Artists in 60 Seconds: René Magritte

René Magritte - The Human Condition, 1933
René Magritte (Belgian, 1898-1967). The Human Condition, 1933. Oil on canvas. 39 3/8 x 31 7/8 in. (100 x 81 cm). Gift of the Collectors Committee, 1987.55.1. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. © 2006 Charly Herscovici, London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

Surrealism

Magritte's Surrealism was unique and reflected his sense of humor. Rather than depicting fantastic creatures in fictional landscapes, he painted ordinary objects and people in realistic settings. The jokes were:

  • His arrangements were often impossible under the laws of physics.
  • The scale of these mundane elements was frequently (and deliberately) "wrong."
  • When words were painted -- as they were periodically -- you could bet they were a witticism of some sort.
  • For a good example of the last point, look at Magritte's famous The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe) from 1929. He very clearly wrote "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe") on it. Now, if you were like me taking a first glance at this painting, you might have said, "Oh, please, René! That is quite obviously a pipe."

    But look again: you can't pack it with tobacco, light it, and smoke it. Why? Because it is only a picture of a pipe. And there is the joke.

Date and Place of Birth:

November 21, 1898, Lessines, Hainaut, Belgium

René François Ghislain Magritte was the eldest of three sons born to Léopold (1870-1928) and Régina (née Bertinchamps; 1871-1912) Magritte.

Early Life and Training:

Aside from a few facts, almost nothing is known of Magritte's childhood. We know that the family's financial status was comfortable because Léopold, ostensibly a tailor, made handsome profits from his investments in edible oils and bouillon cubes.

We also know that young René sketched and painted early on, and began taking formal lessons in drawing in 1910 -- the same year that he produced his first oil painting. Anecdotally, he was said to be a lackluster student in school. The artist himself had little to say about his childhood beyond a few vivid memories that shaped his way of seeing.

Perhaps this relative silence about his early life was born when his mother committed suicide in 1912. Régina had been suffering from depression for an undocumented number of years, and was so badly affected that she was usually kept in a locked room. On the night she escaped, she immediately went to the nearest bridge and threw herself into the River Sambre that flowed behind the Magritte's property. Régina was missing for days before her body was discovered a mile or so downriver.

Legend has it that Régina's nightgown had wrapped itself around her head by the time her corpse was recovered, and an acquaintance of René's later started the story that he was present when his mother was pulled from the river. He was certainly not there. The only public comment he ever made on the subject was that he'd felt guiltily happy to be the focal point of sensation and sympathy, both at school and in his neighborhood. However, veils, curtains, faceless people, and headless faces and torsos did become recurring themes in his paintings.

In 1916 Magritte enrolled in the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels seeking inspiration and a safe distance from the WWI German invasion. He found none of the former but one of his classmates at the Academie introduced him to Cubism, Futurism, and Purism, three movements he found exciting.

On a less visionary note, he emerged from the Academie qualified to do commercial art. Although creating ads and designs can be boring, it is steady work. Commercial jobs kept Magritte's bills paid until, decades into the future, he was able to paint "seriously" full time.

Things Get Surreal:

Important Works:

  • The Menaced Assassin, 1927
  • The Treachery of Images, 1928-29
  • The Key of Dreams, 1930
  • The Human Condition, 1934
  • Not to be Reproduced, 1937
  • Time Transfixed, 1938
  • The Listening Room, 1952
  • Golconda, 1953

See pictures of René Magritte's work in the Special Exhibition Gallery René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle.

Date and Place of Death:

August 15, 1967, Schaerbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Magritte died of pancreatic cancer, and was buried in Schaarbeek Cemetery.

How To Pronounce "Magritte":

  • mag·reet

Sources and Further Reading:

Calvocoressi, Richard. Magritte.
London: Phaidon, 1984.

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

Paquet, Marcel. Rene Magritte, 1898-1967: Thought Rendered Visible.
New York: Taschen America LLC, 2000.

Go to Artist Profiles: Names beginning with "M" or Artist Profiles: Main Index