Jean Delville


1867 (January 19):  Jean Delville was born in Louvain, Belgium.

1879:  Delville enrolled in the evening classes at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts.

1886:  Delville made his first trip to Paris, where he met the esoteric masters Papus and Péladan, and the occult novelist Villiers de l’Isle-Adam.

1887:  Delville had his first exhibition, with the art group L’Essor.

1887–1888:  Delville was introduced to Martinism by Papus.

1890:  Delville became a member of Kumris, which was an art salon and an occult circle at the same time.

1892:  Delville left L’Essor and created the salons Pour l’Art.

1893:  Delville published his first book, Les Horizons hantés.

1892–1894:  Delville participated in the first four Salons Rose+Croix.

1895:  Delville established a salon for an “Idealist art,” in Brussels.

1895:  Delville received the Belgian Prix de Rome for painting.

1897:  Delville painted his first masterpiece, The School of Plato.

1897:  Delville published Le Frisson du Sphinx.

1899:  Delville became a member of the Theosophical Society, Belgian section.

1900:  Delville published The New Mission of Art.

1903:  Delville was initiated into Freemasonry at the lodge Les Amis Philanthropes (Grand Orient of Brussels).

1900–1907:  Delville painted his masterpieces The God-Man, Love of Souls, and Prometheus.

1914–1918:  Delville lived in exile in London, where he became Worshipful Master of the King Albert lodge of Freemasonry.

1925–1925:  Delville was very active as a propagandist for Krishnamurti in Belgium.

1930:  Delville broke with the Theosophical Society; met Émilie Leclercq.

1931–1947:  Having left his family, Delville set in Mons (Belgium) with Émilie Leclercq.

1931–1944:  In Mons, Delville lived several years of heightened artistic activity, with his palette now tinged by the Art Deco style.

1937:  Delville ended his long career as an academic and professor at the Belgian Academy of Fine Arts.

1942:  Delville wrote his libretto for an opera, Zanoni, le Rose+Croix, with ten drawings.

1947:  Delville completed his painting Vision de la paix, his esoteric testament.

1947:  Delville separated from Émilie Leclercq and returned to his family home.

1953 (January 19):  Delville passed away on the very day of his eighty-sixth birthday in the Forest municipality of Brussels, Belgium.


Asked about Jean Delville (1867-1953), [Image at right] many contemporary Belgians would simply answer: “Delville, never heard of him!” However, when paintings such as the Portrait of Madame Stuart Merrill (now at the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts), The School of Plato (at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay), or The Love of Souls (at the Museum of Ixelles, Brussels), are mentioned, many would recognize them as iconic symbolist works. His works survive, and position Delville among the great symbolist painters. But Delville the man has disappeared and his works, in a way, have been taken hostage by critics in such a way as to make their author invisible. In part, Delville himself is to blame: a brilliant artist and intellectual, but difficult in person, he was known to practice “the delicate art of making enemies.” His family and descendants also shoulder some of the blame, having fashioned a sanitized, official version of his tumultuous life, which cared little for his esoteric inclinations and glossed over him leaving his family at the age of sixty-seven to live with a young student, Émilie Leclercq (1904-1992).

Delville’s life and career are strongly marked by his esoteric interests as a Theosophist, Martinist, and Freemason. He was born in Louvain, Belgium, on January 19, 1867. His family subsidized his evening classes at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts, where he got his diploma in 1887. He led a charmed life, having by the tender age of twenty produced such masterpieces as L’Homme aux corbeaux, recently rediscovered in the dusty archives of the Belgian Royal Library [Image at right]. Still in his youth, he collaborated with L’Essor, one of the best-known art salons in Belgium. In 1892, he established in Brussels his own salon, Pour l’Art, followed in 1895 by a new salon, devoted to what he called “Idealist art.” In the same year 1895, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome in the category of painting. In 1897, he produced his first masterpiece, The School of Plato [Image at right]. He also published books, both of esoteric poetry and about art, starting with Les Horizons hantés in 1893 (Delville 1893) and Le Frisson du Sphinx in 1897 (Delville 1897), and culminating in 1900 with The New Mission of Art (Delville 1900), published with a preface by the famous Theosophist Édouard Schuré (1841-1929) and translated into English in 1910 (Delville 1910).

