Rene Magritte Life and Art Periods

"Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see."

RENE MAGRITTE SYNOPSIS

Surely the most celebrated Belgian artist of the twentieth century, Rene Magritte has achieved great popular acclaim for his idiosyncratic approach to Surrealism. To support himself he spent many years working as a commercial artist, producing advertising and book designs, and this most likely shaped his fine art, which often has the abbreviated impact of an advertisement. While some French Surrealists led ostentatious lives, Magritte preferred the quiet anonymity of a middle-class existence, a life symbolized by the bowler-hatted men that often populate his pictures. In later years, he was castigated by his peers for some of his strategies (such as his tendency to produce multiple copies of his pictures), yet since his death his reputation has only improved. Conceptual artists have admired his use of text in images, and painters in the 1980s admired the provocative kitsch of some of his later work.

RENE MAGRITTE KEY IDEAS

Magritte wished to cultivate an approach that avoided the stylistic distractions of most modern painting. While some French Surrealists experimented with new techniques, Magritte settled on a deadpan, illustrative technique that clearly articulated the content of his pictures. Repetition was an important strategy for Magritte, informing not only his handling of motifs within individual pictures, but also encouraging him to produce multiple copies of some of his greatest works. His interest in the idea may have come in part from Freudian psychoanalysis, for which repetition is a sign of trauma. But his work in commercial art may have also played a role in prompting him to question the conventional modernist belief in the unique, original work of art.
The illustrative quality of Magritte's pictures often results in a powerful paradox: images that are beautiful in their clarity and simplicity, but which also provoke unsettling thoughts. They seem to declare that they hide no mystery, and yet they are also marvelously strange.
Magritte was fascinated by the interactions of textual and visual signs, and some of his most famous pictures employ both words and images. While those pictures often share the air of mystery that characterizes much of his Surrealist work, they often seem motivated more by a spirit of rational enquiry - and wonder - at the misunderstandings that can lurk in language.
The men in bowler hats that often appear in Magritte's pictures can be interpreted as self-portraits. Portrayals of the artist's wife, Georgette, are also common in his work, as are glimpses of the couple's modest Brussels apartment. Although this might suggest autobiographical content in Magritte's pictures, it more likely points to the commonplace sources of his inspiration. It is as if he believed that we need not look far for the mysterious, since it lurks everywhere in the most conventional of lives.
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RENE MAGRITTE BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Rene Magritte was the eldest of three boys, born to a fairly well-off family. His father is thought to have been in the manufacturing industry, and his mother was known to be a milliner before her marriage. Magritte's development as an artist was influenced by two significant events in his childhood; the first was an encounter with an artist painting in a cemetery, who he happened across while playing with a companion. Magritte later wrote, "I found, in the middle of some broken stone columns and heaped-up leaves, a painter who had come from the capital, and who seemed to me to be performing magic." The second pivotal event was the suicide of his mother in 1912 when Magritte was 14. According to the apocryphal account, Magritte was present when her body was fished out of a river, her face covered completely by her white dress. While current scholars believe this to be no more than a myth propagated by his nurse, the image of a head uncannily concealed by a contour-hugging cloth reoccurs throughout the artist's oeuvre.

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Early Training

Rene Magritte Young Man

Magritte first began to paint in 1915 and enrolled in the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels the following year. However, he was fairly uninspired by his classes, and his attendance suffered as a result. He did become close friends with a fellow student, Victor Servranckx, who introduced Magritte to Futurism, Cubism, and Purism. In particular, Magritte was drawn to the work of Jean Metzinger and Fernand Leger, both of whom had much influence on Magritte's early work, as is evident from his experiments with Cubism such as his 1925 piece Bather.

Mature Period

In 1921, Magritte performed his obligatory military service and returned home in 1922 to marry Georgette Berger, a girl he had known since childhood. He also began work under Servranckx's supervision as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory. This job lasted about a year, after which Magritte became a freelance designer of posters and publicity. In 1926, he signed a contract with the Galerie le Centaure in Brussels and was able to make his living as a fine artist for a brief spell. This early period was marked by profound changes in Magritte's work. Around 1925 he first saw the work of Giorgio de Chirico and began to work more distinctly within the Surrealist idiom. Not only were Magritte's images from the mid-1920s reminiscent of the desolate and mysterious mood that de Chirico created in his work, but the younger artist also went so far as to actually transpose many of de Chirico's favorite objects such as spheres, trains, and plaster hands onto his own canvases.

