls and governs our lower state of being. Without a spiritual goal in life, we are merely slaves to Sathan and are completely submissive to his power; we become his ‘treasure’ as is implied in the title of this painting. Here Delville depicts Sathan as a rather attractive figure, beguiling, powerful and seductive, dragging the hapless mass of men and woman to his undersea lair. Significantly the figures are not in a state of pain or agony, as is usually the case in Western depictions of Satan’s underworld. Here they appear to be in a state of reverie and bliss, unconscious of their lives and the value of the spiritual reality of their existence, and succumbing, rather, entirely to the lure of gold and sensual pleasure; in other words, material greed and sensualism that Delville saw as a trap and a catastrophic diversion from humanity’s true goal which is to spriritualise one’s being and enter the higher realm of consciousness and spiritual bliss which he referred to as the ‘Ideal’.

The theme of exercising control over one’s lower nature, of erotic temptation and indulgence was believed by Delville and his esoteric contemporaries (especially Joséph Péladan) to represent the first stage on the path of initiation. This was first suggested in Edouard Schuré’s influential work The Great Initiates and outlined in a passage reconstructing the Egyptian initiatory trials. He recounts how the final trial is set to resist erotic temptation personified in the form of an alluring female figure. (See Edouard Schuré, Les Grandes Initiés,Paris, Perrin, reprint, 1921, p. 135.

Delville expressed these ideas in an article published in the contemporary journal Le Mouvement Littéraire in 1893:

Erotic fever has sterilised most minds. One ordinarily thinks of himself as virile because he satisfies a woman’s unquenched bestial desires. Well, that’s where the great shame of the cerebral degeneration of our time starts. The poet, the artist, the scientist are mostly attached to the spiritual functions rather than the emasculating animal functions. The real male is he whose mind can dominate the body and who only responds to solicitations of the flesh as his will allows. … if the works of the Sar, a virile man if ever there was one, energetically banish sexual conflicts, that is, are a consistent plea in favour of chastity, it is because he has studied the ravages of carnal love, because he has understood that one has to beware of the feelings of the heart, a heart in love being a dangerous accomplice of instinct. … Unfortunately, for the most part, we remain stubbornly ignorant of the fact that real virginity develops highly the powers of the soul, and that, to those who dedicate themselves to it, it imparts faculties unknown to the rest of the human race.

(Jean Delville, ‘Conférence sur “Comment on Devient Mage” du Sar Mérodack J. Péladan’, Le Mouvement Littéraire, 45 (8 December 1893), p. 358.)

There are also frequent references to ‘Sathan’ in Delville’s 1897 anthology of poems Frisson du Sphinx, for example his ‘Les Murmures de l’Ombre’, ‘Tête d’Ombre’, ‘La Tempête’ and ‘l’Etoile Noire’. This last is a typical evocation of the motif that runs through Delville’s writings, and is worth quoting in full:

”L’ÉTOILE NOIRE”
Du plus profond enfer du mal et du néant
l’on voit le noir éclat de l’astre satanique
darder sinistrement, comme en une panique,
ses néfastes rayons au coeur du mécréant.

Sathan brûle ce feu sombre des maléfices
pour fasciner les yeux coupables et damnés
et pour faire jaillir sur tous ceux qui sont nés
le chaos infernal des ténèbres complices.

Mêlant son despotisme à son absurdité,
contre le Beau, l’Amour, le Ciel, la Vérité,
c’est le mensonge haineux et la lourde ignorance.

O ! vieil astre de mort, effroyable appareil,
vous êtes la nuit froide et la morne impuissance,
car le sang clair du Christ est l’âme du soleil!

 

The Dark Star
From the deepest hell of evil and nothingness one sees the dark glare of the satanic star sinisterly shining, as in a panic,its harmful rays of light into the heart of the unbeliever. Sathan burns this dark fire of evil sorcery to enthral every damned and guilty eye and to spurt upon all those that are born the infernal chaos of conniving darkness. Mixing his despotism with absurdity,of lies full of hatred and heavy ignorance, against the Beautiful, Love, Heaven and Truth. O! old star of death, device of horror, you are but frigid night and dismal impotence, for the limpid blood of Christ is the soul of the sun!


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Le Christ glorifié par les enfants (“Christ Glorified by the Children”, 1894)

oil on canvas, 222 x 247 cm. Antwerp: Academy of Fine Arts

Jean Delville3

Delville entered the highly prestigious Belgian Prix de Rome in 1895, and won. His participation in the competition was controversial as it was seen to be run by the Establishment which contemporary avant-garde artists despised. Delville was extremely poor at the time and it was on the suggestion of a close artist friend that he saw an opportunity to alleviate his state of poverty and also to be able to afford to travel to Italy to see the art of the Renaissance which he admired so much.

The theme of the competition that year was Le Christ glorifié par les enfants. Delville recorded his experience in his autobiography:

The rules were demanding … At that time the six selected competitors for the final exam had to paint their work in a secluded lodge, after leaving the original preliminary drawing in a hallway of the Antwerp Academy. It was strictly forbidden to bring any drawings into the lodge, only live models were allowed there. While working on their painting, the competitors had to change their clothes each time they entered their lodge, after having been visited by a specially appointed supervisor. These procedural requirements were the moral guarantee of this great contest in which these artists from the country took part…. As soon as they were selected, they entered into a lodge in order to produce, over three days, the sketch of the requisite painting, and they were given eighty days to complete it without receiving any visitors or advice from anyone – in order to ensure that the competitors were the unique and personal author of the work so that the jury, composed of the country’s most well-known artists, could cast a definitive judgement.

The painting that he produced is an astonishingly accomplished piece in the Academic Realist tradition and clearly shows off Delville’s talent as a painter and colourist. The work had to be created largely from imagination and it demonstrates further Delville’s ability to express a great deal of drama and expression in bringing to life historical subjects. If one compares it, however, to his “Les Trésors de Sathan” or “L’Ange des Splendeurs”, it is clear how, in the latter, he was developing his own Idealist style that was so different from the traditional Academic style favoured by the Establishment. That Delville could adapt his approach in such a fluent manner is a clear demonstration of his skill as an artist.


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L’Homme-Dieu, (“Man-God”, 1903)

oil on canvas, 500 x 500 cm. Bruges: Groeningemuseum.

Delville (6)

This painting marked a departure for Delville in terms of his development as an artist as well as his growing interest in Theosophy. The work was one of the largest he created to date at twenty five metres squared and is an impressive image for the complexity of its composition as well as it tightly co-ordinated arrangement of so many figures. Delville depicts a range of attitudes and experiences amongst the figures below representing human suffering: birth, death, passionate love, and so on. As the figures rise they become more conscious and are hence depicted upright arms outstretched towards the Christ-like figure above who draws them towards their resurrection from an unconscious sleep. Delville was not orthodox Christian, but he did believe in the idea of the Cosmic Christ. Edouard Schuré wrote of Christ as one of the ‘Great Initiates’, like Buddha, Plato and Orpheus –  lightbearers who bring spiritual wisdom to humanity to accelerate humanity’s evolution towards spiritual wisdom. Delville’s poems often invoke the image of the Cosmic Christ as a figure of love and redemption guiding humanity towards a fuller spiritual awakening.

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