Jean Delville: Painting, Spirituality, and the Esoteric

Originally printed in the May - June 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Harris , Lynda. "Jean Delville: Painting, Spirituality, and the Esoteric." Quest  90.3 (MAY - JUNE 2002):

By Lynda Harris

THE ESOTERIC, the occult, and the spiritual became subjects of absorbing interest during the last decades of the nineteenth century, as many in the West reacted to the materialism and hypocrisy of their age. The enthusiasm for such ideas reached its peak during the 1890s, the decade when the Belgian painter and writer Jean Delville (1867 -1953) was at the height of his powers.

Delville's Background

Delville was born in the Belgian town of Louvain, and moved to Brussels at the age of six. As an adult, he lived mainly in the Brussels suburb of Forest, though he also spent some years in Paris, Rome, Glasgow, and London. His artistic ability was exceptional from an early age. He began his training at the Brussels Academy of Fine 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.

The artist's granddaughter Miriam Delville describes her grandfather as primarily a seeker, who searched all his life for perfection (personal communication, November 2001). In his late teens and early twenties, he painted landscapes and depictions of the poor. Then (perhaps rather like Annie Besant) Delville turned from social problems to esotericism and spiritual philosophy. Unlike Besant, however, he was associated with a great number of esoteric societies and individuals during his lifetime. Probably, as Miriam Delville says, this was due to his search for the ideal.

Though Delville never found the one perfect philosophy, three movements seem to have had a particularly strong effect on his ideas. The first of these was Rosicrucianism, as expounded by Sir Josaphin Paladan (1858 -1918). The "Si", whom Delville met in Paris in 1887 or 1888, was a highly eccentric occultist, whose self-styled title associated him with Ancient Assyrian royalty. He presented himself as a descendent of the priestly magi, and to enhance this exotic impression he wore long robes and styled his dark hair and beard in fashions reminiscent of the ancient Assyrians.

In fact, the Sir's real name was Joseph Paladan, and he came from Lyons, France's second city. Like his family before him, he combined a strong Catholic faith with occultism and esotericism. He arrived in Paris in 1884, aiming (and for a while succeeding) at taking the city by storm. He set up his own Rosicrucian order called the Order of the Rose+Cross of the Temple and the Grail . His writings hinted at occult practices, alchemy, magic, and initiation, as well as a fashionable admiration of Wagner. He also wrote a novel describing the eroticism and decadence of the Parisians. All of these subjects were well suited to the tastes of the Parisian aesthetes of the late nineteenth century, and Paladan's flair for publicity led to his great popularity at the time Delville met him.

In the beginning, Delville adopted of Paladan's ideas. Between 1892 and 1895, he exhibited paintings in the Sir's Paris Salons of the Rose+Cross. After 1895, Delville dissociated himself from the Sir, though he remained true to many of the latter's esoteric concepts. These played an important part in Delville's own philosophy, which (making use of a term of Paladan's) he called Idealism. Once Delville had separated from Paladan, he set up his own Idealist exhibitions in Belgium.

Édouard Schura (1841 -1929), who came from Strasbourg and lived much of the time in Paris, was the second major influence on Delville and his ideas. Schura had developed his spiritual concepts in conjunction with the great love of his life, Marguerite Albana Mignaty. The two met in Florence in 1871, and their mutual conversations reached fruition during the autumn of 1884. The result was Schura's highly influential book The Great Initiates, first published in 1889, and still in print today. The extent to which Schura was also influenced by Theosophical ideas is unclear, but he was a member of the Theosophical Society between 1884 and 1886.

The Theosophical Society was the third important influence on Delville. As Brendan Cole, author of a comprehensive doctoral thesis on Delville points out, the artist's interest in Theosophy first became evident in 1895. This was the date when Delville published his Dialogue entre nous, a text in which he outlined his occult and Idealist views. This interest was to increase, as Delville moved further away from Paladan's orbit. Sometime during the mid to late 1890s, Delville joined the Theosophical Society and assimilated his new beliefs with characteristic enthusiasm. In his book The New Mission of Art (1900), he drew connections between Theosophy and the ideas of Schura and a decade later became the secretary of the Theosophical movement in Belgium. At the same time, he added a tower to his house in Forest, painting the meditation room at the top entirely in blue, with the Theosophical emblem at its summit. Although photographs and drawings of the house still exist, the structure itself, regrettably, no longer stands.

