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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Belgian artist René François Ghislain Magritte, more commonly known as René Magritte, was a surrealist artist that was born on 21 November 1898 and died on 15 August 1967.

His work often showed depictions of everyday objects in an unusual way. He created numerous thought-provoking and witty images that he became known for.

He was an influence on the minimalist, pop and conceptual art scenes. His most notable works include the paintings On the Threshold of Liberty, The Treachery of Images, The Human Condition, The Son of Man, Elective Affinities, Golconda, The Portrait and The Menaced Assassin.

René Magritte was the oldest son of the textile merchant and tailor Léopold Magritte. He was born in the town Lessines in the Hainaut province in Belgium. His mother was Régina Magritte who worked as a milliner prior to her marriage to René Magritte’s farther.

René started to learn to draw in 1910 when he began taking lessons. Two years later, his mother committed suicide by drowning in the River Sambre. She had previously attempted to take her own life, which led her husband to lock her up in her bedroom to try and prevent her attempts.

The tragic event that led to her death happened after she escaped her captivity. She was missing for days before her body was found washed up down the river.

At first it was thought that René, who was only 13 at the time, was present when his mother’s body was retrieved from the river but more recent research has showed this to not be true. The story was believed to originate from one of the family nurses.

It is believed that when his mother’s body was first found, her dress was covering her face and it has been suggested that this is the reason behind several of René’s paintings showing cloth covering the faces of people in his paintings.

René Magritte’s Career

The earliest paintings that René Magritte painted were in an impressionistic style, dating back to around 1915. He continued on his exploration of painting by enrolling into the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts school located in Brussels where he studied under Constant Montald. However, he did not find the studies to be inspiring. He went on to produce paintings after leaving the school between 1918 and 1924 but they were instead influenced by the Futurism style as well as figurative Cubism – influenced by Metzinger.

Magritte became a part of the Belgian infantry from December 1920 to September 1921, posted in a Flemish town known as Beverlo, located near Leopoldsburg. Magritte married Georgette Berger in 1922, a person who he had met as a child. He worked at a wallpaper factory from 1922 to 1923 as a draughtsman. Magritte then became an advertisement and poster designer until 1926 when he got the opportunity to work as a full-time painter due to his contact with an art gallery in Brussels. This led to his first surreal painting known as “The Lost Jockey” or “Le Jockey Perdu”. His first art exhibition was held in Brussels in 1927. However, it had a very poor reception from critics leading to him becoming depressed by his apparent failure. He decided to move to Paris where he came in contact with André Breton and became friends. Magritte got involved with a surrealist group as a result of his contact with Breton. He became the leading member of the group and grew his dream-like, illusionistic characteristic that was his version of Surrealism. He stayed in Paris for three years.

After the gallery in Brussels closed in 1929, Magritte income he received from the contract ended and due to having very little effect on the movement in Paris, he moved back to Brussels in 1930. He found work again in advertising, forming an agency with his brother, Paul, earning himself a living wage.

Edward James, another surrealist patron of the time, allowed Magritte to stay rent-free at his London home giving Magritte the chance to continue work on his paintings. James was later featured in two of Magritte’s paintings. They were The Pleasure Principle (Le Principe du Plaisir) and Not to be Reproduced (La Reproduction Interdite).

During World War II, the German Occupation of Brussels led to a change in his work. He adopted a painterly, colourful style – also known as Magritte’s Renoir Period. It came about as a reaction to the feelings he had during the German Occupation and the abandonment and alienation he felt living there at the time. He later renounced the work in 1946 citing it as violent and pessimistic. Magritte then joined a number of other artists from Belgian in the signing of the Surrealism in Full Sunlight manifesto. Magritte began to paint in a crude Fauve and provocative style from 1947 to 1948, known as his Vache Period. Due to the lean post-war period, he began to create fraudulent Picassos, Chiricos and Braques along with forging banknotes. He did this with his brother Paul and Marcel Mariën, who sold the forgeries. By the end of 1948, he was able to return to the style of his previous work before the war began – surrealist art. It was the style that he preferred.

