Rene Magritte - The Mysteries of Horizon, 1928

Rene Magritte /   René François Ghislain Magritte

Belgium 1898 - 1967


Rene Magritte
René François Ghislain Magritte
June 4, 2016
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With his highly magical Surrealist imagery, Rene Magritte had a way of breathing new life into seemingly ordinary subject matters. This Belgian surrealist artist often painted everyday objects intentionally placed far out of their contexts, making them a part of such compositions that forced the viewer to reconsider things normally taken for granted. For example, in his iconic The Treachery of Images, Magritte painted a hyper-realistic pipe and beneath it wrote this is not a pipe — this kind of caution was a focal point of Rene’s art, he taught us not to trust our eyes. He also reminded us that the art object, no matter what it was or how convincing it seemed, was not the real thing – even though it’s often easy to fool yourself into believing that what you see is all authentic.

Rene Magritte - The treachery of images, 1929
Rene Magritte – The treachery of images, 1929

Early Life and a Family Tragedy

With a full name of René François Ghislain Magritte, this artist was born in Lessines, a province of Hainaut, during the year of 1898. He turned out to be the eldest son of Leopold Magritte, a tailor and textile merchant, and Regina, a retired milliner that forsake her vocation due to marriage responsibilities. His father’s manufacturing business at times allowed the family to live in relative comfort, but financial difficulties were a constant threat and forced them to move about the country with some regularity, chasing the places with lesser taxes and cheaper cost. As for the life of little Rene, little is known to this day with certainty. Besides constant travels and relocations with his family, Magritte started drawing in the year of 1910. On the 12th March in 1912, the future artist suffered the worst day of his young life as his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Sambre – this was actually not Regina’s first attempt to take her own life, as she had quite a history of suicidal tendencies. According to an interesting and frightening legend, 13-year-old Magritte was present when her body was retrieved from the water, but recent research has discredited this story, claiming it may have originated with the family nurse. Supposedly, when his mother was found, her dress was covering her face, an image that has been suggested as the source of several oil paintings Magritte painted in 1927-1928 in which people had cloth obscuring their faces. This is just one – and probably the most tragic one at that – of many influences whose roots can be traced to Rene’s childhood and who proved to be a crucial aspect of his future career.

Many of the themes inside Magritte’s paintings – especially the early works – can somehow be connected to his troubled childhood and the tragic death of his mother Regina

Rene Magritte - The Lovers 2, 1928
Rene Magritte – The Lovers 2, 1928

René Magritte – an Aspiring Artist

Magritte’s earliest oil paintings, which date to a time around the year of 1915, were quite Impressionistic in style and showed Rene’s early tendencies to strive for styles that have been long forsaken and defined. Between the years of 1916 and 1918, during the aftermath of the First World War and all its horrors, Magritte studied at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, under the wings of Constant Montald. However, the young artist did not find mister Montald’s guidance too inspiring, so Magritte started straying away from Impressionism and its concepts. He stuck to oil as the material of his choice and in the 1918-1924 period Rene started to discover the potential and ideas of both the famous Futurism and Cubism – most of his works from this time are female nudes. During the year of 1922, Magritte married Georgette Berger, whom he had met as a child in 1913, a year after the one his mother died. The next few years were very turbulent for Rene, as he served in the Belgian infantry in the Flemish town of Beverlo, worked as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory and was a poster and advertisement designer until 1926. In an interesting turn of events, Magritte got an opportunity in 1926 to sign a contract with Galerie la Centaure in Brussels, allowing him to paint full time. The same year, his first surreal oil painting came to be – the now legendary Lost Jockey (Le jockey perdu). Although it is today considered to be a classic of modern art, back in the mid-1920s, The Lost Jockey was regarded to be an utter failure as Magritte held his first exhibition in the year of 1927 and critics heaped abuse on the young painter.