Delville and the Occult

Though Delville frequently wrote about spiritual subjects, he almost never discussed his pictures. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that he was a painter of ideas, and it is clear that there are connections between his paintings and his esoteric views. A recurring theme in many of his works was the evolution of the human soul, achieved through initiation and reincarnation.

Delville's ideas on initiation were influenced by Schura and later by Theosophy, but he was probably introduced to the subject by Paladan. As Robert Pincus-Witten points out, Paladan saw himself as an initiate with occult powers and accorded the same status to some of the other members of his group, who may have participated in secret initiations about which we know nothing.

Did Delville participate in initiation ceremonies himself? He might well have as a member of Paladan's society; he certainly would have in the Masonic movement, to which he also belonged. In any case, both he and Paladan described the true artist as an initiate, whose mission was to send light, spirituality, and mysticism into the world.

Another important key to an understanding of Delville's paintings and drawings is the concept of the astral light. The radiant streams in many of the artist's scenes are no doubt depictions of this, as suggested below. In his Dialogue entre nous, Delville described the astral light as an invisible, universal matrix that surrounds everything in the universe, including the stars and the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. It also saturates and surrounds the souls of human beings and engenders their rebirth in new bodies. The artist's works make it plain that the colors of this astral light change, according to the spiritual level. In the dense material realm, the hues are hot, predominantly red and orange. The light in the higher levels of the psychic universe, in contrast, is brilliant and shimmering. There the dominant colors are clear purples, whites, and golds.

Delville's Paintings and Drawings: Some Examples

The Portrait of Mrs. Stuart Merrill

Deville's best pictures (especially the earlier ones) often have an air of mystery and intrigue. One of the most mysterious is his Portrait of Mrs. Stuart Merrill. This drawing, executed in chalks in 1892, is strikingly otherworldly. In it Delville depicts the young woman as a medium in trance, with her eyes turned upwards. Her radiating red-orange hair combines with the fluid astral light of her aura.

The hot colors that surround Mrs. Merrill's head allude to the earthly fires of passion and sensuality. On the other hand, the book on which she rests her chin and long, almost spectral hands is inscribed with an upward-pointing triangle, which represents Delville's idea of perfect human knowledge, achieved (as he says in his Dialogue), through magic, the Kabbalah, and Hermeticism. As has been widely recognized, the painting, with its references to occultism and wisdom seems to hint at initiation. In that case, the woman's red aura might refer to her sensual side, which will become more spiritualized as she moves into a different stage of development.

But whatever the interpretation, this very unusual portrait has had a strong effect on viewers. Patrick Bade in Femme Fatale sees it as eerie and supernatural; and Philippe Jullian in Dreamers of Decadence calls it "a positively magical vision.” It is sometimes referred to as the Mona Lisa of the 1890s and is also given the title La Mysteriosa. Today, few details are available about the sitter, and even her first name goes unmentioned in the literature. The most extensive information on her identity is given by Delville's son Olivier in his biography of the painter. Olivier's account is not firsthand, however, as he was born at least ten years after the picture was executed. He reports that Stuart Merrill (a Symbolist poet who published his works in Paris and Brussels) had a house in Forest near to the Delvilles. He adds that "the young Mrs. Merrill-Rion” was a Belgian, and that Delville was struck by her strange beauty and depicted her with a mediumistic character.

The painting was not bought by the Merrills, but remained with the Delvilles until it was sold to a private collector in California in the late 1960s. In 1998, it was acquired by the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts, where it is now on display.

