René Magritte's painted bottles are the most successful of his Surreal objects. According to the catalogue raisonné of his work, around 25 survive, with 21 listed. The present bottle is the only one of the 21 listed with the subject of the sky with two men walking. It is therefore much rarer than the subject of the nude women, of which ten are listed, or even the subject of the cave with fire, of which four exist. These bottles appear to have had their inception in the early 1940s, during the Occupation, and of all Magritte's painted objects, the bottle appears to be the most favoured, as it was the most frequent. Executed in 1964, this painted bottle, which was owned by one of Magritte's most important patrons, Barnet Hodes, is a reprisal of a painting from the previous year, La reconnaissance infinite, which featured on the cover of David Sylvester's monograph on Magritte, republished in 2009. This painted bottle, like that picture, shows two of the now-iconic bowler-hatted men who are so intrinsically linked to Magritte's legacy, seemingly wandering away, chatting contentedly, yet floating in the air against a cloud-flecked sky. The uncanny nature of their defiance of gravity is even underscored by the walking stick upon which one of the men leans, whose point is itself in mid-air. Discussing another painting that featured bowler-hatted men floating in the air, Golconde of 1953, Magritte explained:''Perhaps I put men where you don't expect to see them. But then man is in the sky too, isn't he?... Man is in the sky. The earth travels in the sky, and man is there on the earth... I think it is a marvel to travel through the sky on the earth' (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., rené Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, Antwerp, 1993, p. 206).
The pair of bowler-hatted men shown on this bottle also appeared in several other images, in which they featured, like some holy apparition, within the grains of a piece of wood, tiny homunculi enmeshed within the hard, organic fabric. This image of the bowler-hatted men floating through the sky on some magical excursion, by contrast, places them within the element of the air, flying with no effort, just as we ourselves tumble through the void while standing on our planet.
When Magritte adopted the bowler hat as a trope within his pictures, it was because of the sheer number of people who wore them. As Magritte explained, 'The bowler... poses no surprise. It is a headdress that is not original. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularise myself' (Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 206). Ironically, the same hat that he wore to escape attention has since then become a near signature, often identified largely with Magritte; this connection would be reinforced by his elusive self-portrait, Le fils de l'homme, painted the same year as this bottle, which showed a man with his face obstructed by a floating apple.
The idea of painting this image on a bottle, and therefore on a domestic scale on a domestic object, must have been perfectly suited to the unique collection that was accumulated by Barnet Hodes. A Chicago based enthusiast of Surrealist works, Hodes intrigued Magritte with his desire for a group of gouaches showing some of his best-known themes. Magritte retained a great deal of discretion in what he supplied to Hodes, and clearly enjoyed the challenge of recreating his works on a different scale, often with great variations. Nowhere is that sense of variation more clear than in this painted bottle, which contrasts greatly with the painting to which it is related.