René Magritte

Biography of René Magritte

Despite being considered one of the greatest surrealist painters it was not until late middle age that René Magritte received the international acclaim his work had long deserved. Born in Belgium in 1898 to a wealthy Industrist, his early life was shattered by the suicide of his mother in 1912. From 1916-18 Magritte studied at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels although he left before finishing, believing it to be a waste of his time. Influenced by the Cubists, his work was similar to Pablo Picasso who at the time was a great influence on his work. His first view of Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico’s The Song of Love, had profound influence on his output, having been struck by Chirico’s distinctive use of imagery.


By 1922 René Magritte married the great love of his life, Georgette Berger, which precipitated him taking on a number of jobs to support himself and his family. One such job was at an advertisement agency working freelance as a poster designer. Although achieving a modicum of success in Belgium, he was generally poorly received until he moved to Paris and got in with the burgeoning scene of surrealists led by writer André Breton and painters Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró. His use of familiar even banal objects like pipes and bowler hats in bizarre contexts produced strange narratives of mystery and madness, that interrupted and arrested human perception.


By the 1930s René Magritte was beginning to become more noticed and he began exhibiting internationally including London and New York. Despite the horrors of World War II Magritte decided to pursue a more optimistic direction, refusing to be drawn into Surrealism’s attraction to dark chaos.


By the 1950s René Magritte was enjoying real success and took commissions, including painting a mural for the casino at Knocke-le-Zoute on the Belgian coast. He was famed for putting his own twist on famous paintings, such as in his work The Balcony—after a work by Edouard Manet of the same title—Magritte however, replaced the figures with wooden coffins. Thus challenging the viewer’s preconditioned perceptions of reality. The artist once answered his own question about the meaning of his paintings “It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing, it is unknowable.”


René Magritte died in 1967 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although severely ill he was able to travel to New York city to see a retrospective of his work at MoMA in 1965. The Magritte Museum opened in Brussels in 2008, and displays upwards of 200 original Magritte paintings, drawings, sculptures and limited edition prints. Collected throughout the world and featured in most major collections, Magritte was hugely influential and Andy Warhol as well as John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha have singled him out as a major influence. In 2006 The LACMA Los Angeles investigated the relationship between Magritte and contemporary art. 

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