Artists' Quotes: René Magritte

René Magritte - Personal Values, 1952
René Magritte (Belgian, 1898-1967). Personal Values, 1952. Oil on canvas. 80.01 x 100.01 cm (31 1/2 x 39 3/8 in.). Purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. © Charly Herscovici, Brussels - 2011© VBK Vienna, 2011

René Magritte (1898-1967) dressed like a banker, painted at his dining room table, and had little to say about himself; he preferred to let his work take center stage without commentary. We, however, crave to hear him speak -- we seek glimpses into his mind -- in an attempt to understand his paintings. What precious gems did Magritte drop when he did talk? Read on.

On Artists

  • Between ourselves, it's terrible what one lays oneself open to when drawing an innocent picture.

    On Art

    • Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.

    On His Art

    • I cannot paint until I have the complete picture in my mind.
    • My art is only valid insofar as it resists bourgeois ideology, in the name of which life is extinguished.
    • My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, "What does that mean?" It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.
    • I caused the iron bells hanging from the necks of our admirable horses to sprout like dangerous plants at the edge of an abyss. -- Magritte expounding on his fondness for putting jingle bells in his paintings
    • One night, I woke up in a room in which a cage with a bird sleeping in it had been placed. A magnificent error caused me to see an egg in the cage, instead of the vanished bird. I then grasped a new and astonishing poetic secret, for the shock which I experienced had been provoked precisely by the affinity of two objects -- the cage and the egg -- to each other, whereas previously this shock had been caused by my bringing together two objects that were unrelated. -- speaking about Elective Affinities (1933)
    • In front of a window seen from inside a room, I placed a painting representing exactly that portion of the landscape covered by the painting. Thus, the tree in the picture hid the tree behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was both inside the room within the painting and outside in the real landscape. -- speaking about The Human Condition (1934)
    • I decided to paint the image of a locomotive (...) in order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery -- the image of a dining room fireplace -- was joined. -- speaking about Time Transfixed (1938)
    • This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us. I call this power poetry. -- speaking about his Dominion of Light series
    • At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It's something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present. -- speaking about The Son of Man (1964)

    On His Childhood

    • As a very young person, around six or seven years. I attended later the Athenaeum of Charleroi and I liked much to draw and paint. My mother had died when I was very young. My father liked my drawings, my painting ... he was benevolent and encouraged my vocation. -- interviewer Michael Georis, of the newspaper Le Peuple, had asked Magritte, "When did you start you to draw, to paint?"
    • During my childhood, I liked to play with a little girl in the abandoned old cemetery of a country town... We used to lift up the iron gates and go down into the underground vaults. Once, on regaining the light of day, I noticed an artist painting in an avenue of the cemetery, which was very picturesque with its broken columns of stone and its heaped-up leaves. He had come from the capital; his art seemed to me to be magic, and he himself endowed with powers from above. Unfortunately, I learnt later that painting bears very little direct relation to life, and that every effort to free oneself has always been derided by the public. Millet's Angelus was a scandal in his day, the painter being accused of insulting the peasants by portraying them in such a manner. People wanted to destroy Manet's Olympia, and the critics charged the painter with showing women cut into pieces, because he had depicted only the upper part of the body of a woman standing behind the bar, the lower part being hidden by the bar itself. In Courbet's day, it was generally agreed that he had very poor taste in so conspicuously displaying his false talent. I also saw that there were endless examples of this nature and that they extended over every area of thought. As regards the artists themselves, most of them gave up their freedom quite lightly, placing their art at the service of someone or something. As a rule, their concerns and their ambitions are those of any old careerist. I thus acquired a total distrust of art and artists, whether they were officially recognized or were endeavouring to become so, and I felt that I had nothing in common with this guild. I had a point of reference which held me elsewhere, namely that magic within art which I had encountered as a child.

      On Seeing

      • Everything tends to make one think that there is little relation between an object and that which represents it.
      • If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but thinking of the question that has been raised. The mind sees in two different senses: (1) sees, as with the eyes; and (2) sees a question (no eyes).
      • I have found a new potential inherent in things -- their ability to gradually become something else. This seems to me to be something quite different from a composite object, since there is no break between the two substances.
      • We are surrounded by curtains. We only perceive the world behind a curtain of semblance. At the same time, an object needs to be covered in order to be recognized at all.

      On Collage

      • Scissors, paste, images, and genius in effect superseded brushes, paints, models, style, sensibility, and that famous sincerity demanded of artists.

      On Surrealism

      • The Surreal is but reality that has not been disconnected from its mystery.
      • To be a surrealist means barring from your mind all remembrance of what you have seen, and being always on the lookout for what has never been.
      • I leave to others the business of causing anxiety and terror and mixing everything up.

      On Human Beings

      • Our secret desire is for a change in the order of things.
      • There are some men here on earth who know what true intellectual honesty is and who want no part of this inertia nor expect any help from it. The countless others are indifferent, passive, clumsy calculators, or dishonest. Their number is not enough to make them right.

        On Life

        • I, for my part, have come to grips with the fact that I will lead a rather unglamorous existence to the very end.
        • Life obliges me to do something, so I paint.


        Gablik, Suzi. "A conversation with René Magritte." Studio International. 1976; 173:128-131

        Gablik, Suzi. Magritte.
        New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

        Magritte, René. Les Beaux Arts (Brussels), no. 164, May 17, 1935, p. 15

        Magritte, René. "Nous n’Avons Pas Choisi Le Folklore," 1949

        Magritte, René and Harry Torczyner. Letters Between Friends.
        New York: Harry N Abrams, 1994.

        Torczyner, Harry. Magritte: Ideas and Images.
        New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977.

        Torczyner, Harry. Magritte, The True Art of Painting.
        New York: Abradale/Abrams, 1985.

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        Esaak, Shelley. "Artists' Quotes: René Magritte." ThoughtCo, Feb. 1, 2012, Esaak, Shelley. (2012, February 1). Artists' Quotes: René Magritte. Retrieved from Esaak, Shelley. "Artists' Quotes: René Magritte." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 24, 2017).