Impressionist & Modern Art

21 Facts About René Magritte

By Eva Sarah Molcard
Want to know more about Magritte? To commemorate our Modernités sale this October, which features three stunning examples of the master's Surrealist visions, we present you with a handy guide to the life, work and legacy of a legend. Ceci n'est-pas un listicle!

1. René Magritte’s Surrealist oeuvre was satirical, contradictory and aesthetically playful. His characteristically clean style arranged recognizable forms in witty compositions or contexts that are physically and logically impossibly. Magritte returned to certain subjects throughout his oeuvre, including mirrors, ambiguously open or closed windows, the open sky and wallpaper patterns, which played with tensions between depiction and reality. Such works often illustrated scenes that undermined the natural laws of optics and perception. Over time, these images became iconic, and contributed to a broader world of Magritte’s creation.

2. Many songs have been written in reference to Magritte and his work, including John Cale’s 2003 song "Magritte" and Paul Simon’s 1983 "René and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War." In this vein, since the 1960s, many of Magritte’s works have appeared as album covers for bands and recording artists, including his 1952 The Listening Room, which appears on The Jeff Beck Group’s band Beck-Ola, The Philosopher’s Lamp 1936, which appears on Alan Hull’s album Pipedream, The Lovers 1928 as the Punch Brothers’ album cover for The Phosphorescent Blues, and many others.

"Art, as I understand it defies psychoanalysis…I take care to only paint pictures that evoke the mystery of the world…No sensible man believes that psychoanalysis could explain the mystery of the world."
René Magritte

RENÉ MAGRITTE, LA PERSPECTIVE AMOUREUSE (1936) ESTIMATE: 1,400,000 - 1,800,000EUR, Modernités, Paris, 26 October


3. Magritte’s intense and long marriage to Georgette Berger informed his entire life, and her tenacity contributed to the development of his career. They never divorced, though both sustained affairs. When Magritte began a relationship with performance artist Sheila Legge, he enlisted his friend Paul Colinet to distract Georgette, which led to their own affair. The couple became temporarily estranged for nearly four years until they eventually reconciled and remained together until his death.

The Painter Rene Magritte and his wife Georgette Berger, circa 1922. Image Courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

4. Brussels, where Magritte spent much of his life, named a street Ceci n’est pas une rue meaning “This is not a street” after his most famous work, The Treachery of Images.

5. In 2009, two armed men stole Magritte’s painting Olympia, a nude portrait of the artist’s wife, from the museum in Magritte’s former home. It was returned in perfect condition in 2012 because the painting’s fame and recognizability made it impossible to sell on the black market. It is appraised at $1.1 million.

6. In 1970, Tom Stoppard wrote a After Magritte, a surreal comedy play which brings many of Magritte’s paintings to life in tableaus, and explores the nature of surrealism as it appears in different art forms.

RENÉ MAGRITTE L’INGÉNUE (1945) ESTIMATE: 3,500,000 - 5,500,000EUR, Modernités, Paris, 26 October


7. He worked as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory in the early 1920s, the traces of which can be found in many of his best-known paintings. He also infamously created forgeries of the works of other masters including Picasso, Titian and Max Ernst. He would use the skill decades later, when during the German occupation of Belgium, he forged banknotes for survival.

8. Magritte implemented text in many of his paintings to explore the structures of visual signs and the role of perception in art and language. His most famous work, The Treachery of Images, exemplifies this examination, as it presents a pipe above the phrase, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe,’ meaning “This is not a pipe”, confronting the viewer with the means of representation, and the fact of the image and word in contradiction with real objecthood.

Reneé Magritte’s Le Principe du plaisir (The Pleasure Principle ), 1937, sold at Sotheby’s New York for a record-breaking $26.8 million in 2018.

9. Magritte’s 1964 painting Son of Man played a prominent part in the plot of The Thomas Crown Affair, a 1999 heist film starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. A reproduction of the painting was supplied for the film by Troubetzkoy Paintings, a company which reproduces well-known artworks.

10. Critics, scholars and theorists have turned to Magritte’s paintings to explore a variety of intellectual notions including semiotics, power structures, and how ideology appears in imagery. Critic John Berger used Magritte’s work throughout his seminal work Ways of Seeing, while philosopher Michel Foucault used The Treachery of Images as the basis for This is Not a Pipe, his short book which analyzes and criticizes the structures of language.