Rene Magritte Biography

From 1927 to 1930, Magritte lived in Paris and forged strong connections with André Breton's coterie of Parisian Surrealists that at that time included artists such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí. He began incorporating more ambiguously organic forms in his work and experimenting with quintessentially Surrealist subject matter such as madness and hysteria. However, Magritte was increasingly disillusioned by the "dark" subjects of his fellow Surrealists. Perhaps most significantly, it was in Paris that Magritte began to experiment with the use of words and language in his paintings.

By 1930, his contract with the Galerie le Centaure had ended, and, later that year, the gallery shut its doors altogether. Magritte returned to Brussels to take up work in commercial advertising once again. Scholars dispute whether Magritte also supplemented his income during this time by producing faked paintings of established artists and even perhaps forged currency. Regardless, from 1930 to 1937, Magritte had little time to devote to his own art. By the late 1930s however, the growing interest of international collectors, including Edward James in London, led to Magritte's increased financial independence, and he was at last able to give up commercial work almost completely.

Late Period

Rene Magritte Photo

Just as Magritte was achieving success and recognition, the Second World War broke out. Although he continued to develop his signature style, he also increasingly deployed a bright, impressionistic palette as a subversive response to the bleakness of the war. He wrote, "The sense of chaos, of panic, which Surrealism hoped to foster so that everything might be called into question was achieved much more successfully by those idiots the Nazis... Against widespread pessimism, I now propose a search for joy and pleasure." In 1946, Magritte signed a manifesto called Surrealism in Full Sunlight, and broke with Breton. This phase was followed by Magritte's brief experiment with an intentionally provocative "savage" style he called "vache" ("cow") that was characterized by vulgar subjects, crude coloring, and is generally regarded as parodying the Fauves. As Magritte expected, his works in this style were phenomenally unpopular. For the remainder of the 1950s and '60s, Magritte returned to his characteristic style and set of subjects. By the end of his life, he enjoyed great success and there were six major retrospectives of his oeuvre in the 1960s alone.

RENE MAGRITTE LEGACY

Magritte's work had a major impact on a number of movements that followed his death, including Pop, Conceptualism, and the painting of the 1980s. In particular, his work was hailed as a harbinger of upcoming trends in art for its emphasis on concept over execution, its close association with commercial art, and its focus on everyday objects that were often repeated in pictorial space. It is easy to see why artists such as Andy Warhol, Martin Kippenberger, and Robert Gober cite Magritte as a profound influence.

Original content written by Sophia Powers
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RENE MAGRITTE QUOTES

"Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist."

"Any ground subtracts its own hue from the colors which it carries and therefore influences."

"My painting is visible images which conceal nothing...they evoke mystery and indeed when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question 'what does that mean'? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable."

"We must not fear daylight just because it almost always illuminates a miserable world."

"Only thought can resemble. It resembles by being what it sees, hears, or knows; it becomes what the world offers it."

Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte Influences

Interactive chart with Rene Magritte's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Giorgio De Chirico
Giorgio De Chirico
Giorgio de Chirico was a Greek-Italian painter and sculptor commonly associated with Surrealism. Initially discovered by Picasso and Apollinaire in France, de Chirico's best known Surrealist paintings incorporated metaphysical subject matter and sculptural still-life. Instead of land- or cityscapes, de Chirico's art is more emblematic of a dreamscape.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Giorgio De Chirico
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Max Ernst
Jean Metzinger
Jean Metzinger
Jean Metzinger was a French artist who was initially influenced by Fauvism and Impressionism, but then turned to Cubism. Metzinger was a member of the Section d'Or group of artists. In 1912, together with Albert Gleizes, he created the first major treatise on Cubism, Du Cubisme.

Modern Art Information Jean Metzinger
Fernard Léger
Fernard Léger
Influenced by Cubism and Futurism, the French painter Fernand Léger developed a unique style of Cubism using cylindrical and other geometric forms with mechanically smooth edges. Often colorful and punctuated by patterns, his paintings range from still lifes and figures to abstract compositions.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fernard Léger
André Breton
André Breton
André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information André Breton
Paul Eluard
Paul Eluard
Paul Eluard was a French poet, and one of the original participants in the French Surrealism movement, forming strong ties with the likes of Breton, Aragon and Ernst. Eluard was also active in the French Resistance during World War II, but later in life joined the Communist Party, became a Stalin sympathizer and renounced the Surrealism movement.

