Gordon Onslow-Ford, Inverness, California
Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels & Paris
Private Collection, England (acquired in 1978. Sold: Christie's, London, 8th December 1999, lot 59)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
Antwerp, Meir, Salle des Fêtes, L'Art contemporain, Salon 1937, 1937, no. 148
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paul Delvaux: Peintures, aquarelles, 1938, no. 8
London, The London Gallery, Paul Delvaux, 1938, no. 9
Paris, Galerie Isy Brachot, Paul Delvaux, 1978, no. 1, illustrated on the catalogue cover (with incorrect dimensions)
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Magritte e il Surrealismo in Belgio, 1982, no. 92, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Paul-Aloïse de Bock, Paul Delvaux, Brussels, 1967, no. 22, illustrated p. 66 (incorrectly catalogued as destroyed circa 1940-44)
Alternative Attuali 3. Rassegna internazionale d'arte contemporanea (exhibition catalogue), Castello Spagnolo, L'Aquila, 1968, mentioned p. 113
José Vovelle, Le Surréalisme en Belgique, Brussels, 1972, no. 209, illustrated p. 176 (incorrectly catalogued as destroyed)
Michel Butor, Jean Clair & Suzanne Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux, Brussels, 1975, no. 77, illustrated pp. 103 & 171 (with incorrect measurements and incorrectly catalogued as destroyed)
René Magritte et le Surréalisme en Belgique (exhibition catalogue), Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1982, no. 91, illustrated in colour p. 195
Barbara Emerson, Delvaux, Antwerp, 1985, illustrated in colour p. 71
Il surrealismo di Paul Delvaux tra Magritte e de Chirico (exhibition catalogue), Palazzo Bricherasio, Turin, 2005-06, illustrated in colour p. 103
Konrad Scheurmann quoted in Barbara Emerson, Delvaux, Antwerp, 1985, p. 69
In this monumental painting Delvaux presents an encounter of disparate elements, juxtaposed in such a way as to create a world of mystery and ambiguity, much in the spirit of the principle dogma of the Surrealist group. Here, Delvaux depicts at once an interior and an exterior setting – the principal protagonist, seen from the back, is depicted seated in a room, bare apart from the mirror, which offers a view onto a tree-lined street. Similarly, the artist creates an ambiguity in the relationship between the two figures: whilst the title suggests that the two seated women are mirror images of each other, one of them is depicted in an elaborate dress and the other one in the nude, both with their hands clasped on their laps. The atmosphere of stillness and mystery and the interior/exterior ambiguity reflect the influence of the metaphysical paintings by Giorgio de Chirico (fig. 1). Much in the manner favoured by his fellow countryman René Magritte (fig. 2), Delvaux here depicts a picture within a picture, playing with the viewer’s perception, and shifting between the worlds of real and imaginary.
Delvaux and Magritte shared a unique sensibility for the Surreal potential of the human form. The same year Delvaux painted Le Miroir he and Magritte were granted a joint exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and over the years they regularly exhibited together subtly influencing each others work. Discussing this development David Scott has written: 'Magritte's influence was strongly registered in the theme of looking, as explored in works by Delvaux that include The Window, The Mirror [the present work] and Woman in the Mirror, all of which he painted in 1936 [...]. It is Delvaux who opens up the deeper perspective, combining Magritte's challenge to the laws of optics and physics with an opening onto the infinite vistas of desire. A similar parallel point of departure resulting in a distinct overall effect can be seen by comparing Delvaux's The Mirror of 1936 [the present work] with Magritte's Dangerous Liasons [fig. 3] of the preceding year: in the latter a naked woman holds up a mirror in front of, but facing away from, her body, and in which the viewer sees a reflection of the back side (which is also the backside!) of her own person. A visual conundrum that is close to this is to be found in Delvaux's The Mirror, but once again, it is deepened by the inclusion of a long perspective, and in this instance, by the contrast between the clothing of the female looking in the mirror and her nude self that is its reflection' (D. Scott, Paul Delvaux. Surrealizing the Nude, London, 1992, pp. 35-36).
In her discussion of the present composition Barbara Emerson wrote: ‘The setting is a dilapidated room with peeling wallpaper; on the wall hangs a large mirror. At one side a woman in a long dress, with only her profile visible, sits bolt upright on a stool, facing the mirror. But the reflection is that of a nude woman resembling the dressed woman sitting in a tree-lined square. Is this how she sees herself and in more pleasant surroundings? It is also possible that she is looking at a portrait of herself. Whatever, the nude woman is associated with nature and beauty; the dressed woman is denaturée’ (B. Emerson, op. cit., p. 69). While the composition seems to be offering more questions than answers, the decaying room with its peeling wallpaper may well serve as a metaphor for the woman’s spiritual state.
Delvaux used the mirror as a device for creating a double meaning and a sense of ambiguity in several other works from the 1930s (fig. 4), as well as later in his career. Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque wrote about the role of mirrors in Delvaux’s art: ‘the dream world and the natural world fuse to create the extraordinary, like the mirror that appears so often in his pictures. It reflects a double, but a double that is different from reality – disturbing and mysterious. At times one doubts whether it is a mirror at all and not, rather, an opening, a doorway to the world of the unseen? The person who is mirrored sees himself differently and that uncertain view adds to his expressive force since if the phenomenon were logical the “sense of its mystery would be destroyed”. The mirror has become a form of second sight, a reflection of the hidden, of the wonderful, of the unspoken. This mental image, a second view of the artist’s world or a meeting place for the internal and the external heightens the significance of that world and serves the artist’s concept’ (G. Ollinger-Zinque, Paul Delvaux (exhibition catalogue), Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1997, p. 25).
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 the present work. The bare room with its dark wooden floor and a brown wallpaper peeling off the wall provides a somber setting. However the bright sky reflected in the mirror radiates with light which illuminates the nude as well as the back, and partially the face, of the clothed figure. Whilst in Delvaux’s composition the source of light is often ambiguous, the shadow of the clothed woman in the present work further points to the street – which is placed outside of the scope of the canvas – as the source of light in the composition. 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’ (ibid., p. 174).
The first owner of Le Miroir was Roland Penrose, who was himself a painter as well as a friend of many Surrealist artists and an avid promoter of their work. Having spent the 1920s and early 1930s living in Paris, where he became friends with Picasso, Ernst, Paalen and many others, in 1936 he returned to London where he played a pivotal role in organising the now famous International Surrealist Exhibition held that year at the New Burlington Galleries. In 1937-38, shortly after its execution, Le Miroir was included in several exhibitions across Europe. It later belonged to another Surrealist artist and collector of British origin, Gordon Onslow Ford, who lived in Paris, New York, Mexico and California. For much of this time, however, the present work was presumed destroyed during the Second World War, until it was exhibited at Galerie Isy Brachot in Paris in 1978.
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