Lot 39
  • 39

Paul Delvaux

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • Paul Delvaux
  • Éloge de la mélancolie (Pénélope)
  • Signed P. Delvaux and dated St. Idesbald 1951-1952 (lower right)
  • Oil on panel
  • 51 5/8 by 81 1/8 in.
  • 131 by 206 cm


Ronald Van Deun, Brussels

Sale: Antwerp, Galerie Campo, October 15, 1963, lot 55

Komkommer, Antwerp

Jeffrey H. Loria & Co., Inc., New York

Acquired from the above in 1985


Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Dertien belgische schilders, 1952, no. 34

Antwerp, Meir, Salle des Fêtes, L'Art contemporain. Salon 1953, 1953, no. 57

Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Rétrospective Paul Delvaux, 1969, no. 44 (titled Pénélope)


J. M. Boersma, "Paul Delvaux - Lof der Melancolie," in Het Vaderland, The Hague, July 31, 1962, illustrated

Michel Butor, Jean Clair & Suzanne Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux, Brussels, 1975, no. 207, illustrated p. 233


Very good condition. The composition is painted on two pieces of plywood, joined vertically through the center and supported on the reverse by three vertical bars and one long horizontal bar. The join is not noticable when looking at the composition. There is a slight ridge visible in the areas of the figure's left forearm and there are some mild vertical cracks. Under UV: there are no retouches apparent.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

The heroine of Homer's The Odyssey is the subject of Delvaux's extraordinary painting, Éloge de la mélancolie (Pénélope). The picture takes its title from the story of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who remains faithful to her husband during his twenty-year absence, despite the repeated offers and temptations of vying suitors.  In Greek mythology Penelope is a symbol of marital fidelity and abstinence, and she is usually depicted leaning into herself with her legs crossed in a pose of reflection and self-containment.  In many Victorian depictions of the character, she is often pictured at her loom, weaving away her sexual frustration.  In Delvaux's retelling of this story, the forlorn Penelope is pictured reclining on a day bed, distraught over her state of abandonment.   A nautical flag billows aloft a mast in the background, perhaps to indicate hope that her seafaring husband would return to port.  Instead of a loom, Delvaux has woven together a geometric pattern of electrical cables, flagpole wires and the props of a deserted coastal station, providing a wholly modern allusion to the traditional instrument and also adding an element of Surrealist incongruity to the picture.

Delvaux's picture of the chaste queen is one of his most elaborate depictions of the female form.  A dramatic change from the unabashed nudity of the women in his other pictures of this era Penelope is rendered in a flowing blue gown, which can be interpreted as an allusion to the blue veil of the Virgin Mary.  Particularly detailed is the woman's tiara, with jewels depicted in thick, punctuating dots of paint.   Delvaux's characteristic sense of irony is at its most uncanny in this picture, with the reference to Greek myth and modern innovation all presented in a grand-scale composition.

Although he was never a member of the Surrealist group, Delvaux's paintings characterize an unmistakable element of Surrealist absurdity.  Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque writes of the artist in the context of the Surrealists: "There is no need whatsoever of psychological analyses or psychoanalytical interpretations, which by the way the artist firmly rejected, to understand the world of Paul 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 between two connected realities 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" (Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque, Paul Delvaux 1897-1994 (exhibition catalogue), Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, 1997, p. 27).