The German occupation of Belgium was to have a profound impact on Magritte’s conception of Surrealism: “Since the beginning of this war, I have had a strong desire to achieve a new poetic effectiveness which would bring us both charm and pleasure. I leave to others the business of causing anxiety and terror and mixing everything up as before” (quoted in D. Sylvester & S. Whitfield, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné. Oil Paintings and Objects 1931-1948, vol. II, London, 1993, p. 91). Nazism, to Magritte’s horror, had succeeded where Surrealism had failed in disrupting society. To effectively respond to the extreme devastation of the 1940s Surrealism had to change. Magritte enacted this change by radically altering his style and producing two revolutionary series: Sunlit Surrealism (the Renoir period), to which the present work belongs, and the “Vache” period. In its manipulation of bucolic Impressionist traits combined with deeply surrealist imagery, Le Traité de sensations exemplifies the subversive intent of Sunlit Surrealism.

Fig. 1 Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les Baigneuses, oil on canvas, 1918-19, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Sunlit Surrealism enabled Magritte to abandon the dark color palettes of his earlier works. In Impressionism he found a painterly style that embraced the light: “For the period I call 'Surrealism in full sunlight,' I am trying to join together two mutually exclusive things: 1) a feeling of levity, intoxication, happiness, which depends on a certain mood and on an atmosphere that certain Impressionists—or rather, Impressionism in general—have managed to render in painting. Without Impressionism, I do not believe we would know this feeling of real objects perceived through colors and nuances, and free of all classical reminiscences... and, 2) a feeling of the mysterious quality of objects” (quoted in H. Torczyner, René Magritte, Ideas and Images, Paris, 1977, p. 186). It was Renoir’s Les Baigneuses that inspired Magritte to begin the series, producing the first painting in this new style Le Traité de la lumière (see fig. 1). In the works that followed Magritte continued to draw on Renoir’s late paintings of voluptuous nudes and idyllic landscapes. This influence is obvious in the characteristically Impressionist background of Le Traité de sensations. Captured in Renoir’s feathered brushstrokes Magritte portrays a pastoral idyll complete with blue water and pastel skies.

Fig. 2 René Magritte, La Magie noire, oil on canvas, 1946, sold: Sotheby’s, London, June 19, 2019, lot 17 for $5,284,126 © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Although stylistically disparate, Le Traité de sensations does not mark a complete break with Magritte’s earlier works painted with a more exacting and precise technique. He continues to employ his signature iconography noticeable in the enigmatic presence of the bilboquets and the unnerving reconceptualization of the female nude. Resting one hand upon a large rock the girl draws similarities to Magritte’s La Magie noire paintings (see fig. 2). As opposed to the blending of flesh and sky, however, here both skin and dress merge indeterminately. Magritte’s image of a young girl clothed in her own flesh disguises itself as a Renoir painting imbued with innocence and charm. Completed towards the end of June in 1944 the painting was conceived of almost a year earlier: “In September 1943 Magritte wrote to Mariën about doing a picture of / ‘a naked woman next to a woman dressed in clothes which have the appearance of flesh’/, adding in parentheses that it might be better just to do ‘the clothed woman on her own”’ (quoted in D. Sylvester & S. Whitfield, op.cit., p. 339; see figs. 3 & 4). Blending the beautiful with the disturbing Le Traité de sensations artfully undermines the charm of Impressionism with a deliberate perversity, whilst concurrently paying homage: “But while the spirit of parody is very much alive in these works it is tempered by Magritte’s appreciation of the artists he mimics…. In a rare aside about art he once told a friend that he considered the Impressionists to have been responsible for ‘a new form necessary to the understanding of painting’” (S. Whitfield in Magritte (exhibition catalogue), London, The Hayward Gallery; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Houston, The Menil Collection & Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, 1992-93, n.p.). In homogenizing the subjective brushstrokes of Impressionism intended to capture a fleeting moment in time Magritte employs them as a filter through which his unnerving imagery can be viewed. As the brushstrokes are sapped of their communicative effect they highlight the inherent artificiality of the painting.

Figs. 3 & 4 René Magritte, Woman Pierced with Arrows [recto, fig. 3]; Nude Woman Pierced with Arrows [verso, fig. 4], graphite on paper, 1960, The Menil Collection, Houston © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The sudden formal departure marked by the Renoir period evokes a striking reaction to war while demonstrating Magritte’s extraordinary capacity for stylistic variation. Manifesting an image that had long obsessed Magritte Le Traité de sensations exemplifies the artist’s innovative response to chaos and what he saw to be the failures of modern painting. While for some time, this stylistic diversion confounded audiences and critics, it can be seen as a deliberate call to arms: “In addressing these pictures we would do well to remember that Magritte, more than any other artist of the past century, made it his project to subvert our faith in visual similitude. It is no lapse in judgement when this painter chose not to resemble himself” (C. Haskell in René Magritte: The Fifth Season (exhibition catalogue), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 2018, p. 21). Looking to alter the way in which we view the world Le Traité de sensations is fundamental in understanding the artist’s development and leading towards his later self-reflexive works.

The figure in Le Traité de sensations is possibly Jacqueline Nonkels, a close family friend of the Magritte’s. Magritte also painted her in Portrait of Jacqueline Nonkels incorporating the same pink scarf.