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René Magritte (1898-1967)
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René Magritte (1898-1967)

L’ombre céleste

Details
René Magritte (1898-1967)
L’ombre céleste
signed ‘Magritte’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
21 ¼ x 28 ¾ in. (54 x 73 cm.)
Painted in October 1927
Provenance
Galerie L’Epoque, Brussels (acquired from the artist).
Pierre Janlet, Brussels (acquired from the above, by February 1929).
Alex Storck, Brussels and New York (acquired from the above, September 1959).
New Art Center, New York (acquired from the above, 1961).
Donald and Elizabeth Straus, New York (acquired from the above).
By descent from the above to the present owner, November 1976.
Literature
Cahiers de Belgique, December 1928, p. 379 (titled L’Epouvantail).
Letters from Goemans to Janlet, 2 February 1929.
The Artist’s Handlist, 1942.
A. Breton and G. Legrand, L’Art magique, Paris, 1957, p. 44 (titled Le Passant).
D. Sylvester, René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, oil paintings, 1916-1930, New York, 1992, vol. I, pp. 236-237, no. 168 (illustrated, p. 236).
Exhibited
Brussels, Galerie L’Epoque, René Magritte, January 1928, no. 13 (titled L’Epouvantail).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, December 1936-January 1937, no. 408.
Tokyo, Nippon Salon; Kyoto; Osaka and Nagoya, International Exhibition of Surrealism, June 1937 (illustrated pl. 79; illustrated again on the cover).
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, René Magritte, May-June 1954, p. 24, no. 20 (illustrated, p. 25; titled L’Epouvantail (L’ombre céleste)).
Charleroi, Salle de la Bourse, XXXe salon du Cercle Royale Artistique et Littéraire de Charleroi, March 1956, no. 42 (titled L’Epouvantail (L’ombre céleste)).
Special notice

On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.
Sale room notice
Please note the correct estimate for this work is $2,200,000-3,000,000 rather than $2,000,000 - $3,000,000.
Please note this lot should have a diamond third-party symbol in the catalogue.

