The present work reflects the elision of contrary forces often found in Delvaux’s art - the sensual and the mechanical, the old and the new, the public and the private. The street scene is graced both by classical façades and colonnades of ancient temples and by electrical power lines and a tram. The title itself suggests a contrast between the tram and the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, whose most famous feature was the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, perhaps suggested here by the building on the left. This combination of classical and modern worlds creates an atmosphere akin to that of De Chirico’s piazzas, which often depict a train amidst classical architecture. Another curiosity in the present composition is the inclusion of numbers inscribed on the tram, an instance of the specific and the mundane in an otherwise elusive, esoteric composition.
The central motif of the present work is the passing tram, an image that was an integral part of Delvaux’s world, included in a great number of his paintings. As the artist explained: "I loved trains and my nostalgia for them has stayed with me, a memory from youth. I don't attach any special significance to that, nothing to do with departure, but more an expression of a feeling. I paint the trains of my childhood and through them that childhood itself… the pictures of stations and trains do not represent reality. There remains the strange, a spectacle perhaps? I know that despite the pleasure I have in painting them, railways and stations are somewhat limiting subjects; but wrenching them out of normality has the opposite effect and pushes the subject towards the universal" (quoted in Paul Delvaux 1897-1994 (exhibition catalogue), Op. cit., 1997, p. 27).
In Le Tramway, porte rouge, Ephèse Delvaux explores his fascination with the conventions of perspective in western painting dating back to the Renaissance. The diagonal lines of perspective developed by the Quattrocento masters are here somewhat comically replaced with the lines of the train tracks and the pattern of the paved road. Furthermore, Delvaux plays with the traditional notion of perspective by exaggerating the difference in size between the dominant figure in the foreground and the almost minute semi-nude woman on the left of the composition.
The figure in the foreground, draped in a blue dress that reveals her breast, bends gently to pick up a rose lying on the pavement in front of her. This gesture, which appears in several other oils, is strongly reminiscent of Le Bouton de rose by the Belgian Romantic painter Antoine Wiertz, a work that Delvaux most likely saw at the time in Brussels. Discussing Delvaux’s works depicting women in exotic settings, Barbara Emerson wrote: "One sees the nostalgic use of architectural settings against which are placed beautiful women, pearly to stress their essential irreality.… Florentine mannerism was imported into France where it evolved into the Fontainebleau School, an elegant, erotic, courtly art form. The dominant theme was woman, voluptuous, simpering, introspective or provocative. These earthly goddesses are remote from ordinary experience" (B. Emerson, Delvaux, Paris & Antwerp, 1985, p. 264).
The first owner of the present work was Julien Levy, a New York gallerist. Levy met Marcel Duchamp in 1926 and the following year the two travelled to Paris, where Duchamp introduced Levy to the group of artists who congregated around André Breton in the early days of Surrealism. These meetings were to have a profound influence on Levy’s life; he became a key advocate of Surrealism in the United States, holding the first American exhibition of Surrealist Art in his New York gallery in 1932. A passionate art dealer and collector, Levy exhibited works by a wide range of artists, from all the major Surrealists including Man Ray, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Joseph Cornell, René Magritte, Lee Miller, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, to Arshile Gorky as well as a number of photographers. Le tramway, porte rouge, Ephèse was acquired from Julien Levy by the present owners circa 1965 and has remained in their collection to this day.
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