René François Ghislain Magritte (1898 – 1967) was a Belgian artist most renowned for being one of the leaders of the influential 20th century art movement, Surrealism. Surrealist artists rejected the rational in art. However, in contrast to others like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst who created distorted and dream-like representations of real forms mixed with abstract shapes, Magritte evoked strangeness and ambiguity in realistic depictions. His objects are often ordinary in singularity but surreal by context or their relationship to each other. Known for his thought-provoking images, Rene Magritte was one of the most influential figures of 20th century art and, along with Dali, the most renowned Surrealist artist. Know more about his art through his 10 most famous paintings including The Son of Man, The Lovers, Golconda and The Treachery of Images.
#10 The Lost Jockey
French Title: Le jockey perdu
Magritte’s earliest works were influenced by abstract art movements like Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism. His art started taking a new direction in 1924 and by 1926 he had painted The Lost Jockey, which is regarded as his first work in surrealism. Magritte designed theater sets in Brussels in the early 1920s and many of his early works contain theater settings including this painting. The Lost Jockey depicts a rider in between over-sized balusters which have branches protruding from them. The jockey is riding on a wooden stage with curtains. The Lost Jockey is renowned for being the first surrealist painting of Rene Magritte.
#9 The Portrait
French Title: Le Portrait
The Portrait exemplifies Magritte’s method which unsettles the viewer through ordinary objects due to their context. The painting depicts an almost photo-realistic table setting with a slice of ham in the center. It is painted like a realistic still life but any expectation of everyday reality is crushed due to the unblinking eye that stares at the viewer from the center of the slice of ham on the plate. Also, Magritte has brilliantly used such a perspective that it seems that the image is inviting the viewer to take a seat and consume what lies on the table.
#8 The False Mirror
French Title: Le Faux Miroir
This painting depicts an enormous lash-less eye with a luminous cloud-filled blue sky filling the iris and the pupil represented by an opaque black disc. Also, the pupil is not in its natural position but at the center of the eye. Magritte’s eye functions on multiple enigmatic levels: the viewer both looks through it, as through a window, and is looked at by it, thus seeing and being seen simultaneously. Man Ray, prominent American visual artist who owned the painting from 1933 to 1936, described The False Mirror as a painting that “sees as much as it itself is seen.”
#7 Not to be Reproduced
French Title: La reproduction interdite
Edward James was a British poet and a well known patron of the surrealist art movement. This painting was commissioned by James and it is considered to be his portrait, though the face of the subject is not depicted in the work. Not to be Reproduced portrays a man standing in front of a mirror. However, instead of the mirror showing his reflection, it shows his replicated image. Interestingly the mirror stays true to the book on the mantelpiece and correctly reflects it. The book on the mantelpiece is The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the only complete novel written by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was one of the favorite authors of Rene Magritte and the depicted book is considered one of the greatest novels in the English language.
#6 The Human Condition
French Title: La condition humaine
Magritte used to frequently use objects to hide what lies behind them. In this painting, he places an unframed landscape painting in front of a window with the painting being completely congruous with the landscape that lies outside the painting. The Human Condition thus consists a painting within a painting. It shares its thought provoking title with another painting of Magritte and several of his drawings. Two of the favorite themes of Rene Magritte were the “window painting” and the “painting within a painting.” The Human Condition is one of the earliest paintings to feature either subject and in it he combines the two, making the work perhaps his most subtle and profound statement of their shared meaning.
#5 The Empire of Light
French Title: L’Empire des lumières
Year: 1953 – 1954
The Empire of Light is a title shared by a series of paintings by Rene Magritte created between 1953 and 1954. It exemplifies the sort of simple paradox that is seen in some of the most successful works of the artist. In the bottom half of the picture is a nighttime street lit by a single street light; while the top half depicts daytime sky with fluffy clouds. While the two halves are calm in singularity, the juxtaposition of day and night creates an unnerving and thought provoking image. The title of the painting perhaps refers to the impenetrable darkness in the lower half over which the luminosity of the sky has no effect. The Empire of Light is one of the most famous works created by Magritte in his later years.
#4 The Lovers
French Title: Les Amants
This painting shows a male figure in black suit locked in embrace with a woman clad in red. The figures are kissing each other but, interestingly, through veils; and this is what makes the painting thought provoking. Like many of Magritte’s paintings, there are several interpretation of the painting including it being a depiction of our inability to fully unveil the true nature of even our most intimate companions. Faces hidden from view is a common feature in many Magritte paintings. When he was 14, Magritte’s mother committed suicide by drowning. He witnessed the body of her mother with her wet nightgown wrapped around her face and some have speculated that this trauma led him to show obscured faces in his works. However, Magritte denied this. The Lovers is one of the most popular and most analyzed works of Rene Magritte.
French Title: Golconde
One of the most renowned masterpieces of surrealism, Golconda depicts a scene of nearly identical men dressed in dark overcoats and bowler hats; who seem to be either falling down like rain drops, floating up like helium balloons or just stationed in mid air. The backdrop features red-roofed buildings and a mostly blue sky. There are various interpretations of the painting including it being a demonstration of the blurred line between individuality and group association. The title Golconda is taken from the city of Gol konda (“Round shaped hill”) in the state of Telangana in southern India. Golkonda, or Golconda, is renowned for the mines that have produced some of the world’s most famous gems, including the Koh-i-Noor and the Hope Diamond.
#2 The Son of Man
French Title: Le fils de l’homme
The Son of Man, a self portrait of Magritte, depicts a man in an overcoat and a bowler hat but his face is largely obscured by a hovering green apple. However, his eyes can be seen peeking over the edge of the apple. Magritte created two similar paintings the same year: Man in the Bowler Hat, which portrays a similar figure whose face is obscured by a passing bird; and The Great War of the Facades, which depicts a woman in a similar seaside setting with flowers blocking her face. He said about the painting, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.” The Son of Man is not only one of the most famous paintings of Magritte but also an iconic work of Surrealism which has appeared in popular culture numerous times.
#1 The Treachery of Images
French Title: La trahison des images
Year: 1928 – 1929
This painting shows a pipe below which Magritte has painted the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”, French for “This is not a pipe.” The statement means that the painting itself is not a pipe; it is merely an image of a pipe. When asked about the famous painting Magritte said, “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!” The Treachery of Images belongs to a series of word-image paintings by Magritte from the late 1920s. It was painted when he was 30 years old and is considered a work meant to counter oppressive rationalism. The Treachery of Images is considered one of the most influential masterpieces of the Surrealism movement and it is the most famous painting by Rene Magritte.