René Magritte's intricately detailed paintings are a testament to the deceptive nature of appearances. This Belgian Surrealist provocatively challenged perception with his piece The Treachery of Images (1928–1929), famously inscribed with Ceci n’est pas une pipe, stating that the depicted pipe is not actually a pipe.
Magritte's artistry pivots around the notion that visual appearances can be misleading. His bewildering images, which have been baffling audiences and fellow artists since his prime in the 20th century, depict ordinary objects in extraordinary ways. A radiant daylight sky could hover over a dusk-lit street, a rural landscape might be a painting within a painting, and the blue of an eye could merely be a reflection of the sky. As Magritte himself once said, "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible.”
The striking aspect of his work is his distinctive lack of painterly style; his creations are starkly realistic, subtly steering our focus away from their craftsmanship. Instead, we're captivated by the oddity of the depicted scenarios.
Embodying his painting style, Magritte managed to blend into the crowd, living a quiet life in a Brussels suburb, much like the frequently appearing bowler-hatted figures in his works. As he put it, “I am not eager to singularize myself." Critic George Melly likened him to a secret agent, whose goal was to undermine the norms of bourgeois reality while keeping his true intentions concealed by appearing ordinary.
Magritte's work continues to captivate and puzzle audiences. A 2006 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art showcased his profound impact on modern art, while a 2011 group exhibition at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco titled “La Carte D’Après Nature,” used his work as a launchpad for exploring everyday objects in disturbing ways. In his homeland of Belgium, the Musée Magritte, which houses around 200 of his works, opened its doors in 2009. Moreover, a detailed Magritte biography, penned by Alex Danchev and completed by Sarah Whitfield, was released last year. Proving his enduring appeal, his painting The Empire of Lights (1961) fetched a record-breaking $79.8 million at Sotheby’s, tripling his previous auction record.
Who exactly was René Magritte, and why does his influence persist?
Let's delve into his early life and career. René François Ghislain Magritte, the eldest of three boys, was born in 1898 in Lessines to Régina, an erstwhile millinery worker, and Léopold Magritte, a tailor by profession. His artistic journey started with drawing lessons in 1910, which set the foundation for his later studies in art school.
Magritte's mother suffered from depression, culminating in numerous suicide attempts. In a tragic event in 1912, when Magritte was only 13, she took her own life by leaping into the Sambre River from a bridge near their home in Châtelet. Her body was found 17 days later with her nightgown covering her head. Although Magritte never openly acknowledged any link, this horrific incident may have sparked the motif of covered faces that pervades his work. (This theme is exemplified in The Lovers, 1928, where two figures kiss with their heads shrouded in the cloth—a scene that gained renewed attention during the Covid pandemic due to its mask-like imagery.)
A few years after this tragic incident, Magritte began his studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, attending sporadically from 1916 to 1918. His initial artistic explorations were in the realm of Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism. However, finding the teachings insufficient, he eventually abandoned his formal education. In 1920, he was drafted into the Belgian infantry, and upon his release the following year, he found employment as a designer in a wallpaper factory.
In 1922, Magritte tied the knot with Georgette Berger, a woman he had known since his adolescence. Although the couple never had children, their Brussels home was alive with pets, housing a variety of dogs, cats, and pigeons. Their domestic life even inspired Paul Simon's 1983 ballad, "René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War." From the outside, their life in the quiet Rue des Mimosas seemed idyllic, but it was marked with infidelity—Magritte had an affair with Surrealist performer Sheila Legge, while Georgette became involved with Surrealist poet Paul Colinet. Rumors also circulated about Magritte's frequent visits to brothels. Despite these complexities, their relationship endured until Magritte's death.
The Magrittes' Journey to Paris.
In 1926, Magritte inked his first gallery contract with Galerie le Centaure in Brussels, marking the commencement of his full-time painting career. The following year, the gallery organized its first solo exhibition. Critics lambasted his Surrealist pieces, and in response to this disheartening reception, the Magrittes decided to relocate to the more progressive Paris. They chose to reside in Le Perreux-sur-Marne, a suburb in the east and soon became acquaintances with key figures in the Surrealist circle, such as André Breton, Salvador Dalí, and Joan Miró. Within a year, Magritte was showcasing his work alongside them.
However, his stint in the high-profile Parisian art scene was brief. By 1930, he and Georgette had returned to Belgium, likely due to financial constraints, which led to Magritte becoming a less central figure in the Surrealist movement. This theme of staying at the periphery was a constant in his life. Apart from his brief sojourn in Paris, he generally avoided the epicenters of the art world. In fact, it wasn't until the twilight of his life that he visited New York, for his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
Nevertheless, Magritte maintained connections with the Surrealists, regularly communicating with them about his ongoing work. In a 1934 letter to Breton, he discussed his recently finished painting, The Human Condition (1933). He wrote, "It can be supposed that the scene behind the picture is different from what is visible." The painting in question, a commentary on the act of painting itself, features a canvas with a landscape that almost seamlessly merges with the backdrop. Despite one being presumably more "real" than the other, both are simulacrums, as is the painting itself.
The Path to Acclaim.
The 1930s marked a period of significant professional advancements for Magritte. In 1933, he had a solo exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. He made his New York debut in 1936, first with a solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery, followed by a group exhibition at MoMA titled "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism." That same year, he took part in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, where his work captivated collector Edward James.
