RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
1 More
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
4 More
Surrealist Dream: The Shirley Ann and Frank Wozencraft Collection
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)

Les eaux profondes

RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
Les eaux profondes
signed 'Magritte' (upper right); signed again, dated, titled and inscribed '"LES EAUX PROFONDES" Magritte 1942' (on the reverse); signed and titled again 'Magritte "LES EAUX PROFONDES"' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
25 ¾ x 19 7/8 in. (65.3 x 50.3 cm.)
Painted in 1941
Lou Cosyn, Brussels (probably acquired from the artist).
Bodley Gallery, New York (by 1962).
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owners, circa 1965.
Letter from R. Magritte to M. Mariën, 31 May 1943.
M. Mariën, intro., Magritte, Brussels, 1943 (illustrated in color, pl. 4).
W. Chveck, Anacharsis, Antwerp, 1944, pp. 18-19.
R. Magritte, La Destination: Lettres à Marcel Mariën, Brussels, 1977, p. 54, letter no. 47.
D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 1992, pp. 256-257 and 327 (illustrated in color, p. 258).
D. Sylvester and S. Whitfield, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Oil Paintings and Objects, 1931-1948, London, 1993, vol. II, p. 289-290, no. 491 (illustrated, p. 289).
S. Barron and M. Draguet, Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2006, p. 21 (illustrated in color; dated 1942).
S. Gohr, Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, New York, 2009, p. 186, no. 262 (illustrated in color, p. 185).
A. Norasingh-Ertaud, ed., Magritte, Renoir: Le surréalisme en plein soleil, exh. cat., Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris, 2021, p. 36 (illustrated in color, fig. 20).
Brussels, Galerie Dietrich, Quelques peintres et sculpteurs exposent, November-December 1941, no. 13.
New York, Bodley Gallery, Magritte, October 1962, no. 6 (illustrated; dated 1942).
The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, René Magritte, March-April 1964, no. 28.
Houston, Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Secret Affinities: Words and Images by René Magritte, October 1976-January 1977, pp. 12 and 26 (illustrated, p. 12; dated 1942).
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts and Paris, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Magritte, October 1978-April 1979, no. 126 (illustrated).
London, The Hayward Gallery; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Houston, The Menil Collection and The Art Institute of Chicago, Magritte, May 1992-May 1993, no. 84 (illustrated in color).
Paris, La Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Comme un oiseau, June-October 1996, pp. 103 and 187 (illustrated in color, p. 103).
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, René Magritte, March-June 1998, p. 141, no. 128 (illustrated in color).
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences, November 2000-March 2001, pp. 314, 359 and 475 (illustrated in color, p. 359).
Mexico City, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, El mundo invisible de René Magritte, March-July 2010, p. 98 (illustrated in color, p. 99; illustrated in color again on the cover).
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Through the Eyes of Texas: Masterworks from Alumni Collections, February-May 2013, pp. 157 and 182 (illustrated in color, p. 157).

