Rene Magritte


Early Days

Early Days

Besides Dalí, René François Ghislain Magritte was another major leader of surrealism. It took the world almost a quarter of a century to recognise his work as both philosophical and political, not just plain weird. Art was one of the ways he brought across his views about the world around him, particularly of the second half of the twentieth century.

Magritte was born in a small town in Belgium named Lessines on the 21 November 1898, the eldest of three boys. He began painting at a young age, and knew he wanted to be an artist from his first ever art lesson. By the age of 11, he had completed his first oil painting.

The first major event in his life was the death of his mother. She committed suicide by throwing herself into the River Sambre in 1912, although the reason why was never found. This tragedy affected Magritte in a clear way, as many of his early works showed the river.

When Magritte was eighteen he left high school to studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels for two years until 1918. Many other institutes had been closed to the First World War, and thus Magritte came to know many other young artists, musicians and writers. There he learnt the usual techniques of figurative art.

Before surrealism, Magritte took interest in the movements of cubism and futurism (a movement that rejected all tradition and emphasised the modern themes of machine and motion). Many of the artists he met at the Académie were these kinds of artists, such as Pierre Flouquet, and they influenced him. His first art exibition was in 1920, when he showed his early futuristic work.
However, he abandoned both cubism and futurism, when in 1922, he discovered the work of Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico’s style was very surreal, with images composed of strange subjects. This was Magritte’s first experience with surrealism, and he was deeply affected by it, particularly the painting, “Song of love”. Magritte had found his true calling.

1922 was also the year he married. He first met Georgette Berger in 1914, though he had to leave her behind when he enrolled to the Académie. After meeting her by chance in an art supplies store in 1920, he finally married her two years later and she became his muse.

Up until 1926, Magritte worked in a wallpaper factory, a similar job to his wife who was a wallpaper artist. He designed posters and wallpaper, although in later years he revealed he hated the decorative arts, and detested his past. In 1923, his first painting was sold, than finally, in 1926, he made a contract with Galerie la Centaure, Brussels, which allowed him to work as a full-time painter.

He also met André Breton in 1926, the founder of the surrealist movement. He joined this movement in 1927, and for 3 years he worked along side the likes of Dalí, Breton, and Paul Eluard in Paris.


From 1926 onwards, Rene Magritte began painting the images that made him famous: his surreal paintings. Surrealism was the art movement that explored themes created by dreams or the unconscious mind. The main way surrealist artists created their work was to use a method Dalí named “Paranoiac Critical”. This allowed them travel to an alternate place, and wander across their empty canvas. This created something from their unconscious mind, seemingly strange to others who viewed it.

However, Magritte did not need to travel into his unconscious. “To him this world was a more than adequate source of lucid revelations, so that he did not need to draw on dreams, hallucinations, occult phenomena, cabalism.” (Quote from "Rene Magritte", by Abraham Marie Hammacher.) But the state before waking, “preconsciousness” did play an important role in his art.

Consequently, Magritte was quite different in his style to Dalí. Whereas Dalí would perceive something normal as quite different (most commonly “melting” an object, or making it quite flexible), Magritte would take a normal object and place it in a strange situation that would give them a different meaning.
To give an example of this, take the image to the left, The Treachery Of Images (La trahison des images) painted 1928-1929. The painting is of a pipe, yet below it translates as ‘this is not a pipe’. At first this seems like a contradiction, but in reality, the statement is correct: it’s a picture of a pipe, not a pipe itself.

He would also, which infuriated critics, refuse to give a reason for why his artwork came into creation. Magritte said, “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.”

Magritte's Le Jockey Perdu (The Lost Jockey), in 1926, which according to him, was his first successful surreal painting. It is another example of his realistic objects in bizarre situation. All the images such as the jockey are in strong detail, showing his clear mastery of art, yet what music has to play in the image, forming trees, is a mystery.

In 1927, Magritte held a one-man exhibition in Brussels. Like all artists, he had critics and admirers. He displayed 61 paintings, of which some were surreal. The critics were not favourable on his work. Depressed, he left his home in Brussels, and moved to Paris with Georgette, joining the Surrealism movement.

Magritte painted many surreal works during his time with the movement. However, in 1930, he was forced to leave, and move back to Brussels, due to financial troubles. The Galerie la Centaure closed, that had allowed him to work as a full-time painter, and though he was doing quite well, having sold eleven of his latest works, he had no choice but to resume his advertising job. Still, while with the surrealists, he had found his style, and this changed very little for the rest of his life.

Although Magritte did attempt to change his style, experimenting in the late 1940s. From 1945 to 1947 he experimented with a style that was similar to fauvism. His friends called the paintings “vache” which means “cowlike” or crude, so this became known as his “cow period”. Magritte’s paintings were comical, ironic of the French fauvist style. It is not surprising he wished to lighten his mood in the dark period after the Second World War.

However, the style created much uproar. The French public found them offensive, and this quick, thick brush-stroke style did not go down well with his surreal admirers. Magritte never took criticism well, and soon reverted back to his old style.

The Empire of Lights. (1954). A typical picture of a house, but with a twist. There is a sharp contrast between day and night in the picture, making it seem shocking. Magritte’s paintings often showed ordinary things, but such things that together triggered bizarre situations that force the viewer to think about them.



Although Magritte’s surreal style never changed during his life after his attempts in the 1940s, in his final years, he did try out sculpture. He created surreal sculptures, based on images from his previous paintings. His sculptures were usually made of bronze, although some were also embossed with gold.

The Labours of Alexander. Made in 1967, like most of his sculptures, it was made from bronze. The sculpture is 61 cm in height. It is very carefully created, with much detail. The image shows the impossible – a tree’s roots holding the axe that cut it down.
The White Race. Made in 1967 from bronze, it is 58 cm tall. It is a fragile structure created by human senses. Does it show the order of the senses, with sight being the most important?
The Natural Graces. A bronze sculpture again made in 1967. It is 107 cm tall. For me, this is the most important of Magritte’s sculptures, as it is most similar to my own. The sculpture shows leaves turning into birds, and morphing will be an important aspect of my piece. However, I think I will, as Magritte did with the other two examples, have no base to my art if I can. I think any form of base would ruin the entire composition.


Magritte died of cancer on the 15th of August 1967 in Brussels. He was buried in Brussels’ Schaarbeek Cemetery, 69 years old.

Although my favourite surrealist will always be Dalí, Rene Magritte was a talented artist, and his style, though quite different to Dalí’s, is interesting and very thought provoking.
Throughout his life he created over a thousand drawings and paintings, made several sculptures, and took many photos and wrote essays for art magazines. Like Dalí, his work will live on forever.


Magritte – Marcel Paquet

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This page was created by Elizabeth Taylor, 11W, Kirk Balk School. You are free to use any of this, but please don't just copy large chunks into your own work.
Created: 29th October 2005. Last revised: 29th October 2005.