One of Paul Delvaux’s (Dreams of Desire 38 (Night Train), Dreams of Desire 39 (Sleeping Venus) and Dreams of Desire 40 (The Girls from the Provinces) more macabre paintings, The Sabbath from 1962 shows a group of mysterious robed (and disrobed) women, who it is safe to assume are witches given the title, strike a variety of poses. The solitary male in the painting, a professor who has strayed from a Jules Verne novel into this sinister forest clearance stares fixedly into the mirror, doubtless trying to avoid the fate of Actaeon when he beheld the untameable beauty of Diana.
The German born American photographer Ruth Bernhard stunning nude study of a dreaming women, sleeping inside a box that is positioned in the foreground of a depthless space thematically and technically recalls the work of Man Ray (Dreams of Desire 4 (Homage to De Sade), Dreams of Desire 25 (Return to Reason), Jacques-Andre Boiffard (Dreams of Desire 13 (Serene Beauty) and others from the Golden Age of Surrealism.
As a child Paul Delvaux devoured the work of the writer Jules Verne, especially Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and characters and scenes from Verne would populate Delvaux’s canvas throughout his career. The eccentric Victorian professors are frequently the only male (and fully clothed) figures in the predominantly female (and undressed) Uneasy City that is the setting for all Delvaux’s paintings.
Silent Night is from his later period and there is a variant entitled The Girls From the Provinces that features the same cast of characters in different positions and set in the late afternoon as opposed to night-time. The embracing girls from the provinces, on the right, make explicit Delvaux’s fascination with lesbianism that is usually only hinted at in his paintings.
Another troubling erotic reverie by Paul Delvaux, that features a trademark sensuously reclining nude against an oppressive night-time setting. Delvaux later explained that it was painted during the wartime Nazi occupation of Brussels and he wanted to contrast the anguish of the period with the calm of Venus.
Also notable is the presence of the skeleton, another frequent motif in Delvaux’s work, and references the Death and the Maiden theme that has been a feature of Western Art since the Renaissance and is related to the memento mori and vanitas genres.
Paul Delvaux the obsessive painter of nudes was briefly associated with the Surrealist movement in the mid 1930’s and the dream-world presented in his canvases shows the influence of De Chirico (the originator of so many Surrealist careers) and his fellow Belgian Rene Magritte in the use of a dry academic painterly style and bizarre juxtapositions. However his vision of a silent Belle Epoque city frozen in time and filled with statuesque nudes reclining or walking down colonnaded streets past skeletons or bowler hatted men is uniquely his own and produces a vague sensation of unease and anxiety.