The Treachery of Images Rene Magritte Buy Art Prints Now
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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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This unique painting in oil on canvas was created by the famous Belgian artist Rene Magritte in 1929.

The subject is the simple image of a smoker’s pipe on a plain background, such as you might see on a poster advertising a tobacco store. Underneath the pipe Magritte has painted the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, which is French and translates as “This is Not a Pipe”.

To the uninitiated in art culture, this might seem a rather mundane and simplistic piece of work, but Magritte’s creation is a masterpiece of surrealism and has far deeper meanings.

He had a fascination with the interaction between words and images, probably stemming from his time spent as a commercial artist, and the quality of his illustrations result in images that are clear and simple, at the same time as provoking stimulating thoughts.

The word, Treachery, as used in the title of this painting, might seem a little incongruous; perhaps Deception would have been a more appropriate noun to use. Possibly Magritte used the stronger word to impress the concept that we regularly need to tell ourselves lies of varying magnitude, to make sense of the world around us?

The Treachery of Images is classic as a surrealist piece of art. Surrealism is an art form that began in 1924 by the French poet Andre Breton; it was an avant-garde movement which began with the intention of overthrowing the established, oppressive rationalism of wealthy society. The purpose of surreal art is to stimulate the imagination, to create perceptions free from conscious, rational control.

While some of his surrealist contemporaries experimented with new techniques, Magritte stuck with his deadpan illustrative style, developed during his time as a commercial artist.

Repetition was also a strategy he employed, and to the disdain of some critics, he produced multiple copies of some of his work.

There are many meanings to be interpreted from The Treachery of Images; the most obvious being that the image is not a pipe - it is oil paint on canvas - it cannot be packed with tobacco and smoked.

Of deeper significance, is the way it encourages the viewer to explore the logical shortcuts that we take in an established and accepted chain of thoughts and to promote alternative thinking. Magritte used his artistic skill to challenge conventions using contrasting graphics and text, misnaming objects, repetition, mirroring and partial concealment to create baffling illusions. Rene Magritte was one of the pioneers of surreal art.

Rene Francois Ghislain Magritte was born in Lessines, Belgium in 1898, he was the eldest of three brothers. His father was a businessman, and the family moved around the country regularly. In 1912, young Magritte suffered the loss of his mother, who took her life. To come to terms with his loss, Rene immersed himself in films, art and literature, but especially through painting. In 1916 he left home and went to Brussels, where he spent two years at the Academie de Beaux-Arts, he became friends with another student named Victor Servranckx who influenced Magritte with his particular style of painting. Other influences included the work of Jean Metzinger and Fernand Leger which introduced Magritte to Cubism.

After his obligatory military service, Magritte married his childhood girlfriend, Georgette Berger. He then worked for about a year as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory, before becoming a freelance poster designer. In 1926 Magritte was contracted to the Galerie le Centaure in Brussels, to earn his living as a fine artist for a short time. Around this time, Magritte became aware of the work of Giorgio de Chirico and developed an interest in the Surrealist art-form.

Magritte moved to Paris, where he lived for three years; there he connected with Andre Breton’s surrealists, including the artists Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. After experimenting with the ‘dark’ subjects, such as madness and hysteria that was preferred by his colleagues, Magritte moved on to incorporate words and language in his paintings.

In 1930 Magritte moved back to Brussels to take up working in commercial advertising. Some people speculate that he may have supplemented his income by producing forgeries and had little time for developing his art. By the late 1930’s however, there was an increasing interest by international art collectors and Magritte’s work began to receive recognition to such an extent that he was almost able to give up his commercial work completely.

World War two broke out just as Magritte’s efforts were showing signs of success. Nevertheless, he continued with his signature style of art as well as developing a colourful, impressionistic palette to counter the bleakness of war.

After splitting with Breton’s surrealists, Magritte briefly experimented with a grotesque style which he called “Vache” (cow), characterised by vulgar subjects. Vache was hugely unpopular with critics, so he returned to his previous characteristic style, in which he enjoyed considerable success until his death in 1967.

There are several themes within Magritte’s extensive portfolio:

Men wearing bowler hats regularly appear in his paintings and these represent self-portraits. Titles include - The Pilgrim, Son of Man, and Man in a Bowler Hat.

People with a blanket or sheet over their head. Psycho-analysis suggests this is a result of trauma experienced by Magritte at 12 years of age, having witnessed his drowned mother with her dress covering her head. Titles include - The Invention of Life and The Central Story.

Naked women. Titles include - Attempting the Impossible, Black Magic, and Discovery.

Empire of Light - is a painting of a gloomy house in a dark street with a light in the window even though the sun is shining and the sky is bright blue.

Le Blanc seing - is a painting of a woman riding a horse through a forest, but showing a physically impossible perspective of the horse and rider in front of some closer trees, yet behind other more distant trees.

The considerable impact of Rene Magritte’s work on modern art includes pop art and conceptualism in the 1980’s, as well as setting the trend for concept over execution, and commercial art with its focus on everyday objects. Magritte’s art legacy had considerable influence over the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Gober and Martin Kippenberger.