The Belgian Symbolist painter and writer Jean Delville (1867 – 1953) is considered a mystic, an idealist, and an occultist who sought to revive the ancient traditions of Cabbala, Magic, and Alchemy. In 1896, he founded the Salon d’Art Idealiste, which is considered the Belgian equivalent to the Parisian Salon de la Rose Croix and the Pre-Raphaelite movement in London.
Among his poetry and other literary works is La Mission de l‘Art (1900) in which he wrote extensively about the nature and purpose of Art, viewing it as a catalyst for the uplifting of mankind. He saw the true artist more in the likeness of a spiritual teacher or prophet.
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. 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.
His work “A Mission de l’Art” is available for reading online; the link is at the bottom of this post.
Introduction to artist, mystic, idealist Jean Delville’s work “A Mission de l’Art” or The New Mission of Art: A Study of Idealism in Art.
“THE AUTHOR of the following treatise will be known by name to very few of his English readers, yet the book reveals a personality so distinguished that those hitherto unacquainted with M. Delville’s work may care to know something of the writer. The few to whom he is already known will be found among those who, possessing an interest in the arts, have lived a considerable time in Brussels or in Glasgow. In the former, because M. Delville is an artist of renown in his own country : in the latter, because about eight years ago he was appointed to the chief- professorship in the Glasgow School of Art. He worked there for half-a-dozen years and with such personal success that when he returned to Brussels and instituted the ” Atelier Delville” a large number of his former pupils went oversea to follow him. The world of art is hardly less variously peopled than the wider world of politics and affairs. No painter, no writer, can ever please all artists, and M. Delville, especially, by his unflinching adherence to idealism, has encoun- tered for many years much ridicule or abuse from the supporters of other schools. It is unfortunate that so small a number of men is capable of avoiding an extreme. No sooner is a certain style grown over-ripe than the next generation, dismissing the entire school as misguided, errs yet more markedly in the opposite direction. Here in England at the moment we read articles by men who declare that Burne-Jones knew nothing of his art or that there is nothing of sublimity in the work of Tennyson. In place of those formerly accepted and over-praised, they exalt some trifling fellow who, though deficient in a thousand ways, has yet no trace of the particular weakness which overcame the giant they would depose.
For reaction, useful as a corrective influence, is nearly always excessive, and its devotees quite readily mistake their own backwater for the full main-stream of art. Incapable of improving upon the achievements of a bygone school, they choose out themes and methods which were most likely rejected as unworthy by the painters they despise. The excessive praise of Whistler is now subsiding, but in its place has arisen the cult of those who consider clear colour to be the brand-mark of the commonplace, fair form the delight of an inferior taste. Nor do these bubble-movements lack believers among those who are fearful lest they should be stigmatised as unprogressive, for most men — critics or craftsmen — are carried along by the taste of their time, and few are those who, standing aside from the immediate, work on in the great traditions. Of such is M. Delville. Faults he has, but not the faults of our time. There is no affectation Jean Delville xv in his work : no superficial, catchpenny display of skill. With him, the picture has again become of more importance than the painter. For he is a poet, a thinker, a man who cares greatly for the welfare of the world. The eminent French poet who penned the introductory note to this book has shown how unavoidably a painter communicates his ” Weltanschauung ” to his work, and every phase of M. Delville’s mind is thus reflected. In early youth he was a materialist, and the dusty paintings of that period which hang from the walls of his studio would merit praise from some of those who call themselves, euphemistically, ” rationalists.”
Indeed, if anyone should search the great studio he might disinter examples of many contemporary methods. For even in the earliest of his student- days M. Delville possessed a facility so astonish- ing that before he had been working at the School of Art in Brussels for more than a week, the professor set up his canvas as an object- lesson to the assembled students. In after- years the paintings he produced readily reflected the rapid changes of his mind. For he did not rest easy in materialism, and, having experimented with spiritism, in spite of the usual chicanery he discovered what he considered overwhelming evidence of dis- incarnate existence. The pictures which accompany this phase are more terrible than beautiful — vast, lurid, and awful. During a few years he followed the faint stars of spiritism until they had brought him to the limitless horizon of theosophy, and it is to the inspiration of this world-old wisdom that his latter and important work is due. His adherence to that scheme of thought has cost him much, for in Belgium the Ecclesiastical Party, which is dominant, regards theosophy as a formidable menace, and has opposed him repeatedly. But M. Delville was born a fighter, and never flinches in his loyalty to a philosophy which is strangely abused and misunderstood. A keen student of contemporary science, an eloquent and fiery speaker, one who writes prose with vigour and verse with a rare beauty, he is well able to defend his convictions with a widely-cultured mind and with a range of ability that compels respect. Unfortunately, he shares with Rossetti a dislike of exhibiting his work, but the annual exhibitions at Brussels have occasional examples.
A stately picture, called ” L’Ecole de Platon ‘ was exhibited some years ago at Milan, where it won the Gold Prize. Most of M. Delville’s work is on a very large scale — indeed, his preliminary sketches are usually the size of most large pictures. A vast composition, which is named ” L’Homme-Dieu,” and repre- sents a multitude of men and women surging up, with gestures half exultant, half despairing, to the enaureoled Christ, occupies an entire wall in his ” atelier.” Yet he has said that he would like to re-paint it as large again if he could put it in a church. At present in his private studio, at Forest, a country suburb of Brussels, he is preparing a series of frescoes which are to decorate the walls of the Palais de Justice. Perhaps the designs for this national work are the most powerful and most complete examples of idealistic art which he has yet achieved, and it is safe to predict that the Belgians of the future will not regret the choice of the commissioners.
M. Delville was born in 1867 ; he never studied his art except in the school at Brussels, although when his student-days were over he spent some two years in Rome — a city which he felt to be strangely familiar, thus offering a theme for speculation to the believer in palin- genesis. His manner of life is simple, as befits a mystic ; the vegetarian may number him in the list of the enlightened ; and his pleasures are those of the intellect. Often might a friend, having walked through the little garden, come into the house to find him absorbed in a brilliant rendering of some Wagnerian masterpiece, or studying with the firmest concentration some recent work on evolution or biology. In these days, when life is losing continually more and more of its ancient dignity, when occultism, above all else, has fallen into the hands of commercial, unreligious, and vulgar persons, it is an inspiration to receive the friendship of a man like M. Delville, whose life is worthy of his great religion, who retains not a little of the grandeur which caused the occultists of old time to be so greatly honoured, who realizes the wonder of existence, the sublimity of the universe, and the potential godhead of man. Almost alone he is combatting, year after year, the inane but popular painting of our time, setting forth in daily life and in some of the best of the Belgian reviews that conception of art which he formulates in the present work. It is with deep interest that we who are his allies will watch the reception given to it in England.
It is a book which proclaims, not a new and unrelated art, but the necessity of applying some new inspiration to the incomparable traditions of the past : a book which opposes all that is commonly praised in the art of our period ; a book which we who are with him can only regard as the work of a great man who writes in a trivial and materialistic age.”
Some well-known and lesser well-known examples of Delville’s paintings
Link to full text at Archive.org http://www.archive.org/stream/newmissionofarts00delv/newmissionofarts00delv_djvu.txt