Satan's Treasures

Another of Delville's best works, which is also on view in the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts, is Satan's Treasures, first exhibited in 1895. In it the artist depicts Satan with a wild, fiery head of hair and huge red tentacles instead of wings. Scarlet waves surround his left arm, as he presides over a river of unconscious men and women. The transfixed figures lie in the center of a luxuriant coral reef, surrounded by coins, jewels, and strange fish. Beyond the reef are vistas filled with jagged rock formations painted in shades of orange, yellow, and brown. These formations are influenced by the mountainous backgrounds in the Mona Lisa and other works by Leonardo da Vinci, but in Delville's scene, the entire landscape is located underwater.

Though the nude bodies of the entranced men and women are a subtle mixture of acid pinks and yellows, highlighted with touches of green, the overall tone of the painting is orange. In his study of Delville and Roerich, James Cousins (8) relates Delville's own description of Satan's Treasures as follows: "the astral light (as the artist described it to me) strikes through the water-world and merges with the colour of the bodies.”

Though the full interpretation is left to the viewer, it is clear thatSatan's Treasures is not a traditional vision of hell. This unusual image reveals a fascination with decadence and the erotic, which was typical of Paladan and the period in general, but at the same time, as in so many of Delville's works, the underlying theme is likely to be initiation. Since Delville was a great admirer of Édouard Schura's The Great Initiates, Satan's Treasures may well have been inspired by an episode from the Initiation of Isis in Schura's book. In the relevant scene, Schura describes the novice's failure of an early test, the temptation of the senses. Wrapped in a dream of fire, the novice becomes drunk with the heavy perfume of a seductive woman, and later falls asleep, after wildly satisfying his desire. This failure is described by his hierophant as a fall into the abyss of matter.

Delville's vast undersea world, ruled by Satan, is almost certainly an image of the material abyss. Satan, lord of the physical realm, presides over its sleeping inhabitants. Wrapped in delusion, the dreaming men and women are mesmerized by Satan's spell, and trapped by their own desires. Satan's "treasures” include not only their sensuality, but also their attraction to worldly riches, represented by the pearls, coins, and corals that surround them. Above all, the entranced people themselves are the treasures of Satan.

The Angel of Splendor

At a later stage in Schura's Initiation of Isis, the initiate overcomes his entrapment in matter. Delville's 1894 painting entitled The Angel of Splendor can be seen as an illustration of this next phase of human development. In this work, currently in a private collection, the realm of matter is represented by serpents and tangled thorny roses at the bottom right of the canvas. A male figure, with raised arms and upturned eyes similar to those of Mrs. Stuart Merrill, sits half in and half out of the material realm. On his left, a luminous and almost bodiless female angel rises upward, with the fluid and transparent folds of her dress surrounding the man in a circle of light. A vast landscape spreads out, far below the figures. It is filled with jagged hills similar to those in Satan's Treasures. Here, however, they are painted in luminous purples and golds and rise out of a bright blue sea.

This scene can be viewed in two ways. If it is inspired by the episode from Schura's Initiation of Isis, the man would be the disciple's discarded earthly self, falling back, and swallowed up by matter. In this case, the angel would be what Schura describes as "another, purer, more ethereal self,” which has just been born. Alternatively, if the story is not taken directly from Schura, the angel can be seen as a separate being (perhaps the man's higher self), guiding him up from the abyss. In both interpretations, however, the basic meaning is the same. Delville's painting is clearly a depiction of the soul's spiritual evolution.

The School of Plato

In 1895 Delville won the Belgian Prix de Rome and went with his family to Italy. While there, he painted The School of Plato, another work in which the theme of spiritual evolution plays a part. This painting, which is now in the Musea d'Orsay in Paris, was greeted with great enthusiasm when it went on display in Brussels in 1898. Its colors are predominantly cool, emphasizing blues, greens, and tans, with touches of purple. Plato, whose philosophy Delville greatly admired, sits in the center of a beautiful but artificial classical landscape, disseminating wisdom to a group of twelve male pupils. He is bearded and Christ-like, an association that is not coincidental. According to both Schura and H. P. Blavatsky, the leading authority on Theosophy, Plato had been initiated, but instead of speaking openly, he disguised esoteric truths by put them into a rational, intellectual form suitable for public teaching. These teachings were later passed on to the Fathers of the Church.

