René Magritte was born in 1922 even if his vital statistics may claim otherwise. This, in fact, was the year when, aged 24, he discovered a reproduction of Giorgio De Chirico’s Song of Love, through his ill-intentioned friends Marcel Lecomte and E.L.T. Mesens, themselves already steeped in surrealism. “My eyes saw thinking for the first time,” explains the young artist who, prior to this life-changing experience, tended to practise decorative painting and to create billboard illustrations – more as a means of expression than out of necessity, given that his father’s flourishing business activities ensured him the trappings of a bourgeois lifestyle, which he would never really leave behind. A world of bowler hats, no less.


Still, it’s difficult to say that Magritte had a cloudless childhood. He was 14 years old when in 1912, his depressive mother, probably fed up with her husband’s philandering, threw herself into the River Sambre in Belgium’s Pays Noir (Black Country). This drama would have an impact on his work even if he denied all psychoanalytical interpretations of it: commentators are fond of seeing a connection between the many veiled faces he painted, and the dressing gown covering the face of his drowned mother when her body was discovered…

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At the end of 1915, René Magritte, raised by nannies and a literary diet of R.L. Stevenson, Edgar Poe, Gaston Leroux and the comic series Les Pieds nickelés, gave up his studies at the Athenaeum in Charleroi, to settle on Rue du Midi in Brussels, not far from the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, where he would sit in on classes until 1919 – though on a far from conscientious basis. He nonetheless attended classes taught by symbolist painter Constant Montald and Art Nouveau poster designer Gisbert Combaz.

Anarchist writer Georges Eekhoud, who taught French there until his dismissal in the middle of World War I, would also have a deep influence on Magritte. Among other students, he namely formed ties with Paul Delvaux and Pierre-Louis Flouquet, with whom he made his first steps in cubism and futurism. He also took part – alongside brothers Pierre and Victor Bourgeois, respectively a filmmaker and an architect – in the publication of the magazine Au Volant, and other avant-garde publications, most of which didn’t survive for long, but still helped to contribute to the development of these artistic movements in Belgium.

RENÉ MAGRITTE. "Jockey perdu" (1926). Image via: RENÉ MAGRITTE. "Jockey perdu" (1926). Image via:

Georgette and Giorgio

On a sentimental level, at the start of the 1920s, René Magritte by chance came across his childhood sweetheart Georgette Berger at the Jardin des Plantes in Brussels. They married on 28 June 1922, and he would have no other muses. With Georgette and Giorgio De Chirico, all elements were in place for the painter to really take off. His debut flight would be his Jockey perdu (1926), a nod to – and a hyphen between – Dada, metaphysics and surrealism.

GIORGIO DE CHIRICO. "Le chant d'amour" (1914). Image via: esquizonauta GIORGIO DE CHIRICO. "Le chant d'amour" (1914). Image via: esquizonauta

In the mid-1920s, while producing numerous illustrations for films, the theatre, the automobile industry and major Belgian brands, he helped set up a surrealist group in Brussels with other leading figures such as Paul Nougé, André Souris, Louis Scutenaire and Irène Hamoir.

Read more about the surrealist movement here.

In 1927, he moved to Perreux-sur-Marne, in France, where he notably met André Breton, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and took part in artistic and intellectual activities with them until 1930. The Depression called him back to Belgium, for even if he no longer had any business dealings in his natal country, his renown there had already soared.

In 1933, he held an exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-arts in Brussels, and three years later, his first solo exhibition in New York, at the Julien Levy Gallery. The next year, he visited London, giving lectures and showing works at the London Gallery, owned by his friend and compatriot Mesens. He would also fall out, then make up with Breton, contribute to or head up new surrealist publications, and also produce hundreds of works. Brimming over with poetry, decoys, trompe-l’œil and wit, these works, beneath their harmless childlike and bourgeois appearances, veered towards subversion and anarchy. Through the corrosive humor of his painting bordering on absurdity, Magritte worked at destroying the foundations of all conventions of the so-called modern world.

Covering his tracks

The German invasion prompted Magritte to leave Belgium in May 1940. He lived in Carcassonne, France, for a few months, joined by some of his Belgian surrealist friends, whose communist tendencies were already flagrant.

Back on home territory, René Magritte would radically change his style in the mid-1940s, drawing inspiration from impressionist techniques while continuing his research into illusions. This so-called “Renoir” period – even if the painter himself refuted the term – would be followed by what was known as the “cow” phase giving rise to forty or so lurid paintings and gouaches attesting to purely surrealist influences and aiming, once again, to cover his tracks.

In the 1950s and 1960s, several Magritte retrospectives were organized throughout the world, namely in the United States (MoMA, Chicago, Berkeley, Pasadena…) where the artist enjoyed huge popularity. In November 2017, his work L’Empire des lumières (1949) set a new sales record at Christie’s New York when it went for $ 5,429,000. This, after Christie’s London, in February of the same year, had sold La Corde sensible (1960) for $ 18,400,000.

Realised prices for René Magritte at auction.

René Magritte died on 15 August 1967 and was buried beside his wife at Schaerbeek cemetery, near Brussels. At the Magritte Museum, part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, the Belgian capital shows off a large proportion of works by this surrealist painter who exemplified this Belgitude that is so hard to define. But that well and truly exists.

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