Painted in 1946, Le somnambule represents the culmination of an idea René Magritte had been mulling over for almost two years. Writing to Marcel Mariën in June 1944, the artist recounted a vision he had experienced the night before, centred on a white owl standing on a plinth in a wooded landscape. The concept rapidly evolved, and just three days later he sent Mariën a postcard with a sketch closely resembling the present composition, explaining: ‘The picture with the owl has been changed and become an owl-portrait’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Oil Paintings and Objects 1931-1948, Antwerp, 1993, p. 341). Such animal portraits, in which familiar, typically domesticated, creatures were anthropomorphised through the addition of clothing and accessories, were of particular interest to the artist during these years, resulting in compositions such as La bonne fortune (Sylvester, no. 579) and Le civilisateur (Sylvester, no. 561). However, it was not until after the end of the Second World War that the artist achieved his vision for the present work, placing the owl in a domestic setting, standing beside a window through which rolling green fields can be glimpsed, and smoking a pipe. Describing the work in his publication Titres, Magritte explained that the bird, usually associated with watchfulness and knowledge, remains oblivious to the situation it finds itself in: ‘The owl, like the sleepwalker, is unaware of the actions it is carrying out. Unwittingly, it is smoking and its eyes are open’ (Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 372).
It was this addition of the pipe, such an iconic motif within the artist’s oeuvre, that appears to have sparked Magritte’s imagination once again in 1946, bringing the idea for the portrait of the owl finally to fruition. The distinctive shape of the pipe, clutched within the owl’s sharp beak, harks back to Magritte’s celebrated 1929 composition La trahison des images (Sylvester, no. 303), which through its clever inclusion of the statement ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ below a painted image of the object in question revealed the impossibility of reconciling language, images and their subjects. Challenging the linguistic tradition of identifying an image as the object itself, the work was highly provocative. As the artist later explained: ‘The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe,” I’d have been lying!’ (Magritte, quoted in C. Vial, ‘Ceci n’est pas René Magritte’, in Femme d’Aujourd’hui, July 6, 1966, pp. 22-24). Recurring again and again in various scenarios and contexts throughout Magritte’s oeuvre, the simple image of the pipe became a symbol for the artist’s explorations into perception. In Le somnambule, the addition of the pipe not only adds to the anthropomorphic character of the owl, enhancing its ‘humanness’ as it were, but also delivers a jolt of incomprehension to the viewer that leads them to question the impossibility of the scene before them.
Le somnambule was purchased directly from the artist by his close friend and fellow Belgian Surrealist, the poet Louis Scutenaire. Scutenaire had been inducted into the circle of Surrealist writers and artists active in Brussels in 1926 after sending samples of his automatic poetry to Camile Goemans and Paul Nougé, who introduced the poet to Magritte. Over the ensuing years, the friendship between the two blossomed, with Magritte contributing illustrations to a number of Scutenaire’s publications, while the poet in return provided suggested titles for over 170 of the artist’s compositions and wrote several important texts on his work. Through the 1930s and 40s, both Scutenaire and his wife, the writer Irène Hamoir, served as models in many of the artist’s staged photographs, including the image which inspired the nightmarish scene in La gravitation universelle (Sylvester, no. 518). Drawn to the artist’s unique brand of mystery, Louis and Irène also became important patrons of Magritte’s work, assembling a collection of over a hundred of the artist’s compositions. Describing the aspect of Magritte’s artistic musings which appealed so strongly to his imagination, Scutenaire wrote: ‘Here are all our familiar objects though: that chair, which should be inviting us to rest, that fruit, which should be quenching our thirst, that overcoat, which should be protecting us from the chill of age and dusk; all the usual adjuncts of our daily life, but here presented in such a way that if we then turn back and look at the world again, something that was so banal that it no longer existed for us, suddenly acquires such formidable and fascinating density that we cannot even guess what new relationships we may form with it. The universe is changed; nothing is ordinary any more’ (Scutenaire, quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 37).
Le somnambule was included in Magritte’s landmark solo exhibition at the Galerie Dietrich in Brussels in November 1946. Showcasing examples of the artist’s most recent work, this exhibition was intended to launch and promote the artist’s distinctive new approach to Surrealism, for which he coined the term Le Surréalisme en plein soleil. Featuring oils and gouaches on an unusually large scale, the show included reinterpretations of familiar themes alongside original motifs, all captured in this light-filled colourful manner. For the catalogue, Magritte’s friend Paul Nougé wrote an endorsement of the new vision, celebrating the ecstatic freedom so in evidence in works such as the present composition: ‘Magritte’s purpose, our purpose, has not changed. The world around us seems to be becoming smaller, shrinking, shrivelling into a thin black and grey system, in which signs take predominance over things. Our constant ambition, then, is to restore to this world its brilliance, its colour, its provocative force, its charm and, in a word, its unpredictable combinatory possibilities. There are no longer any forbidden feelings, even if they respond to the names: serenity, joy and pleasure. And if, occasionally, we come upon “beauty”, like Stendhal we promise it as a poignant promise of happiness’ (Nougé, quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, p. 137).