James commissioned Magritte, alongside Dalí, to craft pieces for his London residence, specifically requesting works for his ballroom. The result was Time Transfixed (1938), a painting depicting a black steam engine emerging from a fireplace as though it were a railway tunnel. Reflecting on this piece, Magritte stated, "I decided to paint the image of a locomotive. In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery—the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined."
Ceci n’est pas un Titian
However, Magritte's prosperous period came to a sudden halt with the onset of World War II. He spent these years in his homeland, Belgium, under Nazi occupation. Perhaps as a survival strategy or a form of defiance against authority, he began replicating notable works of art, both historical and contemporary. His repertoire of forgeries included works by Titian and 17th-century Dutch artist Meindert Hobbema, as well as modern artists such as Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, and Pablo Picasso.
Belgian Surrealist Marcel Mariën, who assisted Magritte in selling these forgeries, disclosed this activity in writing after Magritte's death. In response, Georgette filed a lawsuit against Mariën, which she lost. This practice of forgery extended beyond painting for Magritte—post-war, he even produced counterfeit banknotes. However, he consistently reminded his audience that appearances can be deceptive, a concept that was at the heart of his art.
In 1945, Magritte formally affiliated himself with the Belgian Communist Party, a step that officially manifested his long-held beliefs. "The only avenue available to poets and painters to resist the bourgeois economic system is to infuse their work with content that repudiates the underlying bourgeois ideological values that drive this economic system," he articulated in a 1946 letter.
Near the end of the war, he underwent a dramatic stylistic transformation. The vibrant, impressionistic pieces he produced—classified into his Renoir phase (1943–47) and "Vache" period (1948)—have not received much critical acclaim and have even been scorned by some. In both periods, Magritte adopts styles distinctly different from his own, drawing upon the visual idioms of Renoir and the Fauves.
In a 1944 letter to Mariën, Magritte justified this radical aesthetic shift, saying, "I'm seeking solace in the ideal world of art. The more clamorous reality becomes, the less hesitation I have to withdraw from it as much as possible." In another letter, he stated, "The German occupation marked a turning point in my art. Prior to the war, my paintings conveyed anxiety, but the experiences of war have taught me that charm is the essence that art should express."
The Empire of Lights
After several years of experimenting with different artistic styles, Magritte returned to his unique approach in the late 1940s. One of the artworks marking this triumphant resurgence was The Empire of Lights (1949)—the initial piece in a series of 17 oil paintings and 10 gouaches sharing the same title, which he created until the mid-1960s. Although there are minor variations, all depict a residential area where two contrasting times of day mysteriously coexist—a bright, sunlit sky juxtaposed with dark houses, illuminated by a lone streetlamp. It leaves us questioning whether the real light source is natural or man-made.
The series was instantly adored by collectors. Nelson Rockefeller purchased the first piece as a present for his secretary, and the second was acquired by prominent Magritte collectors Dominique and Jean de Menil, who donated it to MoMA. The largest and eighth version was exhibited at the 1954 Venice Biennale and was immediately bought by Peggy Guggenheim. The 1961 version, which set a personal auction record for Magritte earlier this year, was commissioned by Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet, the daughter of Magritte's patron Pierre Crowet.
During this period, Magritte also produced several paintings featuring oversized everyday objects, such as combs and bars of soap. In Personal Values (1952), a human-sized wine glass confronts a full-length mirror, while a gigantic shaving brush perches atop an armoire. These objects dominate the space, boldly asserting their exaggerated importance within bourgeois settings.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Magritte managed to maintain the interest of global art enthusiasts, even amidst the peak of abstraction. He regularly exhibited his works at the New York, Paris, and Geneva galleries of Alexander Iolas and had numerous solo exhibitions in American institutions during the 1960s. Before his significant retrospective at MoMA in 1965 (which featured 81 works and prompted Magritte's first visit to the United States), he held solo museum exhibitions in Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, and Little Rock, Arkansas.
By the time of the MoMA exhibition, Pop Art had fully emerged, and almost all critiques noted Magritte's relevance to this contemporary movement. Both Magritte and the Pop artists incorporated everyday objects into their work, depicted realistically, drawing parallels between the two. However, Magritte was not in favor of this association. In 1965, he queried, "Do the Pop artists claim me? Excuse me, but I believe Pop is mere decoration, commercial art."
These institutional showcases and his newfound significance boosted Magritte's market values in the 1960s, with both artists and established collectors investing in his work. Jasper Johns acquired The Interpretation of Dreams (1935) in the early 1960s, and soon after, Robert Rauschenberg bought The Literal Meaning (1929). By 1965, the value of Magritte's works had increased eightfold compared to their 1959 prices.
Magritte witnessed these triumphs but passed away in 1967 due to pancreatic cancer. Until his last moments, he maintained the facade of leading a tranquil, albeit mundane, bourgeois life. A 1966 Esquire profile, titled "This Is Not Magritte," offered a glimpse of the artist's life:
"He intentionally cultivates a life as undeniably banal as his paintings. He seldom travels and prefers staying at home to going out. He enjoys cooking and eating, although he asserts that some foods, like dry biscuits, give him electric shocks. He avidly reads philosophy and the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Rex Stout. He plays chess, albeit less frequently now, in a humble café called the Greenwich, and generally spends his time as if he were a retired acrobat. His favorite phrase to end the day is, 'I'm going to bed.'"
In August of 1967, after a three-week hospital stay, Magritte passed away at his home. However, his death didn't mark the end of his influence. Even half a century later, his unpretentious, yet absurd paintings continue to mystify us, proving their timeless appeal.