Rene Magritte: Surrealist Painter, Magic Realist (2024)

Magritte was a master of trompe l'oeil
illusionism and surely produced some of the
greatest 20th century paintings of
the Surrealist idiom.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.


One of the most innovative of surrealist artists, the Belgian figurative painter Rene Magritte is best known for his banal, representational but illusionistic paintings, in which nothing can be taken for granted: a style associated with Magic Realism and Surrealism. Aside from a brief 3-year stay in Paris, Magritte spent a discreet, industrious life in Brussels, painting the impossible with calm, confident conviction. Despite participating in many Surrealist exhibitions, he received little international recognition for his unique style of painting until he reached his 50s. But in the 1950s, after completing his masterpiece The Listening Room (1952, Menil Collection, Houston) along with a number of prestigious murals - for the Knocke-le-Zoute (1951-3) casino for example - he was given a major retrospective in Brussels (1954). This was followed by important one-man shows in New York (1965) and Rotterdam (1967). Other famous paintings include La Condition Humaine (1933) and The Empire of Light, II (1950). Magritte's influence on Surrealism, as well as later avant-garde schools such as Pop art, has been substantial, and several of his paintings have become iconic images of modern art, appearing regularly in advertising campaigns. Many of his works are also available in most online catalogues of poster art.

Training and Early Works

The Belgian Surrealist painter Rene Francois Ghislain Magritte was born in Lessines, Hainaut, the eldest son of a tailor. His early interest in sketching prompted him to take drawing lessons in 1910. Tragically, when he was 14 years of age, his mother drowned herself in the River Sambre. From 1916 to 1918 he trained at the Belgian Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, whose teaching program completely failed to inspire him. His relatively conventional Impressionist-like paintings (1915-18) were followed from 1920 to 1924 by a more individualistic style of modern art. In its treatment of themes of contemporary life, its bright colour, and its exploration of the relationship of three-dimensional form to flat picture plane - this new style drew inspiration from Cubism, as well as Orphism (Jean Metzinger, Robert Delaunay), Futurism (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti), and Purism (Le Corbusier and Amedee Ozenfant). His typical subject matter during this period was the female nude.

Influence of Giorgio de Chirico

All this changed in 1925, after Magritte saw works like Song of Love (1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York) - a wonderful example of Metaphysical Painting - by the Italian artist Giorgio De Chirico. These surreal images revealed to him the force of pictorial illogicality and led him to switch to a new surrealist style of painting, exemplified by works such as The Menaced Assassin (1925, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and The Robe of Adventure (1926; private collection), in which he expressed his sense of the mystery of the world by means of abrupt, irrational juxtapositions of objects: a style which became known as Magic Realism.

Moves to Paris

At this time, Magritte was still in Brussels, where he earned a living as a wallpaper, poster and advertisem*nt designer. It was only in 1926, after securing a contract with Galerie la Centaure in Brussels, that he was able to devote himself full-time to his art. In 1927, he had his first one-man exhibition in the Belgian capital, only to have his pictures panned by the critics. Deeply depressed, he moved to Paris where he became friends with Andre Breton, and an active member of the surrealist group, although he remained unaffected by its emphasis on automatism and continued painting in his own personal idiom.

As things transpired, the Centaure gallery closed at the end of 1929, thus ending Magritte's contract and his source of income. Having failed to make any real impact in Paris, he returned to Brussels in 1930 and resumed his designwork in advertising. Together with his brother Paul, he established his own agency which earned them both a living wage.


Meantime, the bankrupt gallery's stock of 200 or so paintings by Magritte was purchased by his friend ELT Mesens, a fellow Belgian artist and the director of what would be his future London gallery. Mesens championed Magritte's work in Britain during the 1930s, while the artist continued to exhibit with the Surrealist group. Further recognition came in America. In 1936, Magritte had his first exhibition in New York, which was very successful, after which his fame was secure.

