RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
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RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
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Property of a Private Collector
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)

L’empire des lumières

Details
RENE MAGRITTE (1898-1967)
L’empire des lumières
signed 'Magritte' (lower right); titled and dated '"L'EMPIRE des LUMIÈRES" 1949' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
19 1⁄8 x 23 1⁄8 in. (48.5 x 58.8 cm.)
Painted in 1949
Provenance
Alexander Iolas Gallery, New York (acquired from the artist, August 1949).
Hugo Gallery, New York (acquired from the above).
Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York (acquired from the above, 30 March 1950).
Louise Auchincloss Boyer, New York (gift from the above, December 1950).
Gordon Auchincloss Robbins, New York (by descent from the above, July 1974).
Louis K. Meisel Gallery, New York (acquired from the above).
Daniel Filipacchi, Paris (acquired from the above, 1974).
Byron Gallery, New York (by 1978).
Private collection (acquired from the above, 1981); sale, Christie's, New York, 13 November 2017, lot 12A (world auction record for the artist at the time of sale).
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
Letter from R. Magritte to A. Iolas, 8 August 1949.
Letter from R. Magritte to A. Iolas, 2 March 1950.
Letter from A. Iolas to R. Magritte, 7 April 1950.
Magritte, exh. cat., Hugo Gallery, New York, 1951, no. 8 (illustrated on the back cover).
H. Michaux, “En rêvant à partir de peintures énigmatiques” in Mercure de France, December 1964, pp. 593-594.
C. Bussy, “L’accent grave: Emission radiophonique” in Le fait accompli, nos. 19-20, April 1969.
Peintures de l'imaginaire: Symbolistes et Surréalistes belges, exh. cat., Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1972, p. 118.
J. Vovelle, “Peintres de l’imaginaire: Symbolistes et surréalistes belges” in Cahiers d’histoire de l’art
contemporain, no. 2, March 1973, p. 34.
D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Oil Paintings, Objects and Bronzes, 1949-1967, London, 1993, vol. III, pp. 4-5, 10, 17, 77, 145, 157, 162, 187, 200, 210, 222, 227, 228, 261, 368 and 387, no. 709 (illustrated in color, p. 145).
S. Gohr, Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, New York, 2009, pp. 224-226 (illustrated in color, p. 225).
C. Haskell, René Magritte: The Fifth Season, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2018, p. 126 (illustrated in color, pl. 51).
Exhibited
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts and Paris, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Rétrospective Magritte, October 1978-April 1979, p. 224, no. 145 (illustrated in color; detail illustrated in color on the cover).
Milan, Galleria del Milione, Magritte: Il buon senso e il senso delle cose, May 1984, p. 51, no. 11 (illustrated in color, p. 37).
Sale room notice
Please note that this painting has been requested by the Musée royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique for their forthcoming exhibition Celebrating Surrealism in Brussels! to be held from February-July 2024.