Rene Magritte - The False Mirror, 1928
Rene Magritte – The False Mirror, 1928

An Indecisive Move to Paris and London

Depressed by the failure of The Jockey and insulted for the way Belgian critics treated him, Rene Magritte moved to Paris where he became friends with Andre Breton and got himself involved in the surrealist group which accepted his ideas with open arms. However, even though the time in France started out as a success, Rene soon became bored and his (now international) contract with the Galerie la Centaure came to an end in 1929, so penniless Magritte made a decision to return to Brussels the next year. Having made little impact in Paris, Magritte resumed working in advertising – he and his brother Paul formed an agency which earned him a living wage. However, the artist never seized to create paintings, privately continuing to develop his aesthetics. As some of his paintings started to somehow float to surface without the artist actually promoting them, Rene’s work caught the eye of the surrealist patron Edward James – this man allowed Magritte to stay rent free in his London home and paint. It was here that the artist established his style even further, but yet again was not able to make an impact he desired. All the while he was in London, Magritte stayed in correspondence with Breton, as the two were in an artistic relationship of ideas and concepts, as well as being close friends ever since Rene spent some time in The City of Light.

Like many great modern artists, Rene Magritte as well struggled with acceptance and critical acklaim during his career

Rene Magritte - Clairvoyance, 1936
Rene Magritte – Clairvoyance, 1936

The Second World War, the Renoir Period and the Manifesto of Surrealism

Soon after he departed to London, Magritte was yet again forced to return to Brussels due to lack of funds and success. His aforementioned brother welcomed him back into family business and Rene went back to his rhythm of advertising during the day and painting at night. During the German occupation of Belgium in World War Two, Magritte never fled his country and remained in Brussels the entire time, which led to a break with Breton who wanted his friend by his side in Paris. Rene briefly adopted a colorful, painterly style in the war years of 1943-44, an interlude known as his Renoir Period – widely accepted as a reaction to his feelings of alienation and abandonment that came with living in German-occupied Belgium. As the death of his mother, it appears that the WWII tragedies also had a negative effect on Rene’s art, turning him to darker creative waters then he was used to by then. In 1946, as the Second World War was starting to be perceived as a distant nightmare, the artist renounced the violence and pessimism of his earlier work and joined several other Belgian artists in signing the manifesto Surrealism in Full Sunlight. During this time, Magritte supported himself through the production of fake paintings “authored” by Picasso, Van Gogh, Manet and Paul Cezanne – a fraudulent repertoire he was later to expand into the printing of forged banknotes during the lean postwar period. At the end of 1948, he returned to the style and themes of his prewar surrealistic art.

Rene Magritte - Memory of a Voyage, 1955
Rene Magritte – Memory of a Voyage, 1955

Reaching the Desired Surrealism Level

As he was constantly evolving in style and concepts, Magritte wished to cultivate an approach that avoided the stylistic distractions of most modern painting. While some French Surrealists experimented with new techniques, Magritte settled on an illustrative technique that clearly articulated the content of his pictures. It should be noted that the men wearing bowler hats that often appear in Magritte’s pictures can be interpreted as self-portraits! Magritte was fascinated by the interactions of textual and visual signs, and some of his most famous pictures employ both words and images. While those pictures often share the air of mystery that characterizes much of his Surrealist work, they often seem motivated more by a spirit of rational inquiry – and wonder – at the misunderstandings that can lurk in language. Repetition was an important strategy for Magritte, informing not only his handling of motifs within individual pictures but also encouraging him to produce multiple copies of some of his greatest works. His interest in the idea may have come in part from Freudian psychoanalysis, for which repetition is a sign of trauma – Freud was a big part of the original Breton’s ideas associated with Surrealism, so naturally, Rene was well educated with the father of psychotherapy. But his work in the commercial art may have also played a role in prompting him to question the conventional modernist belief in the unique, original work of art. With the arrival of the 1950s, Magritte enjoyed an ongoing international interest in his work and continued his prolific output. Magritte died of pancreatic cancer on 15 August 1967 in his own bed and was interred in Schaerbeek Cemetery, Evere, Brussels.