Meanwhile, Delville had rapidly found himself drawn towards occultism. After a trip to Paris in 1886, where he had also met the symbolist writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838-1889), whose interests for the occult were well-known, he started meeting frequently with the famous esoteric author Papus (Gérard Encausse, 1865-1916). Papus would go on to found modern Martinism, before befriending the no-less celebrated Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918), Papus’ associate and later rival in the revival of Rosicrucianism. Péladan would introduce Delville to his Salons Rose+Croix, establishing a privileged relationship from the outset, with the Belgian more the disciple of the French esoteric master than his collaborator. Delville managed to maintain a good relation with both Papus and Péladan even after the two French esoteric leaders became bitter rivals, and in 1890 became amember of Kumris (or Kvmris), the Belgian branch of Papus’ French Groupe indépendant d’études ésotériques, and an organization that was an art salon and an occult circle at the same time.

Esotericism and aestheticism constantly overlapped in the work and private life of Delville [Image at right]. Having become “Superior Unknown,” the highest degree among the Martinists, Delville would also attain the highest distinctions in Freemasonry, where he had been initiated in 1903, becoming Worshipful Master of two prestigious lodges: King Albert in London, during the First World War, and Les Amis Philanthropes in Brussels, during the 1920s. Yet, Delville was above all a Theosophist, a cause for which he would push himself to the edge.

All of Delville’s paintings (as well as his many poems), including his masterpieces painted between1900 and 1907, such as The God-Man, Love of Souls [Image at right], and Prometheus, were inspired by the occult, from his artistic subjects to the form, colors and symbols he used. Symbolism in general combined aesthetics and esotericism, particularly in France and Belgium. Jean Delville became one of its main representatives, along with the other Belgian symbolists, such as Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) and Félicien Rops (1833-1898), and the French painters, particularly influenced by Theosophy and Schuré, known as the Nabis.

Without any shadow of a doubt, the period of 1890-1914 constituted the most fruitful time of Delville’s artistic career. The First World War inspired some notable patriotic works, although they are seen today as being fairly kitsch. The painter had joined the Theosophical Society in 1899, quickly becoming its main leader in Belgium. The post-war period, until the start of the 1930s, saw Delville dropping his paintbrushes and mobilizing his body and soul for the young Indian Brahmin Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), chosen by the Theosophical Society as the World Teacher, the “New Christ,” and groomed as such. The intellectually brilliant and highly cultivated Delville would dedicate himself fully to this improbable cause, through books, journals, articles and conferences (Delville 1913; 1925; 1928) [Image at right]. This would go on until Krishnamurti reached adulthood and disavowed his role in 1929, by declaring that he was neither the World Teacher nor a new Christ. For Delville, this marked a defeat, depression, and rupture.

As this rupture, which led to Delville’s separation from the Theosophical Society in 1930, was unfolding, the painter met Émilie Leclercq, one of his students at the Academy of Fine Arts. They soon started a relationship that was to last fifteen years. The painter left his family and went to live with Émilie in Mons, Belgium. Before meeting Leclercq, Delville was dominant, a leader, a chief. With Émilie [Image at right], he entered a fresh phase of total isolation in Mons. Delville was no longer a member of any society, and apart from his continuing work as a teacher at the Belgian Academy of Fine Arts and as an art critic, he mostly focused on rebuilding himself.

It is understandable that Delville’s family would give his “Mons years” such a negative appraisal. “Nothing good would come” from them, as his son Olivier put it in the work he dedicated to his father (O. Delville 1984:43). In fact, the Mons period was a highly artistically productive one, with Delville showing extraordinary vitality in the period between his seventieth and eightieth birthdays.

He was vivacious as a professor and lecturer for the Academy of Fine Arts. Seventeen of his twenty-three lectures, all published in the Academy’s bulletins, were written in Mons. As a painter, he also remained very active, rediscovering his creativity and producing some inspired Art Deco works, which today come as a surprise for those who know Delville when they learn of them, only because they were so neglected. In Mons [Image at right], Delville would produce several masterpieces in terms of the talent imbued in them and their scope, particularly the superb Roue du Monde, which is the property of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, although unfortunately preserved in its reserve rather than displayed. As a citizen, too, he showed vivaciousness as a resistant against the occupying German forces, releasing deliberately contrarian works under the Nazis’ very noses.

In Mons, Delville would also write a sort of libretto for an opera: Zanoni, le Rose+Croix, which was based on the Rosicrucian novel by the British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873). It was previously thought to have been written by the artist in the early twentieth century, since the initial idea dated to this period; however, it was in fact completed in Mons. This important work consists of a long explicatory note of the author’s esoteric motives, a manuscript of 150 pages, and ten drawings that constituted part of the designs for a theatrical presentation of the work (see Frongia 1984; Guéguen 2016, 2017). It was also in Mons that Delville would write a sort of catalogue raisonné of his work (with a photo album filled with shots taken under very difficult conditions during the war) with the intention of eventually publishing a more complete edition. In this task, he was assisted by the young René Harvent (1925-2004), who would become a renowned sculptor. Harvent observed Delville’s paintings in his workshop every day and took notes. In 1944, he watched him painting his famous Portrait of Madame Stuart Merrill, which the official biographies of Delville, as well as the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts, date back to 1892. Not so, claimed Harvent: it was painted in front of him in 1944 (note in the René Harvent archive, reproduced in Guéguen 2016:214).

