Galerie Zwirner, Cologne (acquired by 1972)
Jake L. Hamon, Dallas (acquired by 1985)
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1996
Brussels, Musée d’Ixelles, Paul Delvaux, 1967, no. 58
Dallas, Dallas Museum of Art (on loan 1985-1996)
Paul-Aloïse de Bock, Paul Delvaux, Brussels, 1967, no. 167, illustrated
Serge Young, 'Le Musée d'Ixelles fête le soixante-dixième anniversaire de Paul Delvaux’, in Synthèse, Brussels, February 1968, no. 260, mentioned p. 120
Sarane Alexandrian, Surrealist Art, London, 1970, mentioned p. 236
Volker Kahmen, Eroticism in Contemporary Art, London, 1972, fig. 1, illustrated
Michel Butor, Jean Clair & Suzanne Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux, Lausanne & Paris, 1975, no. 298, illustrated p. 267
The present composition includes many of the signature elements that Delvaux had been developing since the 1930s (fig. 1) – combining an interior and exterior setting, the use of mirrors and female figures that are at once clothed and naked. As with most of Delvaux’s paintings, instances of the bizarre and the unexplained presence of the figures leave the viewer to contemplate the perplexing scene. Throughout his lifetime, however, the artist refused to provide any sort of narrative for his compositions: ‘I do not feel the need to give a temporal explanation of what I do, neither do I feel the need to account for my human subjects who exist only for the purpose of my paintings. These figures recount no history: they are’ (quoted in Paul Delvaux (exhibition catalogue), Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1997, p. 22).
Delvaux was fascinated with the effects of light and shadow and, as is often the case in his compositions, the source of light in Filles au bord de l’eau is ambiguous. In addition to the warm glow of the oil lamps, the shadows in the foreground point to a second light source outside of the scope of the canvas. Discussing Delvaux’s fascination with light in his paintings, Barbara Emerson wrote: ‘Delvaux uses light to great effect, almost as if he were manipulating theatrical equipment of spots and dimmers. With consummate skill, he contrasts cool white shafts of moonlight with the warm, gentle glow from an oil lamp’ (B. Emerson, Delvaux, Paris, 1985, p. 174). This theatrical impression is further heightened through the depiction of the wooden boards reminiscent of a stage, an element often found in Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings (fig. 2).
Discussing the present work in the context of sexual symbolism in Surrealist art, Volker Kahmen wrote: ‘Paul Delvaux illuminates The girls at the water’s edge (Les filles au bord de l’eau) 1966 with three burning lamps. In the foreground of the picture three girls are posing in the wings of a stage; the stage opens onto the water, with a hilly landscape behind it. Freud tells us that water signifies birth, while the numerous mirrors signify virginity. The girls stand on the river bank, practising alluring poses, in a mood of expectation. They have opened the doors wide and the lamps are burning brightly. According to Freud, the room can be interpreted as a womb, with the doors as the orifices of the sexual organs’ (V. Kahmen, op. cit., p. 13).
Another familiar trope in Surrealist art is the motif of the curtain. The swathes of red fabric draped from the ceiling appear closely related to the curtains used by Delvaux’s contemporary, René Magritte. At the same time the very style in which Delvaux painted shows his admiration for the great painters of the Renaissance and Mannerism, with the enigmatic Presumed Portrait Gabrielle d’Estrées and Her Sister, The Duchess of Villars (fig. 3) providing a particularly strong influence – the use of startling nudity and heightened gestures as well as the curtains serving as a repoussoir. The essence of mystery distilled in Delvaux’s work is intense precisely because of his use of imagery alluding to both contemporary life and the past.
The sophisticated composition of the present work exemplifies the quality that led Delvaux to be recognised amongst his contemporaries as being at the forefront of the international movement in Surrealist art. The flouting of logic that Delvaux perpetrates is evident. The painter abandons the rational progression of time, allowing for irrational coexistences. Each element belongs perhaps at once in reality and again in the memory of the protagonist. The characters weave their way through fictional environments and inhabit ineffable spaces offering us an irresistible glimpse of Delvaux’s fantastical imagination.
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