Among other things, repetition was an important strategy for Magritte and his work

Rene Magritte - Golconda, 1953
Rene Magritte – Golconda, 1953

The Legend of Magritte’s Apples, Birds and Hats

Popular interest in Magritte’s work rose considerably in the 1960s and he reached the highest peak of popularity after his death – as is the case with many great artists. René Magritte’s now iconic imagery has heavily influenced pop, minimalist and conceptual art, whilst forever serving as one of the most instantly recognizable trademarks Surrealism movement has to offer. Magritte’s highly figurative style is often discussed along the work of Salvador Dalí and Giorgio de Chirico, while his persistent interrogation of objects has both influenced and paved the way for many aspiring young artists, not to mention they’ve been fascinating and entertaining the members of the art scene circles for decades now.

Featured Image: Rene Magritte – The Mysteries of Horizon (detail), 1928 – Image courtesy of
All images courtesy of

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016Facing The Future - Art In Europe 1945-68Palais des Beaux-Arts (BOZAR), Brussels Group
2016Beckmann, Picasso, Giacometti & moreKunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz Group
2016Looking at the World Around You. Contemporary Works from Qatar MuseumsFundación Banco Santander, Madrid Group
2016Surrealism: The Conjured LifeMuseum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA), Chicago, IL Group
2016Les Fleurs Du MalNahmad Contemporary, New York City, NY Group
2016Uchronies BPS22Musée d'art de la Province de Hainaut, Charleroi Group
2015René MagritteKyoto Municipal Museum of Art, Kyoto Solo
2015Rene MagritteOeuvres Selectionnees, Galerie Mark HachemSolo
2015René MagritteThe National Art Center Tokyo, Tokyo Solo
2015We hate ChristmasGalleri Tom Christoffersen, Copenhagen Group
2015Fields Of Dream: The Surrealist LandscapeDi Donna, New York City, NY Group
2015How We Appear, and Where Life Takes Us 100 Years of the Town and 20 Years of the MuseumToyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota Aichi Group
2014René Magritte - The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL Solo
2014Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926-193The Menil Collection, Houston, TX Solo
2014Memories of a Voyage: The Late Work of René MagritteThe Menil Collection, Houston, TX Solo
2014The Thing and the Thing-In-ItselfAndrea Rosen Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2014The Surrealist BungalowLinn Lühn, Cologne Group
2014The SeaMuseum voor Moderne Kunst, Oostende Group
2013Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY Solo
2013Surrealismo il sogno e l'inconscioGalleria Guastalla Centro Arte, Livorno Group
2013The 40th Anniversary ExhibitionGalerie Miyawaki, Kyoto Group
2013Dada & Surrealist ObjectsBlain|Di Donna, New York City, NY Group
2012Lost (in La)Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG), Los Angeles, CA Group
2012Great Moderns. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. Art of the Twentieth CenturyCentro Cultural Palacio La Moneda, Santiago Group
2012Mythos AtelierStaatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart Group
2011MagritteAlbertina, Vienna Solo
2011René Magritte - Dangerous LiaisonsBlain|Di Donna, New York City, NY Solo
2011René Magritte: The Pleasure PrincipleTate Liverpool, Liverpool Solo
2011DreamscapesThe Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Saint Louis, MO Solo
2008Magritte e la NaturaPalazzo Reale, Milan Solo
2008Dreams of the SurrealUniversity of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO Solo
2006Rene MagritteSeoul Museum of Art (SeMA), Seoul Solo
2006René Magritte-PaintingsVan de Weghe Fine Art, New York City, NY Solo
