Brussels, Musée d’Ixelles, Magritte, 1959, no. 49
(possibly) Paris, Galerie Arts/Contacts, Magritte, Delvaux, Gnoli dans la collection Claude Spaak, 1972
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Magritte, Retrospective Loan Exhibition, 1973, no. 37, illustrated in the catalogue
Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum & Høvikodden, Kunstsentret, René Magritte, 1983-84, no. 18 (in Humlebæk); no. 52 (in Høvikodden; as dating from 1927 and with incorrect measurements)
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Magritte, Broodthaers & l’art contemporain, 2017-18, no. 3, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Lugano, Museo d’Arte della Svizzera Italiana, Magritte. La ligne de vie, 2018-19, no. 51, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Letter from Magritte to Paul Eluard, July or August 1938
Louis Scutenaire, René Magritte, Brussels, 1947, illustrated p. 111 (as dating from 1939)
David Sylvester (ed.) & Sarah Whitfield, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1993, vol. II, no. 457, illustrated p. 263
The singular subject of the present work appears to have been inspired by the genesis of another painting, La chaîne sans fin (now destroyed) which Magritte was working on earlier the same year. Struggling with that composition Magritte turned to his friend Marcel Mariën who had an extensive collection of photographs, including an image of a Native American in ceremonial dress. Magritte was evidently struck by this image and by April 1938 he was writing to his patron, the great English Surrealist collector Edward James, to discuss this new subject.
In the letter Magritte refers to the painting as being the first step towards the resolution of one of his many ‘problems’. This method of choosing a ‘problem’ object in order to find a ‘solution’ that would illuminate and enhance the object’s reality was a central tenet of Magritte’s work. It is important to understand that although the subject of this work is two figures painted presumably with reasonable fidelity – Georgette’s features are recognisable – they are not two portraits, but rather two objects placed in relationship to one another. The combination of ‘objects’ as a means of revealing their inner truth was an essential element of Magritte’s process; in some cases he juxtaposed two very different objects but he was equally intrigued by the idea that the combination of two related objects could create just as intense a poetic dynamic.
This seems to be how Magritte approached the ‘problem’ addressed in the present work; in combining the two profiles he allows a resemblance to grow between them. He had written almost a decade earlier, ‘I have found a new potential inherent in things, […] their ability to become gradually something else, an object merging into an object other than itself […]. This seems to me to be something quite different from a composite object, since there is no break between the two substances, and no limit’ (quoted in Christoph Grunenberg & Darren Pih (eds.), Magritte A-Z, London, 2011, p. 113). It is interesting in this context that the orientation of the figures, both shown with their faces in profile, so strongly recalls classical depictions of Janus, the god of gateways, two-faced because he looked both backwards and forwards and is deeply associated with the transition from one state to another.
If one considers the two object-figures of L’Etoile du matin to be shifting towards a resemblance, then they also begin to represent a continuation of other key themes within Magritte’s work. Mirrors were a constant preoccupation for the artist, as were doubles – occasionally, as in La réproduction interdite (fig. 3), Magritte employed both as a means of disconcerting his viewer – and these reflected doubles repeat and repeat within his œuvre. L’Etoile du matin is a curious manifestation of both of these; the faces act as a repetition of one another, similar to the effect achieved in Le double secret (fig. 1) and they are also each a kind of effacement or re-articulation of the kind he used in La maison de verre (fig. 2), but most strikingly in their positioning they act as the mirror image of one another, operating in beautiful symmetry. In this respect L’Etoile du matin is an important extension of these themes realised through some of Magritte’s most beguiling and original imagery.
Throughout the 1930s, which was a hugely important decade for the artist, he was supported and promoted by his friend, the playwright and novelist Claude Spaak. Having acquired a number of works for his personal collection, in the mid-1930s Spaak entered into a more formal relationship to support the artist, commissioning portraits of his own family as well as promoting the artist to other collectors. One of Magritte’s most important patrons, alongside E.L.T. Mesens and Edward James, Spaak facilitated the sale of works to a wide range of family and friends and acquaintances further afield. The present work was acquired through Claude Spaak by the family of the present owner shortly after its execution and has remained in their collection ever since.
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