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

Lot Essay

In 1949, René Magritte began to explore an intriguing new idea that had been occupying his imagination for some time. The resulting composition, known as L’empire des lumières, marked the arrival of a motif that quickly became one of the Belgian Surrealist’s most celebrated and iconic subjects. The present work is the very first oil painting Magritte completed under this title, and represents a landmark moment in his career. Filled with a rich sense of mystery that confounds and beguiles in equal measure, it focuses on the juxtaposition of a landscape bathed in deep shadow with the blue expanse of a day-lit sky above, a seemingly impossible collision of day and night in a single moment. The motif quickly became popular and between 1949 and 1964 Magritte created a total of seventeen versions in oil, with several more iterations in gouache, on the theme of the L’empire des lumières. Each subtly different from the next, with intriguing variations and diversions from canvas to canvas, these paintings demonstrate Magritte’s endless spirit of invention, as he probed the rich poetic potential of this deceptively simple subject.
As Magritte explained, the power of works such as L’empire des lumières lay in transforming the familiar, everyday world in unexpected ways: “For me it's not a matter of painting ‘reality’ as though it were readily accessible to me and to others, but of depicting the most ordinary reality in such a way that this immediate reality loses its tame or terrifying character and presents itself with mystery” (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 203). Executed with a precision and attention to detail that only reinforces the uncanniness of the scene, the L’empire des lumières paintings offer an elegant summation of Magritte’s unique form of Surrealism, reveling in a game of unexpected contradictions, in which all is familiar and yet ultimately strange, and the ordinary is rendered extraordinary.
The idea behind the L’empire des lumières series appears to have been percolating in Magritte’s mind for several years prior to his first painting on the theme. While staying with the collector Edward James in London during the spring of 1937, Magritte gave a presentation at Roland Penrose’s London Gallery in which he discussed “certain features peculiar to words, images and real objects” (quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., op. cit., 1993, vol. III, p. 53). In one example early in the discussion, the artist cited the opening line of André Breton’s poem L’Aigrette (from Terre de clair, 1923): “If only the sun would shine tonight” (ibid.). The following year, the artist created a gouache entitled Le Poison (Sylvester, no. 1142; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) in which a row of buildings took on the appearance of the night sky, dotted with constellations of stars and a delicate crescent moon, transforming the bricks and mortar streetscape into an evocative, otherworldly vision of the cosmos.
In this way, Le Poison was a continuation of Magritte’s different translations and juxtapositions of the sky—from his earliest Surrealist paintings it was a recurring character in his work, its familiarity allowing him to investigate the world of appearances, and question our understanding of its properties. Magritte used the ubiquitous sight to generate impossible scenarios, as in his famed oiseau de ciel, a magical bird, captured mid-flight, which appears to be cut from the sky itself, its body filled with a pale blue sky and soft, fluffy clouds. In the L’empire des lumières paintings the sky is once again an essential tool in Magritte’s elegant disruption of our understanding of the world around us. With these works he adopts a subtle evocation of the dichotomy of night and day, simplifying the concept explored in Le Poison to create a composition that is all the more unsettling for its quiet strangeness.
With the present L’empire des lumières, Magritte solidified his ideas and set forth many of the defining elements of the motif, depicting a quiet, suburban cobbled street bathed in deep shadows. Modest houses face outwards towards the viewer, some of their curtained and shuttered windows faintly lit from within, while a single lamppost, shining forth like a beacon, offers the only illumination along the darkened avenue. The setting for this scene is a well-maintained, bourgeois quarter of town, not dissimilar to Magritte’s own street, rue de Esseghem in Brussels. However, the artist imbues the composition with an extraordinary sense of mystery by altering one key element within the scene. The velvety black shadows suggest the hour is late and despite the illumination from within, no figures appear to move through the houses, nor the streetscape. Instead, the viewer is the only witness to the mysterious vision that hovers above the roof- and treetops. No moon or stars are visible, as expected; instead, a blue, sunlit sky dotted with lazily drifting white clouds serves as the backdrop to this mysterious, nocturnal landscape.
