In La belle captive (The Fair Captive), René Magritte presents, for the very first time, the image of a painted canvas standing on an easel and appearing to depict the exact same scene that its presence within the picture seems to obscure. This unsettling, but not impossible, picture-within-a-picture motif is one that was to become a familiar device, used often by Magritte on numerous later occasions throughout the rest of his career. As a result, La belle captive, painted in 1931, is an historic work. It is a painting that marks not only the inauguration of this idea in Magritte’s oeuvre, but also the culmination and final resolution of several prior attempts that the Belgian Surrealist had made at trying to successfully deconstruct and expose the conventions and artifice of the landscape tradition in painting.
From landscape paintings such as Les signes du soir and Panorama populaire of 1926 to Le point de vue in 1927 or Profonduers de la terre of 1930, Magritte had explored a variety of possibilities before settling upon the motif used in La belle captive. This painting makes use of an emphatically unremarkable, banal and even prototypical countryside scene in order to create its impact. Its scene is an almost stage-set-like landscape - a stereotype - into, and against, which the appearance of a completed painted canvas standing on an easel makes a startling intervention. Appearing to depict the exact same scene that its presence in the landscape obscures from the viewer, this picture-within-a-picture immediately exposes and makes plain the inherent artifice of all representation: what Magritte referred to as ‘la trahision des images’ or the ‘treachery of images’. The fact too, that it is apparently the whole of nature that is being depicted in this landscape painting also appears to suggest the idea that what we call ‘reality’ itself is nothing more than an artifice or a mere construct of our limited perception.
The title of the painting, with its play on the idea of painting’s supposed ability to ‘capture’ some slice of reality or some hidden truth, is also therefore an appropriate one. It is a title that Magritte was to use again in several later reworkings of the same theme of a simple landscape in which, through an apparent coincidence of viewpoint, its more-or-less, everyday scene of normality has become invested with mystery. Indeed, Magritte was to go on to create three further oils and four gouache paintings, all bearing the same title of La belle captive and all depicting, in one form or another, a canvas upon which the scene depicted appeared to represent the same (missing) part of the scene it conceals.
The theme of the hidden and the seen, of the visible, the non-visible and the invisible - of what a picture chooses to conceal and what it reveals - was a source of perpetual fascination to Magritte and a recurring theme of his work throughout his life. ‘I paint only the visible’, Magritte was later to point out, ‘It would be wrong therefore to look for the invisible…. However, there comes a time when one visible prevents you seeing another visible,’ (René Magritte, ‘Letter to Otto Hahn’, November, 1964, quoted in (D. Sylvester and S. Whitfield (eds.) René Magritte, catalogue raisonné, vol. III, Oil Paintings 1949-67, London, 1993, p. 401) This confrontation between the visible and the non-visible, between what is seen and what is hidden, was always, for Magritte, a struggle or conflict. But also one through which, he felt, he could illuminate the inadequacies of human perception and the wider mystery of reality itself.
The device of the picture-within-a-picture used in La belle captive, for example, was one that went on to provide Magritte with what he called ‘the solution’ to the ‘problem of the window’ in a series of later paintings to which he gave the title La condition humaine (The Human Condition). What intrigued Magritte about this motif that allowed the hidden or non-visible object to be represented, was not just that it cut across the supposed barrier between what is seen and what is hidden, but also that it enabled the thing represented to appear to be in more than one place at a time. In La condition humaine of 1933, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, for example, the tree in the painting appears to be also in the field outside the window as well as in the painting inside the house. In La belle captive, by contrast, it is another type of encounter that appears to have been depicted. The man walking out of the picture at its right-hand edge would appear to have just walked past the farmer leading his horse and cart into town and coming the other way. In fact, of course, we have no way of knowing if this apparent encounter ever took place or indeed, if the painted image of the town, (farmer, horse and cart included) is real or exists in any sense at all. The uncertainty or inherent falsity of things - of all these simplistic images; the tree, the bush, the painting, the buildings, figures, etc - is, as in so many Magritte paintings the true subject of his work.
David Sylvester and Sarah Whitefield have suggested that Magritte may have discovered the tautological motif of the completed canvas depicting the hidden scene in a diagram used to illustrate a treatise on perspective. Entitled, Traité pratique de perspective by A. Cassagne and published in Paris in 1873, this treatise was in use at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels when Magritte was a student there and may also, they suggest, have been consulted by Magritte when he was working on his painting La géante in 1931. This was a picture in which Magritte was obliged to construct a complex interior scene in perspective. The interior scene in the painting bears a close resemblance to another diagram in Cassagne’s treatise. Because this textbook elsewhere, also contains an illustration of a painter seated in a landscape before an exact two-dimensional, perspectival replica of the landscape in front of him, Sylvester and Whitfield suggest that Magritte may well have found the inspiration for La belle captive in this treatise while preparing to work on La géante. (See (David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield (eds.) René Magritte, catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Oil Paintings 1930-49, London, 1993, p. 176)
David Sylvester has also pointed out the close resemblance between La belle captive and another painting of 1932, L’ombre monumentale. This is a painting of identical dimensions and similar subject matter. Only on this occasion the simple landscape, with near-identical buildings has been invaded not by an object that illuminates and appears to reveal what is hidden, but one that obscures. It takes the form of a vast, nondescript sphere whose physical presence dwarfs everything else in such a way as to again expose the inherent artifice of the depicted landscape. Sylvester has argued that, if taken as a pair, these two paintings ‘complimentary existence could be read as an epigram about the relationship of painting to sculpture.’ (ibid )