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

Donald and Elizabeth Straus were generous philanthropists and both devoted their lives to the arts, education and public service. Beth Straus was a passionate art collector and joined the Board of the Museum of Modern Art in 1959, served as a trustee for over 55 years, and was a member, then Chair of the International Council. Together they were instrumental in building the museum’s permanent collection through their own gifts as well as helping with new acquisitions. Beth was well-known for her passion for horticulture and as a long-time Board member of the New York Botanical Garden she is credited with having secured significant donations—most notably from David Rockefeller for the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, which is now home to more than 600 varieties of roses.
Donald Straus was an influential leader with an extraordinary range of endeavors and involvement in organizations which reflected his humanitarian interests and commitment to public service, including the American Arbitration Association, of which he was President, Planned Parenthood Federation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to name only a few. Donald was descended from the family that owned R.H. Macy’s, the iconic New York department store, founded by Donald’s grandfather, Isidor Straus. Donald’s grandparents, Isidor and Ida Straus, were remembered for having perished on the Titanic after allowing others to have their places on a lifeboat.
Beth and Donald Straus’ collecting interests spanned the 20th century, including Modern, Impressionist, American and Post-War paintings, drawings, and sculpture, many of which were given to institutions such as The Pierpont Morgan Library, the Museum of Modern Art, Harvard University, and the Fogg Art Museum.
L’ombre céleste was acquired by Beth Straus in the early 1960’s from the New Art Center in New York, a testament to her informed eye and keen sense of quality. In the note for Magritte’s L’ombre céleste in his catalogue raisonné, David Sylvester states that this painting remained untraceable after the New Art Center, New York, acquired it in 1961. It was in fact in the possession of Donald and Beth Straus, until the present owner received it, by descent, from them in 1976.
A fragment of sky with ambling clouds has been torn, as it were, from the ether above, and set up against a brick wall; the bright light may appear to be projected upon it, but emanates from within. The intangibly celestial quality of the free sky is here juxtaposed by way of hard and abrupt contrast with the impenetrably solid façade of a man-made barrier, an imprisoning wall. There are always multiple ways to read a Magritte, and here, indeed, arising from this implausible and surreal event, is a profoundly simple visual conundrum that rivets one’s gaze. The presence of shadow appears to indicate that the sky, loosely configured in the shape of a standing man, is superimposed on the wall; but one is also inclined to view the sky as if seen through a gap in the wall, occupying the space beyond, implying a dimension as infinite as it is ungraspable.
Magritte painted L’ombre céleste (The celestial shade) in 1927; David Sylvester dated it to the first half of October of that year (cat. rais., op. cit., 1992, p. 237), that is, only a few weeks following the artist’s arrival, with his wife Georgette, in Paris, for a stay that lasted until they returned to Brussels in July 1930. “Magritte’s time in Paris was the most prolific chapter of his life,” Josef Helfenstein and Clare Elliott have written. “In total, he painted approximately one hundred seventy-five works in less than three years. It was arguably also the most innovative period of his career... During his time in the French capital, 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., the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013, pp. 71 and 72).
In L’ombre céleste Magritte has employed a compositional element he introduced into his painting during 1925-1926, while working in Brussels: the cut-out form, which, while it may suggest an empty or negative space, a state of insubstantiality, is nonetheless configured to act as if it were a palpably distinct object, being or persona, an pictorial agent in its own right. The device of the cut-out form, and its insertion into the composition as painted découpage, is a frequent feature in Magritte’s Paris paintings, an idea which may be cited among the other pictorial innovations that the artist employed during this period, such as his extensive use of word-play, partitioned canvases, and paintings within paintings, means by which he contributed further layers of paradox and convolution to the already elevated state of intellectual discourse among the poets and painters in the surrealist circle.
The cut-out technique as Magritte practiced it is a later and sophisticated derivation from the cubist papier collé which Braque and Picasso invented during the fall of 1912, which was itself the next giant step that followed up Picasso’s first collage on canvas done earlier that year. This technique established the fundamental conceptual principle that enabled artists to mix and mingle even the most ordinary things, creating relationships among dissimilar elements or highlighting those contrasts between them. They might apply this method more generally to any kind of visual idea, encompassing even the most disparate aspects of reality. Magritte, who had painted as a cubist during 1920-1924, and admired the collages of Max Ernst, realized how he might expand the visionary scope and content of Surrealism by using the synthetic method of the cubist papier collé technique. He produced about thirty works of this kind between 1925 and the end of 1927 (Sylvester, vol. IV, nos. 1599-1628).
“Scissors, paste, images and genius in effect superceded brushes, paints, models, style, sensibility and that famous sincerity demanded of artists,” Magritte declared in his text La ligne de vie, 1938 (trans. D. Sylvester, cat. rais., op. cit., vol. 5, 1997, p. 16). The making of papiers collés led him to the idea of translating the effect of collage into his painting, and in this way Magritte’s fundamental manner of handling content during the Paris period rapidly evolved, ever so assured and fully realized in its conception and execution as oil paintings on canvas. Ernst commended Magritte, “whose pictures”–he observed–“are collages entirely painted by hand,” for this achievement (quoted in P. Allmer, René Magritte: Beyond Painting, Manchester, UK, 2009, p. 119).
Magritte observed that “the outlines of the parts of objects that we see in the real world are contiguous as if the parts formed a mosaic” (ibid., p. 20). The more subtle approach by which such objects could be brought together was that of metamorphosis, in which things “change into something else; an object fuses with another object... It seems to me that this is something quite different from the meeting of two objects, for here there is neither a break nor a boundary between the two materials” (Letter to Paul Nougé, 1927, quoted in J. Meuris, René Magritte, Cologne, 2004, p. 51). The more dramatic method–“given my intention,” as Magritte declared, “to make the most everyday objects shriek aloud”–was that in which the cut-out element is painted directly into the composition (as described above), with the painter making no effort to disguise its contours. Indeed, Magritte would actually emphasize the hard edges of the superimposed image to create the most jarring pictorial effect.
Painted in the latter manner, L’ombre céleste is all the more powerful in its impact. Here Magritte availed himself of the most extreme means at his disposal “to force objects out of the ordinary, to become sensational,” as he wrote, “and so establish a profound link between consciousness and the external world... As for the mystery or enigma constituted in my pictures, I say that it was the best possible proof that I had broken with that whole pattern of absurd mental habits which so often replaces an authentic feeling of existence... This pictorial experience confirms my faith in the unknown possibilities of life. All these unknown things that are coming to light convince me that our happiness too depends on an enigma inseparable from man and that our only duty is to try to grasp this enigma” (ibid., pp. 20 and 22).
Artist photograph: René Magritte with Le Barbare, painted in Paris, 1927, destroyed during World War II; London, 1938. Photograph collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Barcode: nyrpheeg
[FIG A] René Magritte, Découverte, Paris 1927. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Barcode: nyrpheeh
[FIG B] René Magritte, Les idées de l’acrobate, Paris, 1928. Pinakothek der Moderne, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich. Barcode: nyrpheei
[FIG C] René Magritte, Tentative de l’impossible, Paris, 1928. Toyota Municipal Museum of Fine Art, Tokyo. Barcode: nyrpheej
[FIG D] René Magritte Le sens popre, 1929. The Menil Collection, Houston. Barcode: nyrpheek

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