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Jean Delville (Belgian painter and writer) 1867 - 1953

Jean Delville was a Belgian symbolist painter, writer, poet, polemicist and Theosophist. He was a highly skilled draughtsman and painter capable of producing works on a very large scale, many of which can be seen in public buildings in Brussels, including the Palais de Justice. He executed a great number of paintings during his active career from 1887 to the end of the second World War (many now lost or destroyed). He won the Belgian Prix de Rome which allowed him to travel to Florence and study at first hand the works of the artists of the Renaissance. Delville's artistic style is highly influenced by the Classical tradition. He was a life-long advocate of the value of the Classical training taught in the Academies, but saw it, not as an end in itself, but rather as a valuable means to allow one to develop one's personal artistic style. His works are an expression of a highly sensitive visionary imagination articulated in precise observation of form. He also had a brilliant gift for colour and composition and excelled in the representation of human anatomy. Many of his major paintings, such as his l'Homme-Dieu (1903), represent dozens of figures intertwined in complex arrangements and painted with highly detailed anatomical accuracy. He also published innumerable journal articles as well as four volumes of poetry and over a dozen books and pamphlets relating to art and esoteric subjects during his lifetime. The most important of his published books include his occult works, Dialogue entre Nous (1895) and Le Christ Reviendra (1913) as well as his seminal work on his form of Idealist art, La Mission de l'Art (1900). Delville was a leading proponent of the Belgian Idealist movement in art. He held, throughout his life, the belief that art should be the expression of a higher spiritual truth and that it should be based on the principle of absolute, or Ideal Beauty. Delville's paintings are essentially intellectual pieces based on ideas and philosophical ideals derived from the contemporary hermetic and esoteric tradition, especially the work of Eliphas Levi and Saint-Yves d'Alveydre, and later in his career, the Theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant. The main underlying theme of his paintings, especially during his early career, has to do with initiation and the transfiguration of the inner life of the soul towards a higher spiritual purpose. 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 Académie Royale des Beaux-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. In the mid or late 1890s, Delville joined the Theosophical Society. In 1896, he founded the Salon d’Art Idealiste, which is considered the Belgian equivalent to the Parisian Rose & Cross Salon and the Pre-Raphaelite movement in London. The Salon disbanded in 1898. 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 Jiddu 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. Though photographs and drawings still exist, the house no longer stands. From 1907 through 1937 Delville taught at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. 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. 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. 

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