Magritte discussed the idea behind his L’empire des lumières paintings in a commentary written for a 1956 television program, later published in the exhibition catalogue Peintres belges de l’imaginaire: “For me, the conception of a picture is an idea of one thing or of several things which can be realized visually in my painting. Obviously, all ideas are not ideas for paintings. Naturally, an idea must be sufficiently stimulating for me to get down to painting the thing or things that inspired the idea. The conception of a painting, that is, the idea, is not visible in the painting: an idea cannot be seen by the eyes. What is depicted in the painting is what is visible to the eye, the thing or things that had to inspire the idea. So, in the painting L’empire des lumières are things I had an idea about—to be precise, a nocturnal landscape and a sky above in broad daylight. The landscape evokes night and the sky evokes day. This evocation of day and night seems to me to have the power to surprise and enchant us. I call this power ‘poetry.’ I believe this evocation has such a ‘poetic’ power because, among other reasons, I have always been keenly interested in night and in day, although I’ve never had a preference for one or the other. This intense personal interest in night and day is a feeling of admiration and astonishment” (“L’empire des lumières” April 1956, reproduced in K. Rooney and E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte: Selected Writings, Minneapolis, 2016, p. 167).
In the L’empire des lumières paintings, Magritte adopts a subtle, yet compelling approach in his evocation of the dichotomy of night and day, simplifying the concept to create a strikingly familiar, yet impossible scenario. To this day, it serves as a powerful illustration of his extraordinary ability to deploy symbols of a normal, ordinary, conventional life to contradictory ends: to surprise, unsettle and reconfigure the viewer’s expectations and thus, their experience of everyday reality. It was an aspect of the L’empire des lumières series that André Breton recognized as inherently Surrealist in spirit, stating: “To [Magritte], inevitably, fell the task of separating the ‘subtle’ from the ‘dense,’ without which effort no transmutation is possible. To attack this problem called for all his audacity—to extract simultaneously what is light from the shadow and what is shadow from the light (l’empire des lumières). In this work the violence done to accepted ideas and conventions is such (I have this from Magritte) that most of those who go by quickly think they saw the stars in the daytime sky. In Magritte’s entire performance there is present to a high degree what Apollinaire called ‘genuine good sense, which is, of course, that of the great poets’” (“The Breadth of René Magritte” in Magritte, exh. cat., Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, 1964, n.p.).
After the present work’s completion, the image continued to live on in Magritte’s imagination, and had a profound impact on his own conception of reality: “After I had painted L'empire des lumières,” the artist explained in 1966, “I got the idea that night and day exist together, that they are one. This is reasonable, or at the very least it’s in keeping with our knowledge: in the world night always exists at the same time as day. (Just as sadness always exists in some people at the same time as happiness in others). But such ideas are not poetic. What is poetic is the visible image of the picture” (quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1992, no. 111). The idea proved incredibly popular with the artist’s collectors, leading to a number of direct commissions for new versions. However, Magritte was adamant that each work should evolve naturally from his own artistic pondering, writing to Iolas “I have to find a way of justifying the replica in my own mind” (quoted in C. Greenberg and D. Pih, eds., Magritte A-Z, London, 2011, p. 49). In each iteration he made subtle alterations, experimenting with the particulars of the scene, amplifying different aspects of the landscape, subtly adjusting the colors of the sky or the density of the clouds, even expanding the sense of space and recession within the picture. Different architectural styles were adopted in some versions, providing unexpected hints as to the location of the setting, or the socio-economic status of the residents, while the towering trees that surround the building began to take on a distinct sense of individuality and character from one canvas to the next.
As David Sylvester recorded, the inaugural work in the series, the present L’empire des lumières, was named as one of three the artist sold to his dealer Alexandre Iolas on a statement of account dated 8 August 1949 (op. cit., 1993, vol. III, p. 145). Iolas shipped the painting in September to the Hugo Gallery, New York, of which he was director. Nelson A. Rockefeller, then chairman and president of Chase National Bank in Rockefeller Center, while also serving in similar roles at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchased this L’empire des lumières from the Hugo Gallery on 30 March 1950. That Christmas, he gave the picture as a gift to Mrs. Louise Auchincloss Boyer, his secretary, who later became his executive assistant when he served as Governor of New York State during 1959-1973. Subsequent versions of the L’empire des lumières motif were acquired by many of the artist’s most important and active patrons, including Jean and Dominique de Menil—who donated one work from the series to The Museum of Modern Art in New York, before promptly requesting another from Magritte for their own collection—Harry Torczyner, Peggy Guggenheim, Barnet Hodes, the composer Richard Rogers, and the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Positioned at the very beginning of this iconic series, the present L’empire des lumières is a pivotal work, revealing the earliest evolutions of this profoundly mysterious motif in Magritte’s imagination, as he wrestled with how to bring his vision to life on the canvas.

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