Painted in 1942, La Constellation presents the viewer with a mysterious image: a sparse landscape is punctuated by a tree and, more importantly, by a tree-leaf, one of Magritte's most favored motifs. Above this scene is a curtain-like drape, recalling the Old Master trompe-l'oeil device; this in turn has, in its center, another of Magritte's celebrated subjects: the leaf-bird, which appears to hover while also recalling heraldic decoration. Within the composition of La Constellation, then, there are a series of poetic associations and interplays: the incongruous landscape emphasizes Magritte's explorations of the different qualities of trees, of leaves and by extension of the world itself. He has pulled us into a world rich with poetic possibility and thereby invited us to re-examine our understanding of the landscape of our existence which we all too willingly take for granted. This, then, is a painting brimming with optimism and potentiality.
Following on from the systemic investigations which had led to his first tree-leaf, in his 1935 painting La Géante, (D. Sylvester, vol. II, no. 362) Magritte has here taken the qualities and characteristics that define leaves, trees and birds and reconfigured them to engaging new effect. He has grounded the leaf with a trunk rooted in the soil; likewise the birds themselves appear earth-bound by dint of their new vegetal nature. Revealing some of these mysterious aspects of the tree, of flight and of the landscape, Magritte has provided us with a cue for a new appreciation of the world around us, encouraged by his idiosyncratic pictorial transformations. Discussing his pictures and their function, he explained that to portray the world around us as it appears to our eyes would teach us nothing at all. Art serves another purpose, of revelation rather than depiction. "To name the image of a tree 'Tree' is an error, a 'mistaken identity,' since the image of a tree is assuredly not a tree," Magritte wrote.
"The image is separate from what it shows. What we can see that delights us in a painted image becomes uninteresting if what we are shown through the image is encountered in reality; and the contrary, too: what pleases us in reality, we are indifferent to in the image of this pleasing reality if we don't confuse real and surreal, and surreal with subreal" (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 109).
La Constellation dates from a crucial period in the artist's life and career. It was during this time that Magritte was helping to collate information for the first monograph dedicated to him and published the following year; in 1942 he was involved in his first film; and from that year he also had a new dealer, Lou Cosyn. Magritte had met her several years earlier, but now she managed to set up a gallery with the assistance of one of the artist's other friends, Camille Goemans, her partner and later husband. La Constellation was therefore one of the first paintings to go through her hands; it was subsequently owned for over four decades by Elizabeth Arden, the celebrated cosmetics magnate who, alongside Singer and Coca-Cola, was once considered to be one of the three most recognisable American names in the entire world; it was through her ownership that La Constellation was on repeated extended loan to The Phoenix Art Museum.