Rene Magritte was undoubtedly one of the most enigmatic artists of the 20th century. He helped shape the visual language of Surrealism through rendering the most commonplace things as strange by placing them in uncanny scenes and circumstances. Classically trained, Magritte utilized the conventions of painting to subvert representation and highlight the oddness surrounding his recognizable images. There is a wonderful tension between his transparent technique and his opaque subject matter, adding a level of irony and humor to his paintings — a trait unique to the Belgian Surrealist, setting him apart in an often dark art movement.
"The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” — Rene Magritte
Though recognition and critical praise was somewhat elusive for the artist for most of his life, he is known and beloved worldwide today as one of most innovative and creative of all the Surrealists. Read on to learn more about this visionary of the 20th-century avant garde.
Childhood and Early Life
Magritte claimed to have few memories of his childhood and little is known about his early life, but using what we do know, we can find clues to his early influences. Magritte was born in 1898 in Lessines, Belgium. His father was a tailor and his mother a milliner before she was married, foreshadowing the artist’s famous paintings of formulaic bourgeois men in bowler hats and tailored suits. His mother tragically committed suicide in 1912 by drowning herself in the Sambre River and was found in the water with her nightdress covering her face — a haunting detail that may have stuck with Magritte.
However, some of Magritte’s most vivid early experiences were rather whimsical and serendipitous. Once, in a highly strange and humorous occurrence, a runaway hot air balloon fell onto the roof of his family’s home and required maneuvers by a team of men to retrieve. The absurdity of the situation must not have been lost on the young Magritte. In another charming anecdote, he first met his future wife, Georgette Berger, at a fair when they were both teenagers, but the two wouldn’t meet again for seven years. In 1920, they reconnected in Brussels, and Georgette subsequently became Magritte’s model, muse and wife. They would stay together the rest of his life.
At age 18, he enrolled at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels where he took little interest in the traditional style of instruction but surrounded himself with fascinating young members of the avant garde. His earliest works leaned toward Impressionism, Futurism and Cubism, but an encounter with a copy of a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, The Song of Love, inspired him in a different direction — Surrealism.
The Song of Love by Giorgio de Chirico, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Early in his career, Magritte supported himself as an artist by working as a draftsman for a wallpaper company and a freelance commercial artist creating advertising posters. He was eventually able to devote himself to painting full time after receiving a contract with Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels. From there, he began to blossom as an artist and painted his first Surrealist composition, The Lost Jockey.
The Lost Jockey, 1926, Private collection
Shortly after, in 1927, he held his first solo exhibition at Le Centaure. Unfortunately, the critics were not impressed, leaving Magritte devastated and depressed. He and Georgette decided to move to Paris, which would give him his next push towards Surrealism. In Paris, he became friends with André Breton, the father of Surrealism, who welcomed Magritte into a group of like-minded artists including Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Max Ernst. With this encouragement, he began developing his own style of Surrealism marked by humor, simple graphics and everyday imagery placed in unusual contexts, and he quickly became a leader in the movement.
During this time, Magritte began experimenting with text on his canvases. This would lead to one of his greatest works, The Treachery of Images, in which he painted a simple tobacco pipe against a plain background with the words, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," French for "This is not a pipe." It was not a pipe, but rather a drawing of a pipe, and its goal was to challenge the viewers' perceptions of what an image is and is not. It was the birth of the Magrittean phenomenon of an object being a copy without an original.
The Treachery of Images, 1929, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The pipe perplexed. Magritte said of the reaction to it, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture 'This is a pipe', I'd have been lying!”
Some critics derided his work as too representational or commercial, an aesthetic likely stemming from his time as an advertising artist. However, his style would be influential on Pop and Abstract Expressionist artists like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns who famously painted images that blurred the lines between reality and representation.
WWII and Sunlit Surrealism
Despite his artistic breakthroughs, Magritte was struggling financially, forcing his move back to Brussels in 1930. There, he opened an ad agency with his brother and had little time for painting over the next few years. Gradually, he returned to his art and in 1936 was granted his first solo show in the United States at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York; this was followed by a place in the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. These successes would lead to an exhibition in London the following year.
At the onset of World War II, German occupation forced Magritte to flee Belgium for Carcassonne, France. The artist reacted to the brutality and darkness of the war through a drastic shift in his style. Hitler’s success in causing widespread panic and confusion had deeply disturbed Magritte, and he felt that Surrealism’s often dark and chaotic moods must change in response. He began to paint in a markedly more colorful, painterly style but maintained the dreamy, mysterious air of his earlier work. After the war had ended, he distanced himself from the Surrealist group and authored a manifesto entitled Surrealism in Full Sunlight. Although a lesser-know artistic period for Magritte, his output from this time is an important and rare look into a more personal side of the artist and how to find light in dark times.
Nearing the end of the 1940s, Magritte returned to the styles and themes of his pre-war art, and in the 1950s, his international fame began to grow. In 1954, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels presented the first retrospective of his work, and two years later, he was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Award and participated in the first Guggenheim International Award exhibition. He was a favorite artist of Peggy Guggenheim, and she collected many of his works. Other retrospectives followed, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965. This marked Magritte’s first and only visit to America.
Sadly, Magritte’s death came just as the recognition he had sought for so long was arriving. He died in 1967 in Brussels shortly after the opening of yet another exhibition of his work at the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Following his death, four more retrospectives were planned all over the globe. In the decades after his passing, Magritte’s paintings became coveted by museums and collectors, and not one, but two Magritte museums have since opened in Belgium. His work has inspired other fine artists and pop culture, influencing songs, movies, books and plays. His images have become iconic across the world, and he remains a fascination.
Foster, Hal, Rosalind E. Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, B. H. D. Buchloh, and David Joselit. Art since 1900. 1900-1944: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2016.
Hammacher, A. M., and James Brockway. René Magritte. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985.
“Painting Under Crisis: Magritte and World War II · SFMOMA.” · SFMOMA. Accessed April 1, 2020. https://www.sfmoma.org/read/painting-under-crisis-magritte-and-world-war-ii/.