Painted circa 1962, Le domaine d’Arnheim is one of a number of inter-related compositions of the same title in which René Magritte explores a series of strange, but possible, contrasts centred upon the magisterial view of an eagle-shaped mountain. The epic scale and undeniable romantic grandeur of this painting’s magical mountain imagery is counterbalanced by the presence of a small, simple still-life which rests on a low wall in the foreground of the composition, where a trio of bird eggs, cradled within a shallow nest, rest quietly under the watchful gaze of the mountain-eagle. This dramatic exercise in strangely logical polarities so appealed to Magritte that, between May 1938 when he painted this first version of Le domaine d’Arnheim (Sylvester, no. 456) and 1962 when he painted the last iterations (Sylvester, nos. 960, 1510 and 1518), the artist repeated this haunting theme multiple times under the same title.
Marking a seamless fusion of the images of a bird, the sky, an egg and a mountain into one imposing landscape vista, Magritte’s Le domaine d’Arnheim pictures are, in part, an extension of the German Romantics’ fascination with the natural sublime, transformed through the power of the human imagination. Here, the picturesque vista of the Alpine landscape is recontextualised, combining the motifs of still-life, landscape and figurative painting into a uniquely disturbing poetic vista. Magritte appears to have first had the idea for creating a landscape painting in which the form of a mountain took on the image of a bird around 1926 when he came across a photograph of the Alps in a travel brochure (illustrated in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, London, 1993, p. 219). His first tentative image of a bird mountain makes its debut in his work in the background of and early painting from 1926 entitled Les épaves de l’ombre (Sylvester, no. 102). It was almost ten years later that Magritte returned to the theme and in 1936 he made it the centrepiece of two small oil paintings to which gave the title Le précurseur (Sylvester, nos. 417 and 418). All these works depict the bird-mountain without the added drama of the snow-encrusted cliffs which in the Le domaine d’Arnheim paintings lend the image its imperious sense of stark majesty.
I was trying to paint a mountain and thought of giving it a bird’s shape and calling this image Le domaine d’Arnheim, the title of one of Poe’s stories. Poe would have liked seeing this mountain (he shows us landscapes and mountains in his story)”
Writing to his patron Edward James in May 1938, while evidently still working on the first painting titled Le domaine d’Arnheim, Magritte told the Englishman that the idea for its title had come to him because of the sentiments expressed in Edgar Allen Poe’s story ‘The Domain of Arnheim’ or ‘The Landscape Garden’ as this story had also sometimes been known. His painting, Magritte wrote, has been made ‘in memory of the story by Poe, a man who, in my view, can give rise to thoughts such as the following: we move mountains so that the sun appears according to a specific wish’ (Letter to Edward James, 6 May, 1938, in ibid., p. 262). Magritte was not a ‘literary’ artist, as Robert Hughes has pointed out, ‘his work was more about situation than narrative [but] his titles were important to him, and they are never neutral. They were, so to speak, pasted on the image like another collage element, infecting its meaning without explaining it. They reflected his browsing in high and popular culture... The Domain of Arnheim... is the title of Poe’s 1846 tale about a super-rich American landscape connoisseur who creates a Xanadu for himself. “Let us imagine,” says Poe’s hero, “a landscape whose combined vastness and definitiveness - whose united beauty, magnificence and strangeness shall convey the idea of care, or culture… on the part of beings superior, yet akin to humanity…” Yes, one can well imagine Magritte liking that. His work too sets up a parallel world, extremely strange and yet familiar, ruled by an absolutist imagination’ (R. Hughes, ‘The Poker-Faced Enchanter,’ in Time, 24 June 2001).
In the present gouache, Magritte adds a pair of red curtains between the low wall and the mountains in the distance, lending the scene a further sense of drama. Indeed, these curtains evoke the world of the stage, enhancing the uncanniness of the surreal mountain landscape and allowing it to appear more like a backdrop or carefully crafted piece of scenery, than a real vista. Such drapery was a common tool in Magritte’s pictorial arsenal, inserted into compositions in a manner that complicates our understanding of the space depicted and indicates to the viewer that everything is not as it may seem at first glance. In this way, the curtain may be seen as a pictorial extension of the artist’s distrust in the very nature of perception itself, which led him to state: ‘Despite the shifting abundance of detail and nuance in nature, I was able to see a landscape as if it were only a curtain placed in front of me. I became uncertain of the depth of the fields, unconvinced of the remoteness of the horizon’ (quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., London, 1992, pp. 13-15).
Lot Essay Header Image: Double portrait of René Magritte, 1965. Photograph by Duane Michals. Photo: © Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.