In Delville's painting, Plato is draped, but all of his students are nude. Looking at them, viewers tend to be struck by their oddly effeminate appearance. Delville's aim was to represent the disciples as androgynous. According to Plato, and later esoteric systems such as Theosophy, primordial humans had once been hermaphrodites. Their separation into two sexes occurred as they fell deeper into matter. In Delville's day, Paladan and other fashionable Parisian aesthetes believed that the more spiritual human types were already beginning to return to the androgynous state. The effeminacy of Plato's disciples is thus a sign of their purity and their evolution away from materialism and towards divinity.

Delville's Character and Last Years

According to the biography by his son Olivier, Delville was determined to pass his ideals on to the world by his continual painting and writing. He also supplemented the unreliable income he made from these activities by teaching art. But his busy professional life did not prevent him from applying his strongly held beliefs to his personal life. Though Delville left home for a number of years in later life, Olivier nevertheless describes his father as a person of courage, perseverance, probity, and intellect, as well as an upright family man who was strict with his six children.

Despite all his work and ability, however, Delville never achieved the recognition he would have liked. As Brendan Cole says in his thesis, the artist almost certainly paid a price for refusing to compromise his ideals. In addition, as Cole points out, the intolerant and polemical tone of many of Delville's writings could have put people off.

By 1951, Delville was almost completely ignored and forgotten. The art critic Paul Caso, who visited Delville at his house in Forest in that year, was one of his few remaining supporters. In his introduction to Olivier's biography Caso describes Delville's face as grave, deeply lined, and almost tragic. At this time, as Caso puts it, Delville's solitude in the art world was total.

Delville died two years after Caso's visit so did not live to see the revival of interest in his work. That revival was marked by exhibitions in London in 1968, and in Paris in 1972. Today Delville's pictures (especially the early ones, before World War I) are once again recognized for their unusual qualities. Although they do not correspond with everyone's taste, many people now see them as outstanding and fascinating expressions of otherworldly subjects. They are often included in exhibitions and anthologies of the Symbolist movement and in books on fantastic and esoteric art. Delville's works are also remembered in the international Theosophical headquarters at Adyar, India, where the main hall is decorated in a style that Philippe Jullian (The Symbolists) believes to imitate that of Delville.



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Brendan. "Jean Delville's l'esthatique idaaliste: Art between Nature and the Absolute (1887 -1906).” D.Phil. thesis, Christ Church College, Oxford, 2000.


James. Two Great Theosophist Painters: Jean Delville, Nicholas Roerich. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1925.


Jean. Dialogue entre nous: Argumentation kabbalistique, occultiste, idaaliste. Bruges: Daveluy Frères, 1895.


The New Mission of Art: A Study of Idealism in Art. Trans. Francis Colmer. London: Francis Griffiths, 1910. 1st pub. as La mission de l'art: Étude d'esthatique idaaliste. Brussels: Georges Balat, 1900


Olivier. Jean Delville, peintre, 1867–1953. Brussels: Editions Laconti, 1984.


Philippe. Dreamers of Decadence: Symbolist Painters of the 1890s. Trans. Robert Baldick. London: Pall Mall Press; New York: Praeger, 1971.


The Symbolists. Oxford: Phaidon, 1973


Witten, Robert. "Occult Symbolism in France: Joseph Paladan and the Salons de La Rose+Croix.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1968.


Édouard.The Great Initiates: A Study of the Secret History of Religions. Trans. Gloria Rasberry. Intro. Paul M. Allen. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980. 1st pub. as Le grands initias: Esquisse de l'histoire secrete des religions. Paris: Perrin, 1889.

Lynda Harris is an art historian and lecturer with degrees from Bryn Mawr College, Boston University, and the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has a special interest in paintings with esoteric symbolism and is the author of the book The Secret Heresy of Hieronymus Bosch.

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