Please note that this