Jean Delville  

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Jean Delville (January 19 18671953) was a Belgian symbolist painter, writer, and occultist. He founded the 'Salon d’Art Idealiste', which is considered the Belgian equivalent to the Parisian Rose and Cross Salon and the Pre-Raphaelite movement in London. He is perhaps best-known for his drawing The Idol of Perversity.



"Understood in its metaphysical sense, Beauty is one of the manifestations of the Absolute Being. Emanating from the harmonious rays of the Divine plan, it crosses the intellectual plane to shine once again across the natural plane, where it darkens into matter." —Jean Delville

Delville's background

During the last decades of the 19th century, many people in the West reacted to the materialism and hypocrisy of the period by developing an interest in esoteric, occult and spiritual subjects. The enthusiasm for these ideas reached its peak during the 1890s, the decade when the Belgian painter and writer Jean Delville was at the height of his powers. Delville was born in the Belgian town of Louvain in 1867. He lived most of his life in Brussels, but also spent some years in Paris, Rome, Glasgow and London. He began his training at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts when he was twelve, continuing there until 1889, and winning a number of top prizes. He began exhibiting professionally at the age of twenty, and later taught at the Academies of Fine Arts in Glasgow and Brussels. In addition to painting, Delville also expressed his ideas in numerous written texts.

Delville became committed to spiritual and esoteric subjects during his early twenties. In 1887 or 1888 he spent a period in Paris, where he met Sâr Joséphin Péladan, an eccentric mystic and occultist, who defined himself as a modern Rosicrucian, descended from the Persian Magi. Delville was struck by a number of Péladan’s ideas, among them his vision of the ideal artist as a spontaneously developed initiate, whose mission was to send light, spirituality and mysticism into the world. He exhibited paintings in Péladan's Salons of the Rose + Croix between 1892 and 1895.

In 1895 Delville published his Dialogue entre nous, a text in which he outlined his views on occultism and esoteric philosophy. Brendan Cole discusses this text in his D.Phil. thesis on Delville (Christ Church, Oxford, 2000), pointing out that, though the Dialogue reflects the ideas of a number of occultists, it also reveals a new interest in Theosophy. Sometime during the mid to late 1890s, Delville joined the Theosophical Society, and in 1910 he became the secretary of the theosophical movement in Belgium. In the same year he added a tower to his house in Forest, a suburb of Brussels. Following the ideas of Krishnamurti, Delville painted the meditation room at the top, including the floorboards, entirely in blue. The Theosophical emblem was placed at the summit of the ceiling. But though photographs and drawings still exist, the house, regrettably, no longer stands.

Delville’s Paintings and Drawings

The Portrait of Mrs. Stuart Merrill

Though Delville frequently wrote about his ideas, he almost never discussed his paintings. He left the interpretations to the viewer, and as a result his best pictures have an air of mystery and intrigue. One of the most mysterious is his Portrait of Mrs. Stuart Merrill. This drawing, executed in chalks in 1892, is strikingly otherworldly. In it Delville depicts the young woman as a medium in trance, with her eyes turned upwards. Her radiating red-orange hair combines with the fluid light of her aura.

The hot colours which surround Mrs. Merrill’s head appear to allude to the earthly fires of passion and sensuality. On the other hand, the book on which she rests her chin and long, almost spectral hands is inscribed with an upwards-pointing triangle. This represents Delville’s idea of perfect human knowledge, achieved (as he says in his Dialogue), through magic, the Kabbalah and Hermeticism. As a number of authors have pointed out, the painting, with its references to occultism and wisdom seems to hint at initiation. If so, the woman’s red aura might refer to her sensual side, which will become more spiritualised as she moves into a different stage of development.

But whatever its interpretation, this very unusual portrait has had a strong effect on viewers. It can be seen as eerie and supernatural (Bade, Femme Fatale, 1979), or as “a positively magical vision” (Jullian, Dreamers of Decadence, 1974). It is sometimes referred to as the Mona Lisa of the 1890s, and is also given the title La Mysteriosa . Today, few details are available about the sitter, and even her first name goes unmentioned in the literature. The most extensive information on her identity is given by Delville’s son Olivier in his biography of the painter. It is not a first-hand account, however, as Olivier was born at least ten years after the picture was executed. According to him, Stuart Merrill (a Symbolist poet who published his works in Paris and Brussels) had a house near to the Delvilles in Forest at that time. Olivier adds that “the young Mrs Merrill-Rion” was a Belgian, and that Delville was struck by her strange beauty and depicted her with a mediumistic character.

The painting was not bought by the Merrills, and remained with the Delvilles until it was sold to a Californian private collector in the late 1960s. In 1998, it was acquired by the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts, and is now on display to the public.

