R ené Magritte’s 1961 L’Empire des lumières was the fifteenth version in oils of this particular image, (the first being painted in 1949) and one of three works commissioned in 1960 by Magritte’s patron Pierre Crowet for his daughter Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet.
This work unites motifs and themes Magritte pursued throughout his career, ranging from the reconciliation of opposites – or rather the interrogation of this Surrealist concept – to the exploration of absence, and the evocation of poetic and mysterious elements firmly anchored (contrary to French Surrealist emphases on the unconscious and the dream) in a tangible reality.
Poetry saturates the painting and its other versions - or ‘variations’, as Magritte termed them. It is already evident in the title (given by Magritte’s friend, the Belgian poet Paul Nougé) which combines word and image into a complete poetic composition. The light-and-dark opposition of the scene – the tension between the overarching natural light of the sky, illuminating the world and the artificial streetlamp casting its limited aura on the crepuscular street and house – is repeated in the silent house before us, illuminated from within upstairs but with its ground floor shutters tightly closed. The scene is marked by an unsettling absence of human figures, yet it nevertheless presents traces of human presence: the house, the lamp, the clean, well-maintained street.
That the poetry of L’Empire des lumières exists in many variations suggests an analogy with music, another significant concern in Magritte’s work. Arnold Schoenberg argued that ‘the variation of the features of a basic unit produces all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic and unity, on the one hand, and character, mood, expression, and every needed differentiation, on the other hand – thus elaborating the idea of the piece’.
Magritte’s variations on the same theme invite us to rethink conventional notions of originality, to look more carefully at the details and contrasts between different versions of the painting: we observe the architectural variations of the Belgian houses, the varieties of trees in the foreground, of the streetlamps and their shadows, and of the skyscapes.
Some of these paintings are in portrait format, others in landscape; some, like the 1961 version, give the viewer a deeper sense of proximity to, or immersion in, the scene while in others the depicted world is more distant. Together, these variant paintings form an internal system of poetic rhythms and patterns in which cross-references abound, alongside allusions to older Belgian art, most notably La Maison rose (1892) by the symbolist William Degouve de Nuncques.
L’Empire des lumières also takes motifs from many earlier Magritte works and is the culmination of a lifelong exploration in art of the relations between day and night. The streetlamp throwing its shadows appears as early as 1928 in Le Noctambule (The Night Owl), where it stands incongruously in a dining room. Similarly, in early paintings like A la suite de l’eau, les nuages (1926, After the Water, the Clouds) skies and clouds appear as elements of Magritte’s compositions, their airy lightness contrasting with the darker, confined interiors in which they are set. Placing skyscapes within picture-frames or mirrors, or depicting them as seen through windows or draped curtains, suggests Magritte’s prevailing set of concerns with exploring, or even collapsing, the relations between inside and outside, container and contained, the natural and the domestic. Even in later paintings where skyscapes and landscapes are elements of exterior scenes, traces of the interior remain. In 1932's L’Univers démasqué (The Universe Unmasked) for example, a skyscape looms over a semi-built house set in an empty landscape, but the backdrop consists of large geometric shapes which surround the more natural setting and turn that outside into a kind of interior. It was an idea that Magritte would continue to explore right through into the 1960s.
The scene is marked by an unsettling absence of human figures, yet it nevertheless presents traces of human presence: the house, the lamp, the clean, well-maintained street.
L’Empire des lumières marks a turning point. It no longer needs the intellectual frisson of the attempt to reconcile inside and outside to invest the painting with poetic significance. Instead, we see an exterior scene with open skies in which the apparent opposition between day and night reveals the continuity of the two in the moment of civil twilight, in which enough light remains for the world to be visible, but the streetlamps are lighting up and people indoors turn on their lights. André Breton, the founder and leader of the French surrealists, wrote in his Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1930): ‘Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions’. L’Empire des lumières captures this ‘certain point of the mind’, where the apparent opposition of light and dark, day and night, is revealed as a single continuum along which apparently distinct realities momentarily overlap and blur together, producing the poetic moment we perceive as surreal. This poetry is perhaps clearest when we recognise an evening sky as ‘Magrittean’ and thus realise the continuity between L’Empire des lumières and our own reality. As the title of a 1958 pamphlet of his work puts it: ‘In René Magritte’s Night the Sky Floats over us all’.