Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) is best known as the painter of female nudes, but his second most favoured motif was the train and railway station. So often did Delvaux paint trains and stations that he has become known in some quarters as a “train-station painter”. Indeed, when the curator of Museum Delvaux (at St-Idesbald, on the Flanders coast) discussed visitors with a British art historian, he noted that the majority of British visitors were train enthusiasts rather than art connoisseurs.
In the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, railways developed extensively across Belgium, accelerated by – and aiding – in the country’s advanced heavy industries of coal, iron and textile production. Anyone growing up in the Edwardian age, as Delvaux did, would have been aware of the great freedom train travel offered all but the very poorest. The network allowed one to reach the very edges of civilisation from one’s home district, had one the fare. Trains, railways and railway stations became nodes in the romantic imagination – highways to adventure, sophisticated metropolises, distant lands and amorous intrigues.
Camille Brasseur is the scientific director of collections at Fondation Paul Delvaux, St.-Idesbald. She has combed Delvaux’s archives, museum and art works, piecing together Delvaux’s deep fascination for trains. Brasseur outlines Delvaux’s student days and his early career, moving between realism and Impressionism. At times, Delvaux felt the tug of Symbolism, classicism and fantastic art – not least the illustrations of Jules Vernes novels – which gave him a sense that art could be more than a range of styles depicting the real.
Train stations appear in Delvaux’s paintings in 1921. They are accurate depictions of stations in central Brussels, such as Gare du Quartier-Léopold and Gare du Luxembourg. He adopted mainly high viewpoints (on bridges) and concentrated on freight carriages. The attention he paid to the rail workers (labourers and freight handlers rather than guards) puts him in the tradition of Constantin Meunier and the social realists. The evening light, smoke haze and palette overwhelmed by earth hues, all contributed to a stylistic correlation to social realism, though Delvaux never had a commitment to depicting the lives of the working class with a view to disseminating information about their plight or effecting political change. Delvaux was never a socially engaged artist.
In the 1930s, Delvaux made views of rural stations near Huy, the region of his birth. “Often going against traditional clichés, Delvaux chooses not to represent the station façades, but is interested instead in the interior views and the circulation of the machines. The equipment represented essentially consists of wagons and locomotives used for the transportation of goods.” Delvaux’s attention was captured by the least poetic and picaresque aspects of railway stations: the tracks, shunting yards, signals and freight wagons. The romance of travel and the opportunity for human comedy and drama in the form of interactions between passengers is entirely absent from these pictures.
When train stations reappeared in Delvaux’s art, it was in the late 1940s, at a point when Delvaux had established his Surrealist-Symbolist dreamlike repertoire and clearer style and palette. This time the stations foyers and waiting rooms were the settings for scenes occupied by nude women. The dirt and danger of clinker, smoke and heavy machinery has been banished; instead, belle-époque interiors function as theatrical sets for reveries of strange incongruity and erotic contemplation.
Brasseur notes that Delvaux’s house in Boitsfort (bought in 1954) was close to the station and railway (the Brussels-Namur line) and that his subsequent paintings used motifs that were drawn from life. Delvaux’s engines, wagons and signals were accurate and can be found in contemporary photographs or preserved items. Blueprints of wagons attest to Delvaux zeal for correctness. Vintage postcards provide evidence on how Delvaux adapted the locales to the necessities of his art. In the 1950s, the exterior of provincial stations started to feature in settings. The painter reduced the emotional intensity and spatial concentration by opening up his paintings. No longer are interiors and platforms under roofs central; instead, we are outside, in small country towns at night, under empty, cloudless skies, inhabiting sparsely populated squares or generously broad paths. The compositions become more diffuse. We get views across train tracks that run parallel to the picture plane.
The Last Wagon (1975) was one of the few Delvaux paintings set inside a train. The platforms, lamps and awnings of railways of Delvaux’s youth – he always preferred the old to the recent – appear detached from their origins in many scenes, the way in dreams objects become separated from their sources. Reproduced in this book are photographs of lanterns, signals, buildings and stations that Delvaux used in his pictures. His collection of authentic objects and models is viewable in his museum at St-Idesbald. Some of it is reproduced here.
It was to be expected that, considering Delvaux’s attachment to trains and his success, he would be commissioned to produce paintings for the national rail network in Belgium. The four paintings of 1963 are not his best nor most imaginative, but they form a set that will please rail enthusiasts. They were reproduced as stamps. He was commissioned to produce a great mural for the casino at Knokke, called The Legendary Journey (1973-4), which featured a railway. In 1984, Delvaux was made honorary stationmaster of St-Idesbald station. A peculiar omission – the only fault in this fine and thorough book – is the failure to discuss Delvaux’s mural for La Bourse metro station, Brussels, executed in 1978. Although it depicts trams rather than trains, it is the last flourishing in his art of track-based-transport imagery.
Overall, this book forms an excellent explanation of the role and extent of railway and train imagery Delvaux’s art. It also comprises a good discussion of Delvaux as a whole. Considering the dearth of good commentary in English on this artist, Brasseur’s contribution is an essential purchase for all Anglophone fans of Delvaux’s art.
Camille Brasseur, Paul Delvaux: The Man Who Loved Trains, Snoeck, 2019, 240pp, 200 illus., hardback, €34, ISBN 978 9 461 615732. English edition, French and Dutch editions available.
(c) 2021 Alexander Adams
To view my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art