Jean Delville

Belgium 1867 - 1953


Emile Fabry was one of Delville's principal allies when quarrelling with Les XX.


Belgian painter, decorative artist and writer. He studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, with Jean-François Portaels and the Belgian painter Joseph Stallaert (1825–1903). Among his fellow students were Eugène Laermans, Victor Rousseau and Victor Horta. From 1887 he exhibited at L'Essor, where in 1888 Mother (untraced), which depicts a woman writhing in labor, caused a scandal. Although his drawings of the metallurgists working in the Cockerill factories near Charleroi were naturalistic, from 1887 he veered towards Symbolism: the drawing of Tristan and Isolde (1887; Brussels, Musées Royaux B.-A.), in its lyrical fusion of the two bodies, reveals the influence of Richard Wagner. Circle of the Passions (1889), inspired by Dante Alighieri's Divina commedia, was burnt c. 1914; only drawings remain (Brussels, Musées Royaux B.-A.). Jef Lambeaux copied it for his relief Human Passions (1890–1900; Brussels, Parc Cinquantenaire). Delville became associated with Joséphin Péladan, went to live in Paris and exhibited at the Salons de la Rose+Croix, created there by Péladan (1892–5). A devoted disciple of Péladan, he had his tragedies performed in Brussels and in 1895 painted his portrait. He exhibited Dead Orpheus (1893; Brussels, Gillion-Crowet priv. col.), an idealized head, floating on his lyre towards reincarnation, and Angel of Splendour (1894; Brussels, Gillion-Crowet priv. col.), a painting of great subtlety

Distanced from Les XX, Delville was an active polemicist for modern art. In 1892 he broke with L'Essor and created Pour l'Art, regrouping the Idealists to which Emile Fabry belonged (1892–5). In his preface to the first catalogue (Brussels, 1892), Delville declared that no work could truly be called art if it did not combine three absolutes: spiritual beauty, plastic beauty and technical beauty. These qualities are apparent in his most famous portrait, Mme Stuart Merrill (1892; California, priv. col.), a medium with a halo of red hair, and averted eyes, whose white face is laid on a book stamped with a triangle. In 1894 he founded the Coopérative Artistique and organized a pension fund for it and the building of artists' housing. In 1894 he won the Prix de Rome. He founded the Salon d'Art Idéaliste (1896–8) and showed there the Treasures of Satan (1895; Brussels, Mus. A. Mod.) and Plato's Academy (1898; Paris, Mus. d'Orsay), his masterpiece, where, in an ideal landscape, languorous androgynes are grouped around Plato to form a very rhythmical composition. Its ambiguity aroused some reservations, but the overall impression was of serene beauty.

Delville taught at Glasgow School of Art from 1900 to 1905/6, briefly became its director and then assumed the same post at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, until 1937. In 1900 he published La Mission de l'art, in which he defended a messianic ideal and the redemptive quality of idealist art. Spiritual Love (1900; Brussels, Mus. Ixelles), a nude couple rising in unison into Art Nouveau scrolls, and Man–God (1903; Bruges, Groeningemus.) accord with his theories. Over a period of many years he worked on a decorative scheme for the Palais de Justice in Brussels: Justice down the Ages, commissioned in 1911, destroyed in 1944, and replaced by large sketches, then The Troops (1924) and the Spirit of Conquest. In 1914 his family went into voluntary exile in England. Delville founded the League of Patriots there and published Belgian Art in Exile; he created a masonic lodge, spoke at Hyde Park Corner and waged a polemic against the avant-garde. He became an ardent proselyte of Krishnamurti and painted portraits of English personalities such as the educationalist John Russell (Delville family priv. col.). Back in Brussels, he created the Groupe d'Art Monumental, which in 1924 executed the mosaics for the Arcade du Cinquantenaire there.