René Magritte. The Lovers. 1928. Oil on canvas, 21 3/8 × 28 7/8" (54 × 73.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Richard S. Zeisler. © 2024 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”1

In the echo of Belgian artist René Magritte’s words, the mystique of his painting The Lovers becomes immediately apparent. At first glance, the canvas appears to depict an ordinary display of affection: a couple occupying the center of the frame, positioned against a vast, seemingly infinite void, entwined in a passionate kiss. Images of kissing couples were, even in Magritte’s time, a cliché. But in Magritte’s hands, the cliché is promptly discarded. He disrupts our expectations by covering his subjects’ heads in suffocating cloth. The act is simultaneously intimate and distancing. Magritte turns the face—typically a window onto a subject’s thoughts and emotions—into a disorienting enigma that compels us to grapple with the tension between concealment and revelation. Are we truly connecting with others, or merely entangled in a web of illusion?

Magritte was no stranger to these diversions. With their birdcage bodies, levitating top hats, and green apple faces, Magritte’s paintings perform a visual sleight of hand. One of the early adherents of Surrealism, an avant-garde artistic movement sparked in 1924 by French artist and poet André Breton, Magritte emphasized the importance of the irrational and absurd as integral to our understanding of life. In the wake of World War I, Surrealism emerged as a response to psychological trauma and disillusionment, and a desire to explore the unconscious. Surrealist artists such as Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Joan Miró experimented with automatism, a technique described by Breton in the Manifesto of Surrealism as “the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns.”2 The subconscious would dictate the creative process, manifesting in dreamlike, hallucinatory imagery that blurred the boundaries between the conscious and unconscious. In a world often tethered to the mundane, Surrealism sought to challenge viewers’ perceptions of the conventional and encourage them to embrace the fantastical.

René Magritte. The Lovers. 1928

René Magritte. The Lovers. 1928

René Magritte. The False Mirror. 1929

René Magritte. The False Mirror. 1929

Nearly a century after its creation, art scholars and amateurs alike have offered various perspectives on the allure of The Lovers. A number of scholars posit that the symbolism of the shrouded figures derived from Magritte’s admiration of the pulp-fiction character Fantômas, a popular villain created by writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre in 1911. Fantômas was a cunning master of disguise who terrorized Paris and consistently executed unlikely escapes. In The Menaced Assassin (1927), Magritte alludes to Fantômas, adopting the arrangement of the two detectives positioned on both sides of the door frame from a scene in Louis Feuillade’s 1913 Fantômas film Le mort qui tue (The Murderous Corpse). Others believe that Magritte’s engagement with the surreal stemmed from his own life. At the age of 13, his mother committed suicide by drowning.3 When her body was discovered in the river Sambre, her face was veiled by her nightgown—a harrowing parallel to the imagery found in The Lovers.

What could the canvas be telling us? Magritte says nothing. The artist denied that his paintings had any meaning at all, saying, “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 it mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.” His refusal challenges the very notion of interpretation, asserting that the painting’s meaning is as nebulous as the veiled faces it portrays.

In the absence of any prescribed meaning, the fascination of his enigmatic work endures, requiring the viewer’s active participation. The cloth shrouding the faces of the couple transcends its material existence. On the one hand, its presence is an act of concealment, a deliberate obscuring of the recognizable; on the other, it is an invitation to delve into the concealed. It becomes a paradox, compelling us to grapple with Magritte’s intention and the elusive nature of love itself.

For me, despite Magritte’s disavowal of meaning, The Lovers emerges as an artistic interpretation of the act of loving: the yearning for intimacy, the challenges of communication, and the ongoing struggle with autonomy. Being intimate without ever truly touching, these lovers exist alone yet together. Magritte’s imagery compels us to question the depth and authenticity of our relationships. The masked lovers invite us to contemplate the masks we willingly or unwillingly wear. Visually narrating the walls erected by trauma, the painting urges us to consider the layers of protection we drape over our most vulnerable selves. The difficulty of connecting authentically is rooted in the inherent vulnerability it requires, and the unveiling of the self—literal or metaphorical—remains a universal human aspiration. The pursuit of connection remains a powerful incentive that propels us through the intricate twists and turns of our relationships. Through his elusiveness, Magritte reminds us that we do not look on as neutral observers, but as carriers of our experiences and perspectives. In the end, each viewer enriches the painting’s layers of meaning and contributes to an ongoing dialogue.

Special thanks to Anne Umland, The Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Senior Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture.

  1. René Magritte, in a 1965 radio interview with Jean Neyens, cited in Torczyner, Harry, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. Richard Millen (New York: Harry N. Abrams), 172.

  2. Breton, André, Manifesto of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972)

  3. Abadie, Daniel. Magritte. 1st English ed. New York, Distributed Art Publishers, 2003.