Memories Of Magritte

Memories Of Magritte

When René Magritte gifted Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet an exquisite painting - L'empire des lumières in 1961 - it took pride of place at the heart of what would become a renowned collection of art and artefacts from around the world. Today, as Gillion-Crowet brings this masterpiece of Surrealism to Sotheby's for its market debut as part of the Modern & Contemporary Evening Sale in London on March 2, she recalls her memories of the artist and reflects on the unique qualities of L'empire des lumières.
When René Magritte gifted Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet an exquisite painting - L'empire des lumières in 1961 - it took pride of place at the heart of what would become a renowned collection of art and artefacts from around the world. Today, as Gillion-Crowet brings this masterpiece of Surrealism to Sotheby's for its market debut as part of the Modern & Contemporary Evening Sale in London on March 2, she recalls her memories of the artist and reflects on the unique qualities of L'empire des lumières.

O ne of the Belgian master’s finest works, L’empire des lumières was painted by René Magritte in 1961, for Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet, a close family friend.

Magritte’s connection with the Crowet family came about when Anne-Marie’s father Pierre first encountered the then-unknown artist, whilst studying law at Brussels university in the mid-1920s. A friendship developed as the artist and the law student realised that not only did they both hail from the same part of the country, they both shared a sense of humour and artistic taste.

This friendship – and the legacy of patronage - would endure into the next generation through Pierre’s daughter Anne-Marie. She was sixteen when she briefly sat for a portrait with Magritte, at his home, where he preferred to paint. So striking did Magritte find Anne-Marie’s features, he told her that he had been subconsciously painting her face for years before encountering her.

That painting eventually became La Fée Ignorante [‘The Ignorant Fairy’], one of Magritte’s most powerful portraits.

Not only was the painting of Anne-Marie’s face a powerful moment of inspiration for Magritte, but it marked the start of a warm friendship between the artist and his muse, that lasted until Magritte’s death in 1967. As with her father, the younger Crowet shared with Magritte a cheerfully absurd sense of humour, a passion for art and an innate appreciation of Surrealism.

In 1960, Pierre commissioned his old friend to produce three canvases for him, one of which was to be a gift for his daughter, L’empire des lumières. Today, to mark the sale of this work which was presented to Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet by the legendary artist himself in 1961, we spoke to her about art, life and her memories of friendship with Rene Magritte.

Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet with La Fée Ignorante courtesy Gillion-Crowet collection

What was Rene Magritte like?

Magritte was very normal, he was not pompous. He was a simple man and at the same time he was also a real artist, a true Surrealist. I met him a lot, and we spent a lot of time together over the ten years before he died [in 1967]. When we first met, when he painted my portrait [La Fée Ignorante], he said he had been searching for my face for years, in a way.

He was obsessed with your face?

He was obsessed with it. He told me that for him, it was like an unexpected gift that I arrived at that very moment in his life. It was the face he had been looking for!

Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet as a teenager Gillion-Crowet Collection

What are your earliest memories of experiencing art? Your father was a prolific patron of the arts. Do you remember as a child the paintings of his that most made an impression on you?

When I looked at the paintings my parents had, the first one I remember is a Rene Magritte called Landscape. And it was hanging on the wall in my father’s office. I found it very funny, but I was a young girl and didn’t really understand what it meant. Today, I still admire it.

Your father was an early champion of Magritte and the Surrealists, wasn’t he?

Yes, he was a real patron of the arts. He helped and supported artists throughout his life, from the late 1920s until his death in 1967. He was one of the presidents of the Belgian Art Prize [between 1961-1984]. He really helped me to appreciate art and understand art, as growing up, I was surrounded by it!
We used to live outside Brussels, in Charleroi, where he organised a lot of exhibitions. I would help him hang work. So, that also helped me develop my artistic knowledge, hanging and organising those exhibitions. It really developed my eye and tastes.


