Magritte painted this darkly enigmatic Nu couché in the summer or autumn of 1928, during a transformative three-year stay in Paris, amidst the intellectual ferment of the surrealist circle, that saw the first flowering of his highly personal visual language. “It is a singular piece,” David Sylvester has written, “which looks as if it could have been painted entirely, or almost entirely, from the model, who is manifestly Georgette Magritte” (op. cit., 1992, p. 316). There is nothing life-like, though, about her rigid immobility and mesmerized gaze, which evoke the trance-like states that the surrealists sought to induce as a means of accessing the unconscious.
Balanced incongruously on her nude body is an assortment of everyday objects, laid out with the eerie, unsettling precision of ritual implements upon an altar—“as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella,” the Comte de Lautréamont famously wrote in his macabre, proto-surrealist prose-poem Les chants de Maldoror. “The basic device was the placing of objects out of context,” Magritte later explained. “The objects chosen had to be of the most everyday kind so as to give the maximum effect of displacement. Such in general were the means devised to force objects of the ordinary to become sensational, and so establish a profound link between consciousness and the external world” (quoted in ibid., vol. V, pp. 20-21).
Magritte’s path to surrealism had begun in 1923, when he saw a reproduction of De Chirico’s 1914 masterwork Le chant d’amour. The Italian painter’s juxtaposition of unrelated objects struck Magritte with the force of an epiphany, revealing to him how art could be freed from strictly formal investigation and imbued with the power of poetry. In an autobiographical sketch published three decades later, Magritte recalled this moment of discovery: “The painter could not hold back his tears.” Having lost faith in the post-cubist aestheticism that informed his previous work, Magritte painted little for two years. “It was not until the latter part of 1925,” Sylvester has noted, “that he actually started painting in a way that fully reflected his new ideal of art: once he did so, he entered a period of nearly five years of unflagging inspiration” (ibid., p. 40).
Magritte’s correspondence suggests that he was personally acquainted with several leading surrealist voices, most notably the poets André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Benjamin Péret, prior to his move to Paris in autumn 1927. It was only after his arrival there, however, that he began to engage deeply with the visual artists of the surrealist circle, including Miró, Ernst, Arp, and Dalí, whose diverse approaches to image-making stimulated his own rapid creative evolution. “During his time in the French capital,” Josef Helfenstein and Clare Elliott have written, “Magritte became one of the most creative artists of the era, systematically challenging representation in painting in ways that no other artist had done before” (Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, exh. cat., New York, 2013, pp. 71-72).
In the present Nu couché, Magritte took as his ostensible subject the very artistic tradition that he and his surrealist colleagues sought to confront, destabilize, and ultimately subvert. The theme of the reclining nude is steeped in precedent, from the Venuses of the Renaissance through Goya’s Maja desnuda, Ingres’s Grande odalisque, and Manet’s Olympia. In Magritte’s surrealist re-envisioning of this venerable subject, he encoded the traditional relationship between artist and model in the various commonplace items arrayed on Georgette’s nude body. The open, rounded vessel on her belly functions as a symbol of femininity, the time-honored object of the artist’s desiring gaze, while the phallic lamp, strategically positioned on her pudendum, and the black felt hat, a precursor of Magritte’s trademark bowler, together represent a stand-in for the male painter himself.
The dark, moody tonality and boudoir setting of Le nu couché evoke the milieu of late 19th century naturalism, heightening the contrast of reality and fantasy that lends Magritte’s disconcerting juxtapositions of everyday objects their revelatory power. “The pictures painted from 1926 to 1936,” the artist later recounted, “were the result of a systematic search for a disturbing poetic effect which, produced by the deployment of objects taken from reality, would give the real world from which they were borrowed a disturbing poetic meaning through a quite natural interchange” (quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 2009, p. 284).