René Magritte. The False Mirror. 1929. Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 × 31 7/8" (54 × 80.9 cm). Purchase

“The painter’s art, as I see it, is about making poetic images visible.”

René Magritte

Clouds, pipes, bowler hats, and green apples: these remain some of the most immediately recognizable icons of René Magritte, the Belgian painter and well-known Surrealist. He produced a body of work that rendered such commonplace things strange, slotting them into unfamiliar or uncanny scenes, or deliberately mislabeling them in order to “make the most everyday objects shriek aloud.”1 With his pictorial and linguistic puzzles, Magritte made the familiar disturbing and strange, posing questions about the nature of representation and reality.

Magritte began his career as a graphic artist and quasi-abstract painter, but his work underwent a transformation in 1926, when he began to reinvent himself as a figurative artist. A key canvas in this project was The Menaced Assassin, his largest and most densely populated painting to date. Completed in 1927 and included in the artist’s first solo exhibition, at the Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels, it helped launch his career as a Surrealist painter whose interest in severing the links between surface and essence would remain a constant. Painted in the deadpan style that would become his hallmark, each figure appears as though in a state of suspended animation: a naked female corpse with blood at the mouth lies on a red chaise longue, while a suited man nearby listens to a phonograph. Two men in bowler hats flank the doorway, and three male heads hover outside the rear window. Cinematic in its staging, the scene suggests a menacing narrative, but the specifics remain elusive, the visual details hard to reconcile into a single, coherent storyline.

In September 1927, Magritte moved to Paris to be closer to the French Surrealist group. His three years there would be the most prolific of his life. Surrealism, a movement led by André Breton, sought to liberate the mind by subverting rational thought and giving free rein to the unconscious. Until the late 1920s, Surrealist painting had tended toward a style of biomorphic abstraction, often achieved through automatic techniques supposedly outside the artist’s conscious control, as advocated by Breton (and seen, for instance, in André Masson’s free application of gesso and sand in Battle of Fishes). Magritte, by contrast, pursued a figurative style that, in his words, “challenge[d] the real world” 2 through a naturalistic and highly detailed depiction of ordinary objects and subjects.

A signal development of Magritte’s time in Paris was his word-paintings, in which he sought to investigate the relationship between text and image, often breaking apart well-worn connections between the two. One such work, The Palace of Curtains, III, presents viewers with two representations of the sky: on the left, a shard of atmospheric blue; on the right, the corresponding noun, ciel (French for sky), written in the artist’s neat, firm script. Magritte thus divided a single concept into two, cleaving its visual and verbal signs into discrete, self-contained panels. Image and language interrupt one another, challenging artistic conventions of representation and urging viewers to ask which, if either, is more “real” than the other. With The False Mirror, Magritte posed a similar puzzle about observation. Here, an enormous eye fills the canvas, its iris a powder-blue sky dotted with clouds, its pupil a jet-black dot. The eye looks at the viewer, while the viewer looks both at and through the eye, as through a window, becoming both observer and observed.

Magritte reimagined painting as a critical tool that could challenge perception and engage the viewer’s mind. His was a method of severing objects from their names, revealing language to be an artifice—full of traps and uncertainties.

Note: The opening quote is from “Foreword,” in René Magritte, 1898–1967, ed. Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque and Frederik Leen (Ghent: Ludion, 2005), p. 11.

Natalie Dupêcher, independent scholar, 2017

  1. René Magritte, “La Ligne de vie” (1938), reprinted in René Magritte, 1898–1967, ed. Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque and Frederik Leen (Ghent: Ludion, 2005), 46.

  2. Magritte, “La Ligne de vie,” 45.

Wikipedia entry
René François Ghislain Magritte (French: [ʁəne fʁɑ̃swa ɡilɛ̃ maɡʁit]; 21 November 1898 – 15 August 1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist known for his depictions of familiar objects in unfamiliar, unexpected contexts, which often provoked questions about the nature and boundaries of reality and representation. His imagery has influenced pop art, minimalist art, and conceptual art.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
An influential figure in Surrealism, Magritte is now regarded as possibly the most important Belgian artist of the 20th century. Inspired by the works of De Chirico, in the 1920s he began to experiment with concepts of reality in his paintings, altering form and often creating entirely new objects, giving his work the mystical look of a riddle. By 1926 he became involved with the Belgian Surrealist movement, and later lived in Paris from 1927-1930, connecting with the Surrealists in that city and painting full-time. His work began exploring a disconnect between normal objects, or between text and what is shown, as with his work "Treachery of Images" where the image of a pipe is accompanied by the text "Ceci n'est pas une pipe". Possibly drawing from his experience in advertising, his work employed standard human types, such as his businessman wearing a bowler hat, whose image appeared in numerous works. Magritte had been fairly well-known due to his association with the French Surrealists, but did not become an internationally recognized artist until 1948, when he signed a contract with New York dealer Alexander Iolas. He died in 1967, several days after the opening of a major retrospective of his work. Comment on works: surreal scenes
Belgian, French
Artist, Cinematographer, Musician, Collagist, Graphic Artist, Painter, Photographer, Sculptor
René Magritte, Rene Magritte, Rene Francois Ghislain Magritte, René-François-Ghislain Magritte, Rene Magritt, René François Ghislain Magritte, Magritte
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


14 works online



  • MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art Flexibound, 408 pages
  • MoMA Now: Highlights from The Museum of Modern Art—Ninetieth Anniversary Edition Hardcover, 424 pages
  • Being Modern: Building the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 288 pages
  • Magritte's Apple Hardcover, 40 pages
  • Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 256 pages
  • Rene Magritte Exhibition catalogue, Clothbound, pages
  • Rene Magritte Exhibition catalogue, Paperback, pages

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