Galerie Agnès Lefort, Montreal
Private Collection (acquired from the above in November 1968. Sold: Christie's, New York, 5th May 2011, lot 187)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
Letter from Magritte to Alex Salkin, 2nd January 1947
Edward Alden Jewell, 'Work by Mestrovic: Yugoslav's Sculpture at Metropolitan: Chagall, Magritte and Others', in The New York Times, 13th April 1947, p. 10
David Sylvester (ed.), Sarah Whitfield & Michael Raeburn, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, Antwerp & London, 1994, vol. IV, app. 141, catalogued p. 326
Sarah Whitfield (ed.), René Magritte. Newly Discovered Works, Catalogue Raisonné, Brussels, 2012, vol. VI, no. 15, illustrated in colour p. 31; detail illustrated in colour p. 6
Making use of one of Magritte’s best-known painterly devices, La belle captive exemplifies the artist’s enigmatic and compelling compositions. The title first appears in relation to an oil of 1931 which shows a landscape of a small hamlet on a country road with a painting in the foreground depicting this same scene. As David Sylvester’s catalogue raisonné of the artist records: ‘The image is a classic case of an operation which always obsessed Magritte – the concealment of one thing by another. Here this is given a twist by the fact that the agent of concealment is a canvas which reveals – or so we are led to suppose – that which it conceals’ (D. Sylvester (ed.), René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1993, vol. II, p. 176). This arrangement may have been inspired by illustrations from Armand Cassagne’s book on perspective that was used by teachers at the Académie in Brussels where Magritte studied and which indicate scale by depicting paintings in front of their subjects.
Magritte continued to develop this motif and the present work relates closely to a later oil version of the subject painted in 1948 (D. Sylvester, op. cit., no. 641). In both works he changes the subject from a landscape to a seascape creating a considerably more complex interaction between the revealed and the concealed. Featureless seashores appear frequently in Magritte’s work; devoid of all reference they allowed him to distance himself from one of the traditional tenets of landscape painting – namely a given time and place. In employing one in this context, Magritte emphasises the artificiality of the composition (and indeed of art itself), not least because we know that the sea is in constant motion and so what is shown in the painting cannot be the same as what it conceals.
This theme evidently intrigued Magritte as it appears again in the related series La condition humaine where an easel is placed front of a window looking out onto a landscape beyond. Discussing a painting from this series, Magritte explained how he saw the device as integral to an examination of human existence: ‘the tree represented in the painting hid from view the real tree situated behind it, outside the room. It existed for the spectator, as it were, simultaneously in his mind, as both inside the room in the painting, and outside in the real landscape. Which is how we see the world: we see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves. In the same way, we sometimes situate in the past a thing which is happening in the present. Time and space thus lose their crude meaning, which is the only one they have in everyday experience’ (quoted in Magritte (exhibition catalogue), The Hayward Gallery, London, 1992, n.p.).
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