Modern Art Information Paul Eluard
Edward James
Edward James
Edward James was an English poet known for his patronage of the Surrealist art movement. He financially supported Dalí for two years and allowed Rene Magritte to stay in his London house to paint. He appears in two of Magritte's paintings.

Modern Art Information Edward James
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Impressionism
Futurism
Futurism
Futurism was the most influential Italian avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Dedicated to the modern age, it celebrated speed, movement, machinery and violence. At first influenced by Neo-Impressionism, and later by Cubism, some of its members were also drawn to mass culture and nontraditional forms of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Futurism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Purism
Purism
Purism, an offshoot of Cubism, was a style advocated by architect Le Corbusier and artist Amadee Ozenfant. Frequently abstract, Purist works contain smooth geometric forms, even paint application, and machine-like shapes.

Modern Art Information Purism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Marcel Broodthaers
Marcel Broodthaers
Marcel Broodthaers was a Belgian poet, filmmaker and artist who was born in 1924. He worked principally with found objects and collage, which often contained text. His most noted work was an installation, Musée d'Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, which began in his Brussels home.

Modern Art Information Marcel Broodthaers
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Andy Warhol
Martin Kippenberger
Martin Kippenberger
Martin Kippenberger was a German artist born in 1953. During the last 10 years of his life, he created a series of drawings on hotel stationery - the 'hotel drawings.' Three of his pieces were used as cover art for the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers.

Modern Art Information Martin Kippenberger
Robert Gober
Robert Gober
Robert Gober is an American artist whose work often relates to domestic and familiar objects such as sinks, doors and legs. Despite their appearance, his sculptures are meticulously handcrafted. He represented the United States at the 2001 Venice Biennale.

Modern Art Information Robert Gober
Joseph Kosuth
Joseph Kosuth
Joseph Kosuth is an American conceptual artist, philosopher and essayist. His most celebrated work is One and Three Chairs (1965), which doubles as a piece of commentary on Plato's Theory of Forms. He is likewise well-known for his 1969 essay "Art after Philosophy," considered a key text of postmodern art writing.

Modern Art Information Joseph Kosuth
John Baldessari
John Baldessari
John Baldessari, born in 1931, is an American conceptual artist. He often combines image and languages in his art. His early works were canvas paintings that were empty except for painted statements derived from contemporary art theory. His juxtaposition of image and text is reminiscent of Rene Magritte's surrealist paintings.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Baldessari
Paul-Gustave van Hecke
Paul-Gustave van Hecke
Paul-Gustave van Hecke was a Belgian art patron and critic during the first half of the twentieth century. A friend to Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, and Man Ray, he founded Gallery L'Epoque in October 1927 and was the director of Variétés magazine.

Modern Art Information Paul-Gustave van Hecke
E. L. T. Mesens
E. L. T. Mesens
E. L. T. Mesens was an artist and writer associated with the Belgian Surrealist movement. Mesens organized the first surrealist exhibition in his Belgian gallery in 1934. He also co-organized the London International Surrealist Exhibition. He became the director of the London Gallery and the chief editor of the London Bulletin.

Modern Art Information E. L. T. Mesens
Paul Nouge
Paul Nouge
Paul Nouge was a Belgian poet and philosopher. A prominent member of the Surrealist school in Belgium, he was a friend and associate of fellow artists Louis Scutenaire, Marcel Marien, and Rene Magritte. He was a founding member of the Belgian Communist Party.

Modern Art Information Paul Nouge
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Conceptual Art
Appropriation Art
Appropriation Art
Appropriation art adopts, borrows, recycles or samples aspects from visual culture. The term appropriation refers to the use of borrowed elements in the creation of a new work. Appropriation artists borrow ideas, images, objects, and elements from pop culture to create their art.

