Rene Magritte (1898-1967), born Francois Ghislain Magritte, in Lessines, Belgium, was a leading painter and theorist of surrealism. He worked as a commercial artist for some years, at one time designing wallpaper - a dreary activity that had the virtue of teaching him about illusions of depth and the effects of repeated patterns.
The aspiring painter was influenced by orphic cubism and by futurism, but the surrealistic vistas and alien perspectives of Giorgio de Chirico had the most lasting impact on his art. By 1925 he was concentrating almost entirely on surrealist works.
He studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. His first one-man exhibition was in Brussels in 1927. At that time Magritte had already begun to paint in the style, closely akin to surrealism, that was predominant throughout his long career. A meticulous, skillful technician, he is noted for the extraordinary juxtaposition of ordinary objects in his paintings.
This juxtaposition is frequently termed magic realism, of which Magritte was the prime exponent. In addition to fantastic elements, he displayed a mordant wit, as in “Madame Récamier of David” (1951, private collection), in which an elaborate coffin is substituted for the reclining woman in Jacques Louis David's famous portrait. His first exhibition in the U.S. was in New York City in 1936. A retrospective show opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, in 1965 and toured the U.S. in 1966.
Almost all of Magritte's paintings feature some sort of visual paradox, a restless blue sky with a hole in it, a human body with a the head of a fish, a hat suspended in mid-air. His seas and skies seem bright and sunny, but there is a disturbing artificiality about the too-regular clouds and the too-glassy water. The point of this interplay between precisely drawn objects and abnormal settings and features is that the common-sense perception of reality is only one way of looking at the world. In “The Human Condition” (1934), Magritte forcefully demonstrates the paradoxes of perception by placing a painting showing a landscape view within the window overlooking an identical view.
Magritte's matter-of-fact way of depicting anomalies and incongruities in the fabric of reality often seems as humorous as it is disturbing. Many of his paintings are laden with visual jokes - such as the woman with a fish's head in “Le Chant d'Amour” (1948), who is simply a mermaid with the piscine half above instead of below. Underlying the humor, however, is a serious attempt to demonstrate the multifaceted character of perceived reality.