2006René MagritteMuseum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam Solo
2006René Magritte. L'impero delle luciCentro di Cultura Scientifica "Alessandro Volta", Villa Olmo, Como Solo
2006Magritte and PhotographyMaison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris Solo
2006René Magritte-Tout en papierMusée Maillol, Fondation Dina Vierny, Paris Solo
2005In The Boat - The Puddle Of The Black – Fifty Selected VisualsEibank Gallery, Sofia Solo
2005René Magritte - La Clef des songesFondation Beyeler, Riehen Solo
2005René Magritte - Der Schlüssel der TräumeBank Austria Kunstforum, Vienna Solo
2003René MagritteJeu de Paume, Paris Solo
2002René MagritteGalerie Pascal Retelet, Brussels Solo
2002René MagritteHiroshima Museum of Art, Hiroshima Solo
2002Rene MagritteThe Nagoya City Art Museum, Nagoya Solo
2002René MagritteTokyu Bunkamura Inc., Tokyo Solo
2000MagritteSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA Solo
1999MagritteMuseo Nacional de Bellas Artes Santiago Chile, Santiago Solo
1998MagritteFundación Joan Miró, Barcelona Solo
1998René MagritteThe Menil Collection, Houston, TX Solo
1996René MagritteDie Kunst der Konversation, K20 Grabbeplatz, Dusseldorf Solo
1996MagritteThe Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, QC Solo
1994René Magritte - Le Domaine EnchantéGagosian Gallery , New York City, NY Solo
1994Magritte Peintures et gouachesGalerie Ronny van de Velde, Antwerp Solo
1992MagritteThe Menil Collection, Houston, TX Solo
1992MagritteThe Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY Solo
1992MagritteHayward Gallery, London Solo
1992Rene Magritte. la période "vache"Musée Cantini, Marseille Solo
1991Da Magritte a MagritteGalleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Verona Solo
1990Réne MagritteMuseum voor Moderne Kunst, Oostende Solo
1989René Magritte: Late WorksThe Menil Collection, Houston, TX Solo
1989Rene MagritteFundación Juan March, Madrid Solo
1987Rene MagritteKunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich Solo
1987MagritteFondation de l'Hermitage, Lausanne Solo
1984René MagritteHenie Onstad Art Centre, Høvikodden Solo
1983René Magritte. Bildernas trohet. Filmkinematografi och fotografiModerna Museet, Stockholm Solo
1981Rene Magritte: Sixteen PhotographsHerbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, NY Solo
1979Retrospective Rene MagritteMusée National d´Art Moderne, Paris Solo
1978René Magritte: The Enchanted DomainHerbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, NY Solo
1977Magritte - rétrospectiveMusée d'art contemporain, Bordeaux Solo
1976Réne Magritte - Esprit de la géometriéGalleria L'Attico, Rome Solo
1973Rene Magritte: dessinsGalerie Schreiner, Basel Solo
1972René Magritte - Die acht BronzenGalerie Brusberg im Kubus, Hannover Solo
1969René MagritteKunsthaus Zürich, Zurich Solo
1969MagritteTate Britain, London Solo
1967René Magritte. RetrospektivModerna Museet, Stockholm Solo
1967Magritte: les images en soiGalerie Alexandre Iolas, Paris Solo
1966Rene MagritteNorton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, CA Solo
1966Rene MagritteThe Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL Solo
1966Rene MagritteRose Art Museum, Waltham, MA Solo
1965René MagritteMuseum of Modern Art, New York City, NY Solo
1965Rene MagritteGalleria del Naviglio, Milan Solo
1965Rene MagritteGalerie Rudolf Zwirner, Cologne Solo
1964Rene MagritteHanover Gallery, London Solo
1963René MagritteGalleria L'Attico, Rome Solo
1962MagritteGalleria Schwarz, Milan Solo
1962The vision of Rene MagritteWalker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN Solo
1961MagritteGrosvenor Gallery, London Solo
1961MagritteGrosvenor Gallery, London Solo
1960Rene Magritte in AmericaDallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX Solo