Modern Art Information Appropriation Art
Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí was a Spanish Surrealist painter who combined a hyperrealist style with dream-like, sexualized subject matter. His collaborations with Hollywood and commercial ventures, alongside his notoriously dramatic personality, earned him scorn from some Surrealist colleagues.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Salvador Dalí
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fauvism
Bather
Bather

Title: Bather (1925)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This elegant work is a fine example of Magritte's early attempts to find a restrained, illustrative style. It bears comparison with contemporary Belgian Expressionism and also with the classicizing modernist styles that were then popular throughout Europe. We can recognize many of the elements that characterized his later paintings, such as the prominence of the sea and the mysterious sphere in the background. This work also bears the influence of Magritte's professional forays into the world of fashion advertising, and his interest in the works of Fernand Léger. Bather can be compared to his painting The Bather between Light and Darkness (1935-36), which explores the same scene in the artist's mature style. In 1930, the artist gifted the picture to his sister-in-law, Leontine Berger.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

Familiar Objects
Familiar Objects

Title: Familiar Objects (1928)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Here, the viewer is confronted by five men - or perhaps five views of the same man - each corresponding to a seemingly random object. These bland portraits with indistinct clothes, features, and expressions are characteristic of Magritte. The objects, on the other hand, are unique and command more attention than the figures who stare blankly at them. Several pictures that predate this attest to Magritte's interest in depicting objects in his work, but this is the first in which the objects appear alongside figures and are associated with the mental states of those figures. In this regard it shows the artist's growing interest in the Surrealist idea of the unconscious. Magritte's way of placing the objects in relation to the figures also enabled him to partially occlude their faces, a strategy which he would often employ in later work.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

The Treachery of Images
The Treachery of Images

Title: The Treachery of Images (1929)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The Treachery of Images cleverly highlights the gap between language and meaning. Magritte combined the words and image in such a fashion that he forces us to question the importance of the sentence and the word. "Pipe," for instance, is no more an actual pipe than a picture of a pipe can be smoked. Magritte likely borrowed the pipe motif from Le Corbusier's book Vers une architecture (1923), since he was admirer of the architect and painter, but he may also have been inspired by a comical sign he knew in an art gallery, which read, "Ceci n'est pas de l'Art." The painting is the subject of a famous book-length analysis by Michel Foucault. One might also compare it with Joseph Kosuth's handling of a similar problem of image, text, and reality in his 1965 installation One and Three Chairs.


Oil on canvas - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Ocean
The Ocean

Title: The Ocean (1933)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The bright colors and casual brushwork of The Ocean typifies a series of satirical pictures Magritte painted in the style of late Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose pictures were intended to mock the conservative tastes of the French public. The pose of the river god in this picture borrows directly from a late work by Renoir. As the Second World War drew to a close, he turned away from the more macabre subjects of Surrealism and embraced a radiant palette and, as he put it, "bewitching subjects." The artist wrote that he wanted to paint pictures "that will arouse what remains of our instinct for pleasure." Three years later in 1946, he signed the manifesto Surrealism in Full Sunlight that his Belgian friends had written to outline such principles. But the pictures in this style attracted considerable criticism from his Surrealist friends.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

The Pebble
The Pebble

Title: The Pebble (1948)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The Pebble was included in Magritte's first Paris exhibition in 1948, where he shocked critics and public alike with an uncharacteristic group of his "vache" works. This group of around thirty pictures was painted rapidly in only a few weeks. It borrowed from the sketchy style of comics and caricatures, but some elements were also derived from Edouard Manet and Fauvism (the background in this picture may come from Henri Matisse). It also borrows the Venus de Milo motif that Magritte had used before. Perhaps unfortunately for the artist, the exhibition achieved its perverse effect, and was both financially and critically devastating to him. However, he remained attached to the work, and later gave this piece to his wife.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

Empire of Light
Empire of Light

Title: Empire of Light (1953-1954)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The Empire of Light exemplifies the sort of simple paradox that characterizes Magritte's most successful works. Dusk has fallen in the bottom half of the picture and a streetlamp glows peacefully. Above, cheerful white clouds hang in a baby-blue sky. Although both elements of night and day are calming and lovely considered on their own, their juxtaposition is eerie and unnerving. Such a straightforward rendition of the uncanny - one that resembles reportage in its simplicity - certainly owes something to the artist's experience working in commercial art. The style, and the handling of the paint - restrained and illustrative - may also have been inspired by the emphasis on clarity and impact in commercial art.


Oil on canvas - The Soloman R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.