- Paul Delvaux
- Deux Femmes Couchées
- signed P. Delvaux and dated 10-45 (lower right)
- oil on canvas
- 100.5 by 150.5cm.
- 39 5/8 by 59 1/4 in.
Private Collection, USA
Acquired by the family of the present owners in the 1970s
Margaret Breuning, 'Delvaux impresses with Surrealist notes (Julian Levy Gallery Exhibition)', in Art Digest, 15th December 1946, illustrated p. 13
Michel Butor, Jean Clair & Suzanne Houbart-Wilkin, Paul Delvaux Catalogue Raisonné, Brussels, 1975, no. 164, illustrated p. 215
Delvaux's spectacular Deux femmes couchées is among the most sensuous compositions of his œuvre and an alluring example of Surrealist art. The artist explores his fascination with the conventions of perspective in western painting dating back to the Renaissance. He creates a spatially illogical interior with contradicting vanishing points that nonetheless bear the trappings of a conventional interior setting. The spatial ambiguities are offset by the female figures in the foreground, whose inexplicable nudity is yet another startling element of this visually engaging composition.
Although Delvaux's paintings are renowned for their hallucinatory imagery, the artist claimed not to be a proponent of the writings of Sigmund Freud and did not invest his compositions with psychoanalytic references favoured by Dalí, Miró and his fellow Belgian, René Magritte. Delvaux's approach to painting was more subtle in its representation of the uncanny: without being overtly grotesque or offensive with his imagery, he would interrupt the peacefulness and banality of a given scene with instances of the bizarre. Many of these pictures present an architectural setting, like a railway station, loggia or a street corner, that is populated by expressionless and oddly lifeless women, usually depicted in the nude (fig. 1). The passivity of these women recalls the gentle beauty of a Botticelli or the flawlessness of a Bouguereau and adds a certain sense of timelessness to the composition.
Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque writes of the artist in the context of the Surrealists: 'There is no need whatsoever of psychological analyses or psychoanalytical interpretations [...] to understand the world of Delvaux. It is made of simplicity and reality. It is the blossoming and affirmation of poetry by means of the contrasts that exist between the great monumental figures and the anachronistic settings in which they move. In this the artist agrees with the thinking of Breton who declared that the more the relationships were distant and exact, the more powerful the image would be. More than Delvaux the painter, it was Delvaux the Surrealist poet whom Eluard and Breton hailed because his pictorial universe exists out of time, eludes fashion and defies any attempt at classification' (quoted in Paul Delvaux 1897-1994 (exhibition catalogue), Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1997, p. 27).
Given the Classical architectural details with doric columns, the scene evokes ancient Rome. But the figures' nudity takes this otherwise Neoclassical picture into enigmatic territory that can only be achieved by a master Surrealist. Like the ominous street scenes of de Chirico (fig. 2), the rigidity of the architecture and dramatic shadowing create a palpably enigmatic sensation.
Delvaux was always fascinated with the effects of light and shadow in his pictures, and his mastery at manipulating colour to this end is demonstrated quite beautifully in this work. The scene as a whole takes on an unsettling incandescence, and the viewer is thus left to consider the oddities of this 'twilight zone.' Discussing Delvaux's fascination with light in his paintings, Barbara Emerson writes: '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 & Antwerp, 1985, p. 174).
As with most of his paintings, the meaning behind this scene is mysterious, and several hypotheses can be made about the relationship between the two women. But throughout his lifetime, the artist was resistant to provide any sort of narrative for these pictures, stating quite clearly, '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 painting. These figures recount no history: they are. Further, they express nothing in themselves...' (quoted in Paul Delvaux, 1897-1984 , op. cit., p. 22).
FIG 1, Paul Delvaux, Les Cariatides, 1946, oil on masonite. Sold: Sotheby's, New York, 3rd May 2011
FIG. 2, Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza con Arianna, 1913, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York