Paul Delvaux

Sleeping Venus


Paul Delvaux 1897–1994
Original title
La Vénus endormie
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1727 × 1991 mm
frame: 1770 × 2032 × 55 mm
Presented by Baron Urvater 1957

Display caption

Delvaux’s painting combines classical elements with a troubling atmosphere. Set against a night sky, the town, with its temples lined with horses’ heads, is populated with female nudes, a skeleton and a dressmakers dummy. Delvaux painted it in Brussels during the Second World War, while the city was being bombed. ‘The psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish’, he recalled. ‘I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus’.

Gallery label, June 2021

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Catalogue entry

Paul Delvaux born 1897 [- 1994]

T00134 La V?nus endormie (Sleeping Venus) 1944

Inscribed 'P. DELVAUX | 11-44' br.

Oil on canvas, 68 x 78 3/8 (173 x 199)
Presented by Baron Urvater 1957
Prov: Carlo van den Bosch, Antwerp (purchased from the artist 1944); with Obelisk Gallery, London, 1957; with Beaux Arts Gallery, London, 1957; Baron Urvater, Brussels (purchased for presentation)
Exh: Paul Delvaux, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, December 1944-January 1945 (55); Quelques Artistes Wallons Contemporains, Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris, January-February 1950 (50, repr.); Paul Delvaux, Feestpaleis 'Vorruit', Ghent, February-March 1950 (5); Belgische Malerei 1910-1950, Kunsthalle, Basle, January-February 1952 (42); XXVII Biennale, Venice, June-October 1954 (Belgium 6); XXXIV Biennale, Venice, June-October 1968 (Belgium 8, repr. in colour pl.7 in illustrated catalogue); R?trospective Paul Delvaux, Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, May-July 1969 (29, repr. in colour); Paul Delvaux, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, April-June 1973 (36, repr. p.136 and in colour); Casino, Knokke-Heist, June-September 1973 (28, repr. p.130 and in colour)
Lit: Paul-Aloise De Bock, Paul Delvaux (Brussels 1967), No.68, pp.277, 293, repr. pp.130-1 and in colour p.129; Michel Butor, Jean Clair, Suzanne Houbart-Wilkin, Delvaux (Brussels 1975), No.209, pp.40-1, 209-10, repr. p.209, details pp.40-1
Repr: Ren? Gaff?, Paul Delvaux ou les Réves Eveillés (Brussels 1945), pl.23; Cahiers d'Art, 1945-6, p.249

The artist made this picture in Brussels in 1944 during the attacks by flying bombs.

'I remember', he writes, 'that ... I placed my picture each evening when the painting session was over perpendicularly to the window thinking naively that, if a bomb should fall, it would be better protected in this position.

'It is my belief that, perhaps unconsciously, I have put into the subject of this picture a certain mysterious and intangible disquiet - the classical town, with its temples lit by the moon, with, on the right, a strange building with horses' heads which I took from the old Royal Circus at Brussels, some figures in agitation with, as contrast, this calm sleeping Venus, watched over by a black dressmaker's dummy and a skeleton.

'I tried in this picture for contrast and mystery.

'It must be added that the psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish.

'I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus' (letter of 31 May 1957).

He painted three earlier pictures called 'Sleeping Venus' in 1932, 1943 and 1944 (Nos.53, 131 and 136 in the catalogue raisonné by Suzanne Houbart-Wilkin, op. cit.). As he told Renilde Hammacher in an interview published in the Rotterdam catalogue, pp.13-23, all these were inspired in part by his discovery about 1929-30 of the Spitzner Museum which was a regular feature of the Brussels fair and which was shown in a shed nearly opposite the Gare du Midi. 'In the middle of the entrance to the Museum was a woman who was the cashier, then on one side there was a man's skeleton and the skeleton of a monkey, and on the other side there was a representation of Siamese twins. And in the interior one saw a rather dramatic and terrifying series of anatomical casts in wax which represented the dramas and horrors of syphilis, the dramas, deformations. And all this in the midst of the artificial gaiety of the fair. The contrast was so striking that it made a powerful impression on me ... All the 'Sleeping Venuses' that I have made, come from there. Even the one in London, at the Tate Gallery. It is an exact copy of the sleeping Venus in the Spitzner Museum, but with Greek temples or dressmaker's dummies, and the like. It is different, certainly, but the underlying feeling is the same'.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.165-6, reproduced p.165

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