Magritte had his exhibited in New York (1936) and another two times in the same city in two separate exhibitions – Museum of Modern Art (1965) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1992).

Magritte had close ties politically to the Communist Party even after the war. He was also an agnostic along with his politically left alignment.

His work only really started picking up in popularity in the 1960s. Magritte had a great influence on minimalist, conceptual and pop art. In 2005, he was ranked 18th in the Flemish version of “The Greatest Belgian” and 9th in the Walloon version.

René Magritte’s Personal Life

Magritte’s wife, Georgette Berger, was a butcher’s daughter (in Charleroi). In 1920, he met her again for the first time after last seeing her when he was 13. She then became Magritte’s muse and model for many of his paintings. He started an affair with a young painter, Sheila Legg, in 1936. Magritte decided to have Paul Colinet, a friend, distract his wife so that he could have his affair but this led to Georgette having an affair with Paul. Magritte and his wife only reconciled in 1940.

He died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 68 on 15 August 1967. He was buried in Schaerbeek Cemetery in Evere, Brussels.

Artistic and Philosophical Gestures

Magritte is well known for taking objects that everyone knows in their daily life and brining new meaning to it. This can be seen the most in his painting “The Treachery of Images” where a pipe is a depicted as a model for a tobacco store. He added the words “this is not a pipe” underneath the image which may seem contradictory but it is true since it is just an image of pipe. When Magritte was asked about the image and the words written underneath, he responded by saying that it is not a pipe since it cannot be filled with tobacco.

Magritte did the same in his other works such as a painting of an apple where he used a framing device that made it so that it was not an apple. He pointed out in these types of paintings that even if we depict the object naturally, we cannot catch the item itself.

Magritte created many altered versions of popular paintings in his surrealist style. His work with surrealism is closer to representationalism than the automatic style of other artists such as the well-known Joan Miró. His desire to make poetic imagery is seen through his use of putting every-day objects in unfamiliar spaces. Magritte described a painting as putting colours next to each other in a way that familiar objects such as trees, furniture, the sky or graffiti unites to form a single poetic image. The poetic symbolism that the image as a whole creates dispenses the need for individual symbolic significance.

He describes his paintings as merely visible images that do not hide anything. When someone sees his paintings they often ask “what does it mean?”, but according to Magritte, they do not mean anything because all mysteries mean nothing as they are unknowable.

Artists That Have Been Influenced By Magritte

Many contemporary artists have been greatly influenced by Magritte’s work showing how fickle images can be. Some of the artists that have been heavily influenced by Magritte work are Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Duane Michals, Jasper Johns, Martin Kippenberger, Storm Thorgerson and Jan Verdoodt. Some of the work that has been influenced has direct references while others have contemporary viewpoints of Magritte abstract fixations.

Pop artists have been compared to Magritte’s use of simple graphic styles of ordinary images. It is widely accepted that Magritte had a great influence on Pop art and the development of it even though Magritte said that he did not think there was connection.

René Magritte’s Museum

On 30 May 2009, the Magritte Museum opened its doors to the public in Brussels. The museum houses 200 of René Magritte original paintings, sculptures and drawings in a neo-classical five-level Hotel Altenloh, located on the Place Royale. The collection includes The Empire of Light, The Return and Scheherazade. It is the largest collection of his work in the world and most of it came directly from his widow, Georgette Magritte, and the primary collector of his work, Irene Hamoir Scutenaire. The collection also includes his short surrealist film that he created in 1956 as well as his work in photography dating from 1920.

Magritte’s former home is another museum that shows where the artists lived from 1930 to 1954, located at 135 Rue Esseghem, Brussels. On 24 September 2009, two men armed with guns entered the museum and stole the nude depiction of Magritte’s wife that he painted, known as Olympia. The painting’s estimated worth is 1.1 million USD. The painting was later returned to the museum on January 2012. The thieves said that they returned it because they were unable to sell it on the black market due to the paintings recognition and fame.