In the late 19th century, Belgium was one of the great centres of European Symbolism, and Jean Delville, born in Louvain, expressed the most esoteric side of this movement. With L'Ecole de Platon [The School of Plato] , he presents one of the most personal representations of classical philosophy.
The work was originally intended as a decoration for the Sorbonne, but was never installed. This explains the monumental size of the canvas, and the use of pastel shades in the style of Puvis de Chavannes, the greatest painter-decorative artist of the time. Delville depicts Plato as a Christ-like figure surrounded by twelve disciples. The androgynous appearance and lascivious poses of the beautiful young men and the setting - an idealised garden where it is easy to picture them cavorting and freely embracing - impart an atmosphere of homosexual sensuality.
Thus, despite the many classical references in the Mannerism of the nudes, the frontality and symmetry of the composition, this representation of the philosopher remains ambiguous, with an aspect that is both religious and erotic.
The support (H: 2.50 m x W: 6.10 m) is a stretched canvas on a frame. This support is covered with a thin white ground layer through which the weave texture of the canvas is visible. Compositional sketches can be detected on top of this ground layer. The oil paint is applied quite flatly.
The presence of the weave texture of the canvas (detail 1) and the use of thin paint as a binder on an absorbent ground layer results in an overall matt appearance. Delville used this technique to achieve a finish similar to that of Italian fresco paintings.
A predominance of blues and greens used for both landscape and flesh tones creates a twilight atmosphere.
The support is in a good state of conservation but there is a light deposit of dirt and some small separations on the paint layer. Following the reintegration of paint losses in 1979, there are some slight colour discrepancies. Matt and gloss areas are also evident in raking light.
A programme of conservation and repair to the paint layer will be sufficient to strengthen the work and improve its appearance. This work will include re-fixing the areas that have lifted, cleaning the surface of the painting and further retouching of the previously inpainted areas.