When your father first encountered Magritte’s work in the early 1920s, what was it that attracted him to it?

Well, he was studying to be a lawyer here in Brussels, in 1925 and he was friendly with a group of young creatives at the university, who knew Magritte. He was an unknown artist at the time, but my father had launched a small magazine, an arts review, ‘Le Souperil’ in 1927 and wrote about Magritte. He also found out that Magritte came from the same place as his family did. So, that was another connection for my father, which led to them forming a friendship that would last all Magritte’s life.

What was your father like?

A generous man, very artistic in his way, but as a young man he was expected to follow in the family business and take over their department store. He did not really enjoy that. Later, my father was very much involved in cultural activities in Brussels and Charleroi, he was president of the artistic circle and cultural activities. Our family house became the reference point for artists and writers. It was an amazing place to be.

Magritte famously painted you, when you were 16, for the portrait that would be titled La Fée Ignorante [The Ignorant Fairy] in 1956. What do you remember of the experience?

When I met Rene Magritte for the first time, I was very impressed and a little nervous. It was in his house, he asked me to sit on a little stool in the middle of his living room. He painted where he felt good, so he moved his easel around his house. He was looked at me intensely, with a satisfied look, and a slightly mocking air.

He was mocking you?

You know why? I found out later he had seen in my face something that he had been painting for years, even before he’d met me.

René Magritte: La Fée Ignorante (1956) Gillion-Crowet Collection

So, by becoming his subject, you became a Surrealist too?

By becoming part of the painting! Yes, that was terribly Surrealist. There was an interesting thing Magritte said: While it happens that a portrait tries to resemble its model, we could wish that the model could look like the portrait. An inversion. So, we very quickly became friends after that, we found we shared the same way of seeing things. That was the key to our friendship.

How many sittings did he take to paint you?

He told me it’s not necessary to come again, I have you in my mind. Only one sitting, but of course, we met many more times after that, our families were close friends and I would visit him and his wife at their home.

Magritte didn’t have an atelier, he didn’t have a studio! He painted where he felt comfortable, was of no importance where he was. He painted in a suit and tie. He was a natural Surrealist, very authentic and true. His way of seeing things, we talked about everything – funny stories, we talked about his paintings, the cinema, cooking. He loved cinema! Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton. I spent evenings with him and his wife, watching these films.

What do you feel today about L'empire des lumieres, which was gifted to you by Magritte in 1961?  

It’s one of his masterpieces, because it exceeds everything that he had done before. It’s a very strong work. Different to anything he made before. He was especially proud of this, he attached a lot of importance to it. He told me, from the moment he gave it to me, that I would see with time, that the blacks in the trees or shadows, would differentiate themselves into various levels of black over the years. It was an avant-garde tableau. In a certain way, he was playing with deepness of colour, more modern than others.

anne-marie gillion crowet with L'empire des lumiéres courtesy gillion-crowet collection

With Magritte, you sense the idea was more dominant than technique…

For him it was both. He was a poet and he was a Surrealist and a very good painter.

What is unique about this work in Magritte’s canon?

This work has something very unique, in the way Magritte has reached perfection in playing with different tonalities of black, as I was saying, but also showing in this way, on a huge scale, the sum of his genius, the modern construction of this work creates a distinction from this work to the others.

How would you compare Magritte with the other Surrealists of the time?I don’t want to compare, he is incomparable. He was sincere, and profoundly Surrealist. There was nothing frivolous about him, he was a very kind and real man. There was only one Magritte and there never be any other.

René Magritte circa 1965 Wolleh Lothar/

Why do you think Magritte’s work continues to resonate with people sixty years later?

Because there is only one Magritte and there will never been another. He was totally different to the others. Some have tried to imitate him, but always failed. he treated Surrealism with sincerity, poetry and respect. Unlike for many others, for Magritte, Surrealism was not a game, but a reality. His work was unique and will never deceive. It will always be a source of beauty for future generations.

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