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Born in 1897 to a bourgeois Belgian family near Liège, Paul Delvaux started studying architecture before switching to painting at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where his professor favourably compared his drawings to the work of Purvis de Chavannes. Although he exhibited regularly from about 1925, he only developed what is considered his characteristic surrealistic style of dreamlike townscapes peopled by women, sages and skeletons in the mid-thirties.
To place his art in context, the early 20th century was the time when Sigmund Freud came to prominence, followed after the first war by a group of French intellectuals including Apollinaire, Rimbaud, André Breton and Paul Eluard who were trying to formulate an "aesthetic of the non-rational", which subsequently came to be referred to as "surrealism". In the U.K., James Joyce published Ulysses in 1922. Artists and writers were busy exploring the poetry of the magical, the world of dreams and the Freudian subconscious. The worlds of art, philosophy and science were undergoing profound interrelated changes.
In the late 1920s, Delvaux was influenced by James Ensor's work, as well as being bowled over by a De Chirico exhibit in Paris. In 1926, he met Magritte through a gallery in Brussels. From the quite classical reality of his early work, he was developing some stylization by 1927 and strange little scenes started appearing in the background from 1928.
Delvaux exhibited with Magritte at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1936 and, in 1937, he painted the seminal L'Aurore (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice) which subsequently inspired Marcel Duchamp. In 1938, he took part in the crucial international surrealist exhibits organized by Breton and Eluard in Paris, Amsterdam and Mexico City.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Paul Delvaux was not part of the exodus from war-torn Europe to America and he stayed in Brussels, working in his studio throughout the German occupation. At the end of the war, a retrospective of his work was presented at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels and a film on his work was made by Henri Storck, who went on to make another film about him in 1971.
Over the years, Paul Delvaux has been the subject of many films, monographs and articles, with major solo exhibitions across the world, as well as almost innumerable group shows. In 1950 he was named Professor at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'art et d'architecture in Brussels where he taught until 1962. He also served as president and director of the Académie royale des beaux-arts of Belgium in the mid-sixties.
He continued to work well into his 90's in spite of vision problems and died in 1994.