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La ville rouge

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Title La ville rouge
Material and technique Oil on canvas
Object type
Painting > Painting > Two-dimensional object > Art object
Location This object is in storage
Dimensions Height 110 cm
Width 195 cm
Depth 7 cm
Artists Artist: Paul Delvaux
Accession number 2782 (MK)
Credits Purchased 1971
Department Modern Art
Acquisition date 1971
Creation date in 1944
Entitled parties © Fondation Paul Delvaux, St. Idesbald/Belgium, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam, 2018
Provenance Gaston Burssens, Ghent; Jean Krebs, Brussels 1970-71
Exhibitions Brussels 1944-45; Rotterdam 1973a; Hanover 1987; Rotterdam 1996a; Ostend 1996-97; Brussels 1997; Arnhem 2013-14; Rotterdam 2017b
Internal exhibitions Een prikkelcollectie (2000)
Collectie - surrealisme (2017)
External exhibitions De Melancholieke Metropool: stadsbeelden tussen magie en realisme, 1925-1950 (2013)
De wereld van Pyke Koch (2017)
Dal nulla al sogno (2018)
A Surreal Shock – Masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (2021)
Only the Marvelous is Beautiful (2022)
Surrealist Art - Masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (2021)
A Surreal Shock. Masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (2023)
Dalí, Magritte, Man Ray and Surrealism. Highlights from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (2023)
Research Show research A dream collection - Surrealism in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
Literature Rotterdam 1973a, pp. 131-32, cat. no. 30; Butor, Clair, Hubart-Wilkin 1975, pp. 101-11, cat. no. 132; Emerson 1985, p. 118; Prinz 1986, p. 27
Geographical origin Belgium > Western Europe > Europe

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Entry catalogue A dream collection - Surrealism in Museum Boijmans Van beuningen

Author: Marijke Peyser

After an earlier trip to Italy in 1937, Paul Delvaux and his first wife, Suzanne Purnal, visited the country again in the company of friends. He incorporated his impressions of Italy into his paintings. His palette, which until that time had been quite sombre, became lighter. He began to depict architectural elements, which had formerly played a subordinate role, more accurately and made them an important part of the composition.[1] In a number of paintings from the 1939-42 period, the word ‘town’ even features in the title.[2]

In La ville rouge Delvaux depicted a forecourt of a temple with Doric columns. Two women stand in the foreground. They gesture, but there is no eye contact. A little to the right a naked youth walks along, deep in thought. It seems as if he is being observed by the skeleton loitering by the façade of the building, on the right. The image elements mentioned in this 1944 painting are characteristic of Delvaux’s Surrealist paintings. The powerful perspective and the dark shadows reference the work of Giorgio de Chirico, whom Delvaux admired.

For a long time the human skeleton and its representation ran through Delvaux’s life and work like a leitmotif. In primary school, in Saint Gilles, he was fascinated by the human skeletons in the glass cases along the walls of the classroom.[3] The discovery of the anatomical Musée Spitzner at the Brussels fair in 1929-30 brought about a total reversal of his view of painting.[4] Skeletons Delvaux saw there feature in his early works, albeit on a modest scale.[5] During the Second World War he lived in Brussels, where he frequently went to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.[6] The human skeletons on display there fascinated him. In his first watercolours he was still placing the skeletons in a museum setting. But little by little he began to incorporate the skeleton motif into all kinds of situations: in the studio, in an office, outside in the street.[7] A striking feature of these works is that the skeletons in these situations have adopted poses as if they are still alive.[8]

In the 1950s Delvaux also placed his skeleton motif in religious scenes: for example he depicted the story of Christ’s Passion with skeletons. The artist said that this would give his skeletons something dramatic and animated.[9] At the time the skeletons in these works gave a good deal of offence.[10] Many years later Delvaux spoke about the adverse reactions: ‘I couldn’t have cared less about those protests. I never thought about blasphemy. The skeletons are not so much skeletons as living beings. That was my intention.’[11]



[1] Rotterdam 1973a, p. 21: During an interview with curator Renilde Hammacher-Van den Brande the artist said that his interest in classical culture was aroused during his high school education.

[2] See for example L’entrée de la ville, 1940; L’aube sur la ville, 1940; La ville inquiète, 1941.

[3] Brussels 1997, p. 308.

[4] Rotterdam 1973a, pp. 18-19.

[5] See for example La Vénus endormie, 1932.

[6] Emerson 1985, p. 111.

[7] Squelettes dans un bureau, 1944; Squelette dans l’atelier, 1944; L’appel, 1944.

[8] Emerson 1985, p. 114.

[9] Delvaux’s comment in an interview with Renilde Hammacher-Van den Brande, see Rotterdam 1973a, p. 22.

[10] Emerson 1985, p. 161.

[11] Ibid.

Show research A dream collection - Surrealism in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
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All about the artist

Paul Delvaux

Antheit 1897 - Veurne 1994

Paul Delvaux studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. His first paintings were strongly influenced by the Flemish expressionism of Gustave de Smet and...

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