Gift of painting by Paul Delvaux enhances Smart Museum collection

The modern painting collection at the Smart Museum of Art will be bolstered this fall by the addition of a classic work by the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux.

Water Nymphs (Les nymphes des eaux), 1938—one of Delvaux’s iconic pre-war paintings—is a generous gift from Chicago philanthropists and art collectors Sam and Helen Zell. The painting will be on view at the Smart Museum beginning Sept. 12.


“The Zells’ gift adds an important dimension to the Smart Museum’s remarkable and distinctive holdings of modern European and American art,” said Anthony Hirschel, the Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum of Art. “The painting will serve as a vital resource for students and scholars at the University of Chicago, and will offer visitors from around the city and the world a particularly fine example of Delvaux’s work.”

Along with René Magritte, Delvaux (1897-1994) was one of the major exponents of surrealism in Belgium. He encountered the work of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico in the late 1920s, which inspired his early exploration of surrealist themes and images.

Delvaux is best known for paintings of female figures depicted in incongruous architectural settings, including Water Nymphs. The painting centers on the activities of siren-like female bathers in the presence of a lone male figure in a dark suit.

“In Water Nymphs, we see many of the distinctive qualities of Paul Delvaux’s work: a dream-like atmosphere conveyed in an almost unsettling manner of intense visages and frozen poses, provocative imagery grounded in unexpected juxtapositions, and a dark, austere setting,” explained Richard Born, senior curator at the Smart Museum. “The painting is exemplary of Delvaux’s style, and the figurative direction in the work of his surrealist contemporaries, including René Magritte and Salvador Dalí.”

In addition to Water Nymphs, the Smart Museum holds several other notable pieces by artists who worked in the surrealist mode. These include paintings and prints by the Swiss artist Kurt Seligmann, postwar canvases by the Chilean-born Roberto Matta (a gift of the late University Trustee Edwin A. Bergman and Lindy Bergman, AB’39), and an exquisite corpse drawing—a collaborative drawing technique favored by the French surrealists—by a founding member and spokesman of Surrealism André Breton and another core member of the surrealist group Paul Éluard, among others (a recent gift of Brett Gorvy and Amy Gold, AM’90).

The Zell family has supported numerous contemporary exhibitions at the Smart Museum, such as “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,” “The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989,” and “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China.” In 2015, Helen Zell received the Joseph R. Shapiro Award, which honors the vision and connoisseurship of Chicago’s most distinguished collectors of art.

In addition to Water Nymphs, the Zells recently donated a 1966 mixed media piece by conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, Box in a Valise (Bôite-en-valise). The red leather box contains miniature replicas, photographs and color reproductions of works by Duchamp, along with sketches and notes. Between 1941 and 1968, Duchamp and his assistants created seven editions of the Box in a Valise. The Smart Museum now holds two examples of this milestone modern work, which is in very frequent demand for research and classroom use.

Strengthening the museum’s collection is among the priorities identified by the Smart Museum as part of the University of Chicago Campaign: Inquiry and Impact, the most ambitious and comprehensive campaign in the University’s history. The campaign will raise $4.5 billion to support faculty and researchers, practitioners and patients, and students and programs across the University. The Smart Museum’s additional priorities include supporting academic and curatorial leadership, extending the museum's reach and impact, and providing unrestricted support for its operations.