René Magritte, circa 1965-67. Image Courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

11. Although Magritte was a leading member of the Surrealist movement, his work has influenced artists of a variety of styles and approaches, particularly Pop Art. His clean aesthetic and treatment of everyday objects informed the work of Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and others; however, Magritte refuted the association and criticized Pop Art’s representation of “the world as it is.” LACMA’s 2006 exhibition René Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images explored the impact of Magritte’s work on postwar American and European artists.

12. In 2018 Magritte’s 1937 painting Le Principe du plaisir (The Pleasure Principle) sold at Sotheby’s New York for $26.8 million, setting a new record for the artist. An entrancing portrait it depicts Edward James, one of the most influential patrons of Surrealist art, who was introduced to Magritte by Salvador Dalí in 1937. Commissioned directly by James, the portrait was rendered from a photograph of the patron that was taken according to the artist’s specifications by fellow Surrealist, Man Ray.

13. Magritte’s letters, stories and various pieces of writing reveal his inner self and hidden thoughts. One such note revealed his skepticism of psychoanalysis and the Surrealist’s obsession with Freudian psychology, “Art, as I understand it defies psychoanalysis…I take care to only paint pictures that evoke the mystery of the world…No sensible man believes that psychoanalysis could explain the mystery of the world.”

RENÉ MAGRITTE L'ART DE LA CONVERSATION (1950) ESTIMATE: 9,000,000 - 12,000,000EUR (Modernités, Paris, 26 October) WESTIMAGE - ART DIGITAL STUDIO

14. Many of Magritte’s images have permeated to other mediums and modes of visual production; for example, a scene in Louis Malle’s 1958 Les Amants depicts two lovers kissing through cloths which cover their heads, a clear reference to Magritte’s 1928 painting of the same name and subject matter.

15. Magritte’s mother struggled with mental health issues. After multiple attempts, she committed suicide by drowning herself in a river near the family home when René was fourteen years old. It was once believed that Magritte was present when her body was pulled out of the water, with her face obscured by her dress, an image with which the artist contended in many of his works. Most historians have discredited the myth of his presence at the river, though her suicide undoubtedly affected his life and work, and even his fixation with hats could be traced to her occupation as a milliner before marriage.

16. The famous poster for The Exorcist was inspired by Magritte’s L’Empire des Lumières Although the poster is in black and white while Magritte’s painting features relatively bright color, both works feature a confusing, threatening combination of interior and exterior light, and the male figure in the poster dons a bowler hat, likely a reference to Magritte’s characteristic image.

Poster for "The Exorcist" a 1973 American supernatural horror film starring Linda Blair and Max von Sydow. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)
Magritte's painting L’Empire des Lumières inspired the film poster for 1973 American supernatural horror film The Exorcist. Image Courtesy of Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images.

17. Magritte deviated from his naturalistic surrealist aesthetic in the 1940s. During the German occupation of Belgium, he briefly painted in an impressionist style of loose brushstrokes and playful color, known as his “Renoir period.” From 1947 to 1948, referred to as his “vache period”, he produced works of Fauvist nature, using acidic color contrasts and shocking juxtapositions. He returned to his pre-war Surrealist style at the end of 1948.

18. In addition to his paintings and sculptures, Magritte also produced drawings to accompany the work of his author friends including Paul Éluard, Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade.

Rene Magritte and Le Barbare, 1938. Image Courtesy of Heritage Images/Getty Images.

19. Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical works from the years leading to World War I, of frighteningly empty cityscapes, physically impossible scale, and recognizable objects in mysterious juxtapositions, hugely influenced Magritte’s Surrealist approach. When Magritte first saw a reproduction of de Chirico’s 1914 painting The Song of Love in 1921, he was brought to tears, and described the event as “one of the most moving moments of my life: my eyes saw thought for the first time.”

20. Magritte often discussed his life and work with a distinct sense of irony, “I can imagine a sunny landscape under a night sky; only a god is capable of visualizing it and conveying it through the medium of paint, however. In the expectation that I will become one, I am dropping the project.”

21. Magritte died of pancreatic cancer in 1967 at the age of 68, and was buried in Schaerbeek Cemetery, Brussels. He had worked up until his death, and left an unfinished painting that was likely commissioned by a young German collector. The incomplete work remained on its easel in the Magritte home until Georgette Magritte died in 1986.

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