Biography: René Magritte (Belgian, 1898-1967)
René Magritte was a Belgian artist whose incredibly vast body of work revealed a deeply contemplative philosophy that distinguished his art from his Surrealist colleagues. Invested equally in both the Surrealist drive to experiment with themes drawn from the subconscious as well as the inherent illusion of images themselves, Magritte pursued a novel artistic approach that continues today to be recognized as one of the most influential of the early twentieth century.
Magritte was born in Lessines in western Belgium near the end of the nineteenth century; however, much of his early biography has been lost to history. It has been suggested that he studied for several years at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, and it would seem, in a review of his earliest paintings from the 1910s and 1920s like The Model (1922; Palais des Beaux-Arts de Charleroi, Belgium), that Magritte at first experimented with an abstract style that bore a planar sense similar to that of Cubism. This avant-garde compositional approach soon evolved, however, into a style more directly influenced by Surrealist ideologies.
He was particularly intrigued by the work of Giorgio de Chirico, as can be seen in Magritte’s early Surrealist works such as The Lost Jockey(1926; Museum of Modern Art, New York), which features a seemingly misplaced jockey racing through a somewhat barren and fractured landscape captured in a simplified palette. As the decade progressed, he transitioned into a more meticulous compositional approach that afforded the artful blend of reality and imagination to emerge in his work.
Indeed, just two years later he would paint his now-iconic The Treachery of Images(1929; Los Angeles County Museum of Art), which challenged his audience to come to terms with the fact that every painting is mere illusion influenced by the perspective of the artist. This tension being what is seen and unseen dominated much of the celebrated work in his oeuvre: from the veiled couple featured in the series The Lovers(1928; Museum of Modern Art, New York), whose identities are forever obscured, to The Son of Man (1946; private collection), a self-portrait wherein Magritte’s likeness hides behind a spring green apple.
While the initial public reception of Magritte’s work was mixed, he continued to paint at a prolific pace while also exhibiting his work in a variety of venues. It was not until the late 1940s when the insanely successfully New York-based Greek gallerist Alexander Iolas began to represent him that Magritte gained international acclaim for his work. By the end of his life (he died of pancreatic cancer in August of 1967), Magritte’s work was celebrated around the world for its eclectic mix of themes and motifs linked by a deep contemplation of the role of art and the artist. In addition to numerous posthumous exhibitions including his work since, Magritte was also fêted with the publication of a multi-volume catalogue raisonné authored by David Sylvester in 1991.
Jacques Meuris, Rene Magritte, 1898-1967 (Koln, Germany: Taschen, 1991).
“Les Amantes [The Lovers], 1928.” National Gallery of Australia.