Lot 5
  • 5

René Magritte

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 USD
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  • René Magritte
  • Le Maître d'école
  • Signed Magritte (upper right)
  • Gouache on paper
  • 13 by 9 3/4 in.
  • 33 by 24.8 cm


Clare Boothe Luce, New York & Washington, D.C. (acquired from the artist)

Estate of the above (sold: Sotheby's, New York, May, 11, 1988, lot 171)

Private Collection (acquired at the above sale and sold: Sotheby's, London, February 8, 2011, lot 24)

Acquired at the above sale


David Sylvester (ed.), Sarah Whitfield & Michael Raeburn, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. IV, London, 1994, no. 1378, illustrated p. 168

Catalogue Note

This striking gouache depicts Magritte's celebrated bowler-hatted man, seen here from the back, as if staring into the distance; a motif that also appears in an oil of the same title painted in 1955. A crescent moon appears as if pasted low onto the sky just above the man, acting as his personal attribute. During this time, Magritte also created a version of this image showing three bowler-hatted men, with a crescent moon above each figure. Talking about these two versions of the subject, Magritte wrote in a letter to Gaston Puel dated 3rd March 1955: "I am certain of the value of certain images, such as 'The schoolmaster' or 'The masterpiece' for instance, because, while they may be of little interest to aesthetes, as poetic images they are the best to be found in the world" (quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., vol. III, p. 239).  

The man is depicted here with his face turned towards the town-scape in the background, securing his all-important anonymity. David Sylvester wrote: "This crucial anonymity is denied by the sort of attempts made to identify the men as civil servants or small-town lawyers or whatever – worst of all, as clones of Magritte himself. The common supposition that any bowler-hatted man painted by Magritte is something of a portrait of the artist gets things the wrong way round. Magritte painted numerous bowler-hatted men – most of them in his last twenty years-without giving one of them features unmistakably his own-this in spite of the fact that several paintings of his demonstrate that he had no inhibitions about clearly portraying his own face when he wanted to. But as Magritte's figure of the bowler-hatted man increased in fame, a tendency arose for photographers to per­suade the artist to pose as a bowler-hatted man – privately his hat was usually a trilby – and it is, of course, the case that nowadays our image of an artist is usually based on what magazine photographs have made of him. So the equation of Magritte with the bowler-hatted man derives not from his own paintings but from other people's photographs [fig. 2]" (D. Sylvester, 'Golconde by René Magritte', in The Menil Collection, A selection from the Paleolithic to the Modern Era (exhibition catalogue), The Menil Collection, Houston, 1987, pp. 216-219).

As was often the case with Magritte's works, the title was found by his poet friend Louis Scutenaire. Regarding the image itself, David Sylvester explained its origins: "The source of the image was an observation Magritte had made a year or so before in the company of Paul Colinet, and which he recalled in a letter to Colinet written around the middle of March which begins with reflections on the nature of genius. Magritte's belief, so he told Colinet, was that genius was not about having magnificent ideas but about recognizing them. 'For instance, I had a magnificent idea without realizing this, nor did you, when I pointed out to you a year or two ago, that the moon in certain positions was exactly above a chimney-stack or a tree. At the time, we thought this 'droll', 'amusing' but of little interest. Thanks to the new pictures: The girls of the sky, The evening gown, The schoolmaster and The masterpiece, we can now display genius, if we realize that the 'droll' idea is in fact magnificent'" (ibid., p. 239).

The first owner of this work was Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987), an American writer, journalist, ambassador and Congresswoman. She wrote for the theater, film and magazines, and was also the editor of fashion magazines, including Vogue and Vanity Fair. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Luce left her career as an editor and travelled to Europe and the Far East, where she worked as a war journalist. In the 1940s she held a seat in the U.S. Congress, and in 1953 became the U.S. Ambassador to Italy. Luce owned several gouaches by Magritte, acquired directly from the artist. After her death in 1987, her works by Magritte and Dalí were sold at Sotheby's in New York.