During the Second World War Magritte remained in Brussels, practising a colourful, painterly style known as his "Renoir Period". This was followed by other temporary interludes, including a Fauvism period in the later 1940s, featuring works characterized by violent colour and grotesque imagery. However, in late 1948 he returned to the style and themes of his pre-war painting. In that year he gained international recognition when he agreed a contract with the New York art dealer Alexandre Iolas, who remained his agent until Magritte's death in 1967. In the 1950s, Magritte began to achieve international honours, and his oil painting appeared in a number of important exhibitions around the world. Two of the most important were held later in New York: a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art MOMA in 1965, and a second retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992.

Classical Style of Surrealism

Like his Belgian contemporary Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), Magritte specialised in classical productions of absurdist compositions in which everything is represented prosaically, using ultra-banal imagery quite unlike the extraordinarily bizarre images seen in (say) works by Salvador Dali. His personal surrealist idiom is thus far quieter than that of his surrealist colleagues, but equally shocking. It is the situation of his objects, or their partial transformation, or some other inversion of normality (as in a night scene under a brilliant sky), that creates his particular sort of conceptual shock and reveals him as a great pictorial poet. For a comparison with another 20th century painter who infuses his sharp-focus paintings with unsettling elements, see the Canadian Magic Realist painter Alex Colville (b.1920).

Again, unlike Dali, Magritte does not use painting to express his private obsessions or fantasies. Instead of self-revelation he employs wit, irony, and intelligent comment to make his point. Thus for instance, in his word-paintings (1928-1930) he explores the relationship between words and images and the objects they denote. In such works as The Human Condition I (1933; private collection) in which a canvas on an easel precisely reproduces the "real" landscape beyond the window, he explores the relationship between art to nature. There is a studied objectivity - Magritte liked to pose as the average bourgeois.

Magritte used a number of repetitive themes - suffocation and claustrophobia (confined spaces), an opposite yearning for freedom (blue skies), phallic symbols (guns, sausages, candles), death and decay (coffins), some of which may have been derived from the trauma of losing his mother when he was 14.

In other works, he questions our assumptions about the world - for example, he interferes with the normal scale of objects or defies the laws of gravity (an apple fills a room; a train bursts through a giant fireplace), implying that that nothing can be taken for granted - another possible reference to the sudden disappearance of his mother. His effect is heightened by his use of everyday objects. For example, the hero of many of his later pictures is the man in urban uniform - coat, bowler hat, sometimes a brief-case - as expressionless as a tailor's dummy. In his later work, these themes were overworked and became something of a tired formula.


Magritte's cerebral representative type of surrealism had a huge impact on his contemporaries, as well as on later Neo-Dada works and Pop art. The 2006-7 Los Angeles County Museum of Art show "Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images" was a major exhibition which examined his impact on contemporary artists.

Other Surrealist Painters
Other modern artists involved in Surrealism include: Max Ernst (1891-1976), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Joan Miro (1893-1983).

Selected Paintings

Masterpieces by Magritte include:

- The Menaced Assassin (1925) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
- Attempting the Impossible (1928) Private Collection.
- On the Threshold of Liberty (1929) Private Collection.
- The Treachery (or Perfidy) of Images (1928-9) LACMA, California.
- La Condition Humaine (1933) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
- The Red Model (1935) Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris.
- Reproduction Prohibited (Portrait of Mr James) (1937), Boymans-Beuningen.
- Time Transfixed (1939) Private Collection.
- The Empire of Light, II (1950) Museum of Modern Art NY.
- Personal Values (1952) Private Collection.
- The Listening Room (1952) Menil Collection, Houston.


One of the most arresting of all 20th century painters, works by Rene Magritte can be seen in many of the world's best art museums, notably the Museum of Modern art MOMA New York, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and the Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris. The Menil Collection in Houston Texas has a significant number of his works as does The Magritte Museum, located in the Hotel Altenloh, in Brussels, which opened in May 2009.

Rene Magritte: Surrealist Painter, Magic Realist (2024)
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