Satan’s Treasures

Another of Delville’s best works, which is also on view in the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts, is Satan’s Treasures, first exhibited in 1895. Here the artist depicts Satan with a wild, fiery head of hair and huge red tentacles instead of wings. Scarlet waves surround his left arm, as he presides over a river of unconscious men and women. The nude bodies of these figures appear orange and yellow in reproductions, but in the original they are a subtle mixture of acid pinks and yellows, highlighted with touches of green. They lie transfixed in the centre of a luxuriant coral reef, surrounded by coins, jewels and strange fish. Beyond the reef one can see vast vistas filled with jagged rock formations, and painted in shades of orange, yellow and brown. Though the full interpretation is again left to the viewer, it clear that Satan’s Treasures is not a traditional vision of hell. What might have inspired this unusual image? It reveals a fascination with decadence and the erotic which was typical of Péladan and the period in general. At the same time, as in the Portrait of Mrs. Stuart Merrill, there is probably an underlying theme of initiation.

We know that Delville was a great admirer of Edouard Schuré’s The Great Initiates, and it could well be that Satan’s Treasures is inspired by an episode from the Initiation of Isis in Schuré’s book. In the relevant scene, Schuré describes the novice’s failure of an early test, the temptation of the senses. Wrapped in a dream of fire, the novice becomes drunk with the heavy perfume of a seductive woman, and later falls asleep, after wildly satisfying his desire. This failure is described by his hierophant as a fall into the abyss of matter.

Delville’s vast undersea world, ruled by Satan, is almost certainly an image of the material abyss. Satan, lord of the physical realm, presides over its sleeping inhabitants. Wrapped in delusion, the dreaming men and women are mesmerised by Satan’s spell, and trapped by their own desires. Satan’s “treasures” include not only their sensuality, but also their attraction to worldly riches, represented by the pearls, coins and corals which surround them. Above all, the entranced people themselves are the treasures of Satan.

The Angel of Splendour

At a later stage in Schuré’s Initiation of Isis, the initiate overcomes his entrapment by matter. This next phase of human development is depicted by Delville in a painting of 1894, entitled The Angel of Splendour. In this work, currently in a private collection, the realm of matter is represented by serpents and tangled thorny roses at the bottom right of the canvas. A male figure, with raised arms and upturned eyes similar to those of Mrs. Stuart Merrill, sits half in and half out of the material realm. On his left, a luminous and almost bodiless female angel rises upwards, with the fluid and transparent folds of her dress surrounding the man with a circle of light. A vast landscape spreads out, far below the figures, filled with jagged hills similar to those in Satan’s Treasures. Here, however, they are painted in luminous purples and golds, and rise out of a bright blue sea.

This scene can be viewed in two ways. If it is inspired by a further episode from Schuré’s Initiation of Isis, the man would be the disciple’s discarded earthly self, falling back, and swallowed up by matter. In this case, the angel would be what Schuré describes as “another, purer, more ethereal self”, which has just been born. Alternatively, if the story is not taken directly from Schuré, the angel can be seen as a separate being (per haps the man’s higher self), guiding him up from the abyss. In both interpretations, Delville’s painting is a depiction of the soul’s spiritual evolution.

The School of Plato

In 1895 Delville won the Belgian Prix de Rome, and went with his family to Italy. While there, he painted The School of Plato which is now in the Museé d’Orsay in Paris. This work was greeted with great enthusiasm when it went on display in Brussels in 1898. Its colours are predominantly cool, emphasizing blues, greens and tans, with touches of purple. Plato, whose philosophy Delville greatly admired, sits in the centre of a beautiful but artificial classical landscape, disseminating wisdom to a group of twelve male pupils. He is bearded and Christ-like, and this association is not a coincidence. According to both Schuré and Blavatsky, Plato had been initiated, but instead of speaking openly, he disguised the esoteric truths and put them into a rational, intellectual form which could be taught publicly.

In Delville’s painting, Plato is draped, but all of his students are nude. Looking at them, people tend to be struck by their oddly effeminate appearance. This is not a homoerotic scene, however, even if it looks like one. Delville’s aim was to represent the disciples as androgynous. According to Plato, and later esoteric systems such as Theosophy, primordial humans had once been hermaphrodites. In Delville’s day, many people believed that the more spiritual human types were already beginning to return to that state. The androgyny of Plato’s disciples is thus a sign of their purity and evolution towards divinity.

Delville’s Character and Last Years

In his biography, Delville’s son Olivier tells us that his father, determined to pass his ideals on to the world, was continually painting and writing. He supplemented this unreliable income by teaching art. But his busy professional life did not prevent him from applying his strongly held beliefs to his personal life. Olivier describes his father as a person of courage, perseverance, probity and intellect, as well as an upright family man who was strict with his six children.

Despite all his work and ability, however, Delville never achieved the recognition he would have liked. As Brendan Cole says in his thesis, he almost certainly paid a price for refusing to compromise his ideals. By 1951, Delville had become almost completely ignored and forgotten. He died two years later and did not live to see the revival of interest in his work. This was marked by exhibitions in London in 1968, and Paris in 1972. Today Delville’s pictures (especially the early ones, up to the First World War) are once again recognised for their unusual qualities. Although they do not correspond with everyone’s taste, many people now see them as outstanding and fascinating expressions of otherworldly subjects. In this context, they are often included in exhibitions and anthologies of the Symbolist movement, and books on fantastic and esoteric art. Delville’s works are also remembered at the Theosophical Society headquarters in Madras, where the Hall of Religions was decorated during the 1960s in a style which, according to Philippe Jullian, imitates that of Delville (The Symbolists, 1973).

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