The present picture is one of only five self-portraits that Magritte ever painted. It was commissioned by Harry Torczyner, who first proposed the work to Magritte in a letter written on 28 June 1963. In Magritte's reply, dated 2 July, he explained to Torczyner:
Your idea for 'a portrait of the artist' raises 'a problem of conscience': it has happened (three times) [sic] that I have put myself in a picture, but the intention at the start was to paint a picture, not to do a portrait. I am able (or rather have been able) to paint a few portraits which were intended as such, but if the subject is myself, my visual appearance, this raises a problem that I am not sure of being able to resolve. I will of necessity have to think about it, since the problem has arisen. I cannot promise to get the better of it by the end of this year! However, it would be in the order of things for inspiration--which happens spontaneously--to occur before then. (Quoted in D. Sylvester et al., op. cit., p. 400)
According to Sylvester and Whitfield, Magritte in fact only discovered a solution to this problem in April 1964 when he made the gouache Le got de l'invisible (fig. 1); Magritte did not initially conceive of the gouache as a self-portrait, but soon realized it provided the perfect imagery for Torczyner's commission.
Magritte had completed Le fils de l'homme by the time of Torczyner's visit to Brussels in the last week of July 1964. Torczyner received the painting in New York before 13 August when he wrote to Magritte to announce its safe arrival.
Four earlier oil paintings by Magritte have been identified as self-portaits: Tentative de l'impossible, 1928 (Sylvester, no. 284; Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels); La lampe philosophique and La clairvoyance, 1936 (Sylvester, nos. 399 and 419; private collections); and Le sorcier, 1951 (Sylvester, no. 766; Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels). In addition, Le thrapeute (lot ???) may be a kind of self-portrait, since Magritte posed for a photograph based on the picture (see lot ???, fig. 1). It is striking that the titles of all these paintings refer to magical powers. Throughout his career Magritte repeatedly emphasized his fascination with the shamanistic force of art. For example, in his famous lecture La ligne de vie, delivered in 1938, he stated that he was attracted to art as a child because "painting seemed to me magical and the painter to be gifted with superior powers" (quoted in ibid., vol. II, p. 68); and he also said that in art "it is the power of enchantment which matters" (quoted in S. Gablik, Magritte, New York, 1985, p. 172). Le fils de l'homme is the most enigmatic and mysterious, the most haunting and magical of all his self-portraits.
The tension between the visible and the hidden, so evident in Le fils de l'homme, is a central theme in Magritte's art and the source of the power of many of his pictures. With reference to the present image, Magritte said:
Those of my pictures that show very familiar objects, an apple, for example, pose questions. We no longer understand when we look at an apple; its mysterious quality has thus been evoked. In a recent painting, I have shown an apple in front of a person's face... At least it partially hides the face. Well then, here we have the apparent visible, the apple, hiding the hidden visible, the person's face. This process occurs endlessly. Each thing we see hides another, we always want to see what is being hidden by what we see. There is an interest in what is hidden and what the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a fairly intense feeling, a kind of contest, I could say, between the hidden visible and apparent visible. (Quoted in H. Torczyner, op. cit., 1977, p. 170)
Magritte appears to have thought very highly of Le fils de l'homme. He even imitated it in three portrait photographs made in the mid-1960s (figs. 2-4).
Like other members of his Surrealist circle in Brussels, Magritte chose to dress and live in a deliberately staid and bourgeois manner. The bowler hat was a key part of his conservative costume. As he explained to Life magazine in 1965:
The bowler is a headdress that is not original: it poses no surprise. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularize myself. If I wanted to create a sensation in the street, I would dress for it. But I don't want to. (Quoted in R. Magritte, Ecrits complets, Paris, 1979, p. 612)
Magritte typically asked his close friends to suggest titles for his works. Concerning the present picture, he explained to Bosmans:
For the picure of 'the apple in front of a man's face' Scutenaire and I tried to find a title, and it was his wife Irene (alias Irine) who thought of 'the son of man,' which was recognized as being excellent and definitive. (Quoted in D. Sylvester et al., op. cit., p. 400)
'Son of man' is, of course, a name for Jesus Christ in the New Testament, but Magritte repeatedly said he did not intend its use here to have any theological meaning. Nevertheless, David Sylvester has written:
The fact is that the objects he chose to attach to the bowler-hatted men are often irredeemably symbolic objects. The son of man has a symbol of the Fall before his eyes, another the symbol of the Holy Ghost... It is fitting. Magritte behaves like God. He makes fire burn without consuming, puts boulders in the sky, pins clouds to the ground, turns men to stone, makes stone birds fly, forbids us to look upon his face, etc. (D. Sylvester, op. cit., exh. cat., London, 1969, p. 14)
(fig. 1) Ren Magritte, Le got de l'invisible, 1964.
Zen International Fine Art, Tokyo.
(figs. 2-4) Magritte, mid-1960s.