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Les eaux profondes is an iconic, enigmatic work within René Magritte’s oeuvre, steeped in the intense sense of mystery that defined his work during one of the most intriguing periods of his career. Created during the dark days of the German Occupation of Belgium in the Second World War, the painting plunges the viewer into the artist’s idiosyncratic world of poetic Surrealism, its confluence of familiar yet strange objects conjuring an uncanny, disquieting atmosphere. While Magritte had previously used the title Les eaux profondes ("Deep Waters") for a photographic portrait of his wife from 1934, here the phrase adds to the inscrutable atmosphere of the composition—the scene is at once eerily still and silent, yet brimming with a simmering tension beneath the surface. David Sylvester dated this work 1941, due to its inclusion in an exhibition held in November-December of this year at the Galerie Dietrich, Brussels. Magritte later inscribed 1942 on the reverse of the canvas.
Though widely exhibited throughout its history, Les eaux profondes has never before appeared at auction, having remained in the collection of Shirley Ann and Frank Wozencraft for the last half a century. The Wozencrafts were close friends of the legendary Houston collectors and patrons of art, John and Dominique de Menil. They acquired the present work from the Bodley Gallery in the mid-1960s, with the advice and guidance of the de Menils.
Like many of his Surrealist colleagues, the outbreak of the Second World War and the subsequent occupation of Belgium ushered in a period of great upheaval for Magritte. Less than a week after the German invasion, the artist left Brussels for France without his wife Georgette, who had been engaged in an affair with the Surrealist poet Paul Colinet and refused to accompany her husband. Magritte was particularly concerned that some of his previous political statements would provide the advancing army with grounds for persecution, and so he was among a small group of avant-garde writers and artists, including Paul Scutenaire and Raoul Ubac, who fled south together on 15 May 1940.
Traveling by taxi, tram and truck, they reached Lille, before proceeding onwards by train to Paris. From there, Magritte carried on to the celebrated walled city of Carcassonne, where he initially stayed with the poet Joë Bousquet. Magritte appears to have enjoyed the constant parade of personalities who passed through Carcassonne during these months, but soon decided to return to his native Belgium. After an arduous journey across the border, through a landscape now torn asunder by war, the artist arrived home and reconciled with Georgette.
In Brussels, Magritte appears to have largely escaped the troubles with the authorities that he had feared. Following a brief period of little artistic output, as he navigated the upheavals and hardships of the early months of the Occupation, the artist resumed painting and continued to explore new aspects of the mysterious dimension from which his images emerged. Though he never painted the war literally, throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s a distinct sense of foreboding and disquiet infiltrated his work. In Les eaux profondes, this feeling overwhelms the viewer as they contemplate the strange scene. Sporting a stylish black coat, pink dress and gloves, a mannequin-like female figure appears to hold herself perfectly still, her eyes cast downwards as she avoids the gaze of the enormous bird of prey perched on the tree trunk beside her. While there is a distinctly corporeal presence to the female figure, only her head remains visible, her features captured in what appears to be smooth, white stone or porcelain.
This sculptural element was directly modelled from a plaster cast of an unknown, Neo-Classical style bust, several of which the artist purchased from his sister-in-law’s store—the Maison Berger—for his personal collection of objects. Magritte, as David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield have pointed out, seems to have mistakenly believed his casts to be that of L’inconnue de la Seine, a hauntingly beautiful and notorious death mask of an unknown young woman of around sixteen years old who was believed to have drowned in the Seine in the 1880s (op. cit., 1993, p. 299). This event must have resonated with the artist given his mother's suicide by drowning in 1912. With its soft, youthful features, the plaster mask became a morbid object of fascination for a generation of Bohemians in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the inspiration for numerous literary works. For Magritte the sculpture’s intrigue lay in the unnatural stillness of the young woman’s features, at once lifelike and serene, yet cold and lifeless.
Les eaux profondes is the first painting in which this enigmatic plaster bust appeared in the artist’s oeuvre, suggesting it had only recently arrived in his studio. At some point in 1942, Magritte took the cast and deliberately disturbed its pure white surface, adding a large, dramatic bloodstain to one side of the face. Originating from an invisible wound at the temple, the garish mark partially covered one eye and the majority of its cheek, dripping downwards in thick rivulets to the jawline. Known only from a photograph taken by Marcel Mariën in 1943, which he titled Au temps de la mémoire, this original altered plaster cast appears to have been lost or destroyed shortly after its creation, but most likely provided the direct inspiration for the artist’s renowned sequence of paintings featuring a bleeding sculptural bust, entitled La Mémoire. The motif would become an important recurring subject in Magritte’s art over the ensuing years, appearing in various configurations and contexts, the shape and size of the bloodstain altering from one work to the next, while the rest of the face remained perfectly unblemished.
While the idea for the present composition may have been sparked by his initial encounter with this plaster bust, the placement and framing of the mannequin-like figure in Les eaux profondes demonstrates the lasting impact of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico’s pittura metafisica on Magritte’s unique brand of Surrealism. Indeed, Sylvester referred to Magritte’s discovery of De Chirico’s work as “one of the famous epiphanies in the hagiography of modern painting” (Magritte, Brussels, 2009, p. 71). It was De Chirico’s 1914 picture Le chant d’amour, with its strange juxtaposition of a marble bust, a ball and a surgeon’s glove set in an urban landscape, that had led Magritte to a seismic revelation when he first encountered the painting in the summer of 1923. Describing the impact of De Chirico’s strange, uncanny worlds, he wrote: “This triumphant poetry replaced the stereotyped effects of traditional painting. It represented a complete break with the mental habits peculiar to artists who are prisoners of talent, virtuosity and all the little aesthetic specialties. It was a new vision through which the spectator might recognize his own isolation and hear the silence of the world” (quoted in ibid., p. 71).
Though it would take several years for the artist to process this experience, it fundamentally re-orientated Magritte’s painterly style, instilling his work with a feverish new energy that led him to abandon the cubo-futurist vocabulary which had dominated his painting up to this point, and instead develop the disjointed and surreal visual world that would become his artistic trademark. Over the course of the following decade Magritte continued to refine his ideas, pushing the boundaries of his art in daring new directions. Nevertheless, De Chirico’s art remained an important touchstone—in Les eaux profondes, the anonymity of the female figure, her ambiguous hybridity, seemingly at once inanimate and yet infused by an inherently humanoid energy, suggests Magritte’s familiarity with De Chirico’s larger body of work, specifically his androgynous mannequin figures of the 1920s.
In a letter to Claude Spaak written during the opening days of 1941, shortly before he began work on Les eaux profondes, Magritte explained that his most recent compositions sought to reach a new level of clarity: “It is in short the ever more rigorous search for what, in my view, is the essential element in art: purity and precision in the image of mystery which becomes decisive through being shorn of everything incidental or accidental” (quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., The Hayward Gallery, London, 1992, no. 84). In this way, Magritte believed he could enhance the impact and disruptive power of his imagery, forcing us to question the order and stability of perceived reality. To this end, Les eaux profondes uses a deliberately pared-back iconography, reducing the scene to the unusual pairing of its central protagonists—the mannequin and the bird—who are presented against a plain masonry wall, a calm seascape visible through a window behind them. However, the scene is charged with a tense, unsettling atmosphere, the extreme proximity of these seemingly incongruous characters generating a somewhat perturbing sense of suspense, as we contemplate what may happen next.
The enormous bird appears decidedly imposing as it considers the mannequin closely, staring unflinchingly at her profile, while she appears to studiously avoid its eye, looking away from the beast. Though seemingly docile, its sharp beak and sizable talons offer a reminder of its potential for violence if provoked or startled, should the female mannequin transform into a flesh-and-blood woman, akin to the mythical Galatea. In turn, the woman’s smooth, white face appears exceedingly delicate against the powerful body of the bird, its surface easily damaged by a well-aimed blow or scratch. As such, the peace between the pair appears precarious, the quiet stillness of the scene containing the potential to explode at any moment. Though Magritte vehemently resisted the interpretation or analysis of his work, it is tempting to speculate that Les eaux profondes may allude to the context in which the painting emerged. Living in a city under occupation—where one wrong move could bring danger, violence and persecution to your door—the artist continued to work quietly, boldly unpicking and challenging our understanding of the world around us in ever more nuanced ways.

More from 20th Century Evening Sale

View All
View All