In 1947, Delville separated from Émilie Leclercq and returned to his family home in Brussels. In the same year, he completed his lastgreat work, Vision de la paix, a highly symbolic painting that can be considered his esoteric testament [Image at right]. Delville passed away on January 19, 1953, on the day of his eighty-sixth birthday in the Forest municipality of Brussels, Belgium.

The greatest exhibitions of Delville’ works, featuring most of his masterpieces [Image at right], were organized in the twenty-first century (Laoureux 2014; Larvová 2015). A true academic study of Derville also started fairly recently (see Cole 2015), particularly with respect to his connections with Theosophy and esotericism (Clerbois 2012; Gautier 2011; Gautier 2012; Introvigne 2014; Guéguen 2016, 2017). Further studies on Delville the poet, Delville the musician, and Delville the art critic would hopefully follow.

**All images are clickable links to enlarged representations.

Image #1: Henri van Haelen (1876-1944), Portrait of Jean Delville, 1925. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

Image #2: Jean Delville, L’Homme aux corbeaux (Man with Crows), 1888. Charcoal drawing. Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels.

Image #3: Jean Delville, L’École de Platon, 1897. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Image #4: Jean Delville, L’Homme-Dieu (The God-Man) 1901-1903. Oil on canvas. Groeninge Museum, Bruges.

Image #5: Jean Delville, L’Amour des âmes (Love of Souls), 1900. Tempera and gouache on canvas. Ixelles Museum. Brussels.

Image #6: Jean Delville, Krishnamurti. Ink on paper. 1929.

Image #7: Émilie Leclerq, Portrait de Jean Delville, 1940.

Image #8: Jean Delville, Vision de la paix. 1947. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

Image #9: Jean Delville, Prometheus, 1907. Oil on canvas. Université libre de Bruxelles, Brussels.


Clerbois Sébastien. 2012. L’Ésotérisme et Le Symbolisme Belge. Antwerp: Éditions Pandora.

Cole Brendan. 2015. Jean Delville: Art between Nature and the Absolute. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Delville, Jean. 1928. Krishnamurti, révélateur des temps nouveaux. Brussels: Imprimerie de l’Office de Publicité.

Delville, Jean. 1925. La Grande Hiérarchie Occulte et la Venue d’un Instructeur Mondial. Brussels: Les Presses Tilbury.

Delville, Jean. 1913. Le Christ reviendra. Le Christ Futur en Face de L’Église et de la science. Paris: Les Éditions Théosophiques.

Delville, Jean. 1910. The New Mission of Art: A Study of Idealism in Art. Translated by Francis Colmer. London: Francis Griffiths.

Delville, Jean. 1900. La Mission de l’Art. Étude d’Esthétique Idéaliste. Brussels: G. Balat.

Delville, Jean. 1897. Le Frisson du Sphinx. Brussels: H. Lamertin.

Delville, Jean. 1893. Les Horizons Hantés. Brussels: P. Lacomblez.

Delville Olivier. 1984. Jean Delville, Peintre 1867-1953. Brussels. Éditions Laconti.

Frongia, Maria Luisa. 1984. “I Bozzetti di Jean Delville per Le Scene del Dramma Lirico Inedito Zanoni. Storia dell’arte 51: 137-51.

Gautier, Flaurette. 2012. “Jean Delville et L’occulture Fin de Siècle.” Master II Dissertation. Tours: Université François Rabelais.

Gautier, Flaurette. 2011. “L’Écriture Artiste de Jean Delville (1888-1900).” Master Dissertation. Tours: Université François Rabelais.

Guéguen Daniel. 2017. Jean Delville: The True Story . English Edition. Paris: Éditions Liénart.

Guéguen, Daniel. 2016. Jean Delville. La Contre-Histoir. Paris: Éditions Liénart.

Introvigne Massimo. 2014. “Zöllner’s Knot: Theosophy, Jean Delville (1867-1953), and the Fourth Dimension.” Theosophical History 17:84-118.

Laoureux, Denis, ed. 2014. Jean Delville (1867–1953), Maître de L’idéal. Paris: Somogy and Namur: Musée Felicien-Rops.

Larvová, Hana, ed. 2015. Jean Delville 1867-1953. Prague: Prague City Gallery and Namur: Musée Félicien Rops.

Post Date:
5 April 2017