RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
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RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)

Le principe d'Archimède

RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
Le principe d'Archimède
signed 'Magritte' (lower left)
gouache on paper
6 x 7 in. (15.1 x 17.8 cm.)
Executed in 1952
Pauline Davis, and thence by descent; sale, Christie's, New York, 5 November 2003, lot 129.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Letter from Magritte to Gasparo del Corso, 6 November 1952.
Letter from Magritte to Gasparo del Corso, 11 December 1952.
D. Sylvester, ed., S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. IV, Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés 1918-1967, London, 1994, no. 1339, p. 146 (illustrated).
Rome, Galleria dell'Obelisco, Magritte, January - February 1953, no. 20.

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Ottavia Marchitelli
Ottavia Marchitelli Senior Specialist, Head of The Art of The Surreal Sale

Lot Essay

The apple was among the most frequent and recognisable of René Magritte’s leitmotifs, appearing in various guises throughout his oeuvre. Rendered with careful precision, this quotidian fruit reappeared in numerous roles in his paintings, from a large stone statue set amidst an empty landscape, to a mysterious masked entity who seems to eye us suspiciously or, perhaps most famously, suspended in mid-air in a position that perfectly hides the face of a man wearing a bowler hat. For Magritte, it was the simple familiarity of the apple which allowed it to achieve such a powerful effect when placed in such unexpected situations. ‘My paintings portray such familiar things: an apple, for instance, makes us ask questions,’ he explained. ‘We don’t understand any more when we see an apple: all that is mysterious about it has been evoked’ (interview with J. Neyens; quoted in A. Blavier, ed., René Magritte: Écrits complets, Paris, 2001, p. 603).
In Le principe d’Archimède, created in 1952, Magritte casts a group of perfectly formed green apples as players in a seemingly impossible scenario, that appears to subvert one of the fundamental laws governing the universe. The title invokes the principle of Archimedes – named for the Ancient Greek physicist, engineer, astronomer, inventor, and one of the most celebrated mathematicians of antiquity – which states that a body immersed in fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the displaced fluid. Equally applicable to gases as well as liquids, this concept explains the buoyancy of vessels in water, balloons in the air, and the apparent loss of weight of objects underwater. Here, however, Magritte’s apples defy the central tenets of Archimedes’ principle, in that they are heavier than the air they displace and should therefore not be able to float. In this vibrant gouache, however, the apples rise up from the plain wooden tabletop and execute a perfect arc in mid-air, apparently holding their position effortlessly as they hover in place. To further accentuate the strange effect conjured by this manoeuvre, Magritte allows the cluster of fruit resting in the compotier at the centre of the composition to remain perfectly still, rooted in place by gravity.
The idea of studying the phenomenon of flotation may have taken root in Magritte’s mind while the artist was exploring possible ideas for his contribution to the March 1950 edition of the Brussels Surrealist review La feuille chargée, which featured a series of texts on the theme of ‘Le Bouchon’ (‘The Cork’). Within a few short months he had painted an oil version of the present subject, also titled Le principe d’Archimède (Sylvester, no. 728; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven). According to Magritte, the title had been chosen following a suggestion by the poet Marcel Mariën, and he completed the painting by mid-August 1950. The present gouache version was painted two years later, probably in the autumn, and shows the evolution of the theme in Magritte’s mind over the intervening years. Whereas the earlier oil painting arranged the floating apples in a strict geometric pattern, framing the compotier in a pair of evenly spaced, rhythmic rows, in 1952 the artist took a more playful approach, setting the orb-like fruit in the air in a sweeping, perfectly formed arch that recalls the act of juggling. By selecting apples to achieve this effect, Magritte may have also been invoking the memory of another famous physicist, Isaac Newton, whose discoveries were inextricably linked in the public consciousness with the image of one such piece of fruit falling to the ground. Here, however, they remain suspended in the air, floating in a manner that invokes and then challenges Archimedes’ theories.
The present Le principe d’Archimède also exhibits a lighter, fresher palette than its oil counterpart, executed in vibrant hues and delicately textured brushwork that highlight Magritte’s use of gouache. Light gleams off the surface of the apples, their smooth, bright green forms exhibiting no visible flaws or quirks, though subtle variations in their leaves and stalks lend them a sense of individuality. Most likely inspired by an illustration from the pages of a botanical or fruit catalogue, several of which were found among the artist’s possessions, rather than from life, these apples feel at once familiar, and yet uncanny in their perfection. However, it is their placement within the scene – hovering impossibly in mid-air – that causes the most startling jolt of awareness in the viewer. By drawing our attention to one of the most fundamental, unseen forces that governs our everyday experiences, Magritte forces us to consider anew our passive acceptance of this scientific fact and instead appreciate the inherent magic of the world around us.

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