Paul Delvaux; Artist Was Pioneer in Surrealism

<i> From Times Staff and Wire Reports</i>

Paul Delvaux, whose surreal nudes and dreamlike depictions of skeletons and trains sell for $1 million and more, died Wednesday. He was 96.

Although he was not formally a member of the surrealist movement, he was considered one of the last if not the last of that pioneering group that shocked and offended much of the art world in the 1920s.

The Belgian-born artist died in Veurne near the North Sea resort of St. Idesbald. Incapacitated by failing eyesight and poor health, the solitary artist had not painted in years.

Delvaux’s career spanned almost 70 years, during which he gained fame for depicting the richness of the subconscious in figurative but irrational images. His work often reflected alienation and featured empty train stations, deserted vehicles or barren deserts.

His paintings hang alongside those of Salvador Dali and fellow Belgian Rene Magritte in many private collections and museums.


“Young Girl in Front of a Temple,” which was painted in 1949, sold for $1 million 40 years later. Other major works included “Sleeping Venus” (1933) and “Evening Trains” (1957).

Delvaux, who made naked women a central theme of his paintings during a time of stringent moral codes, was no stranger to controversy.

A 1948 show was off limits to priests. Children were not allowed into a 1960s retrospective in the resort of Ostend.

His seemingly somnambulant, naked women have been a common target for interpretations.

“They symbolize nothing. I paint them because they are beautiful and desirable,” he said. “I have something against the word symbol because it has something artificial,” he said.

His latest influence had been skeletons. “Crucifixion” (1951-52) is among the most grotesque of his output.

Delvaux began as a painter of portraits, land and seascapes in Belgium, but was influenced by surrealism in the 1930s after traveling in Italy and France.

He destroyed most of his early work, either because he did not like it or to reuse the canvas.

From the 1960s onward, his work had increased in value so that major museums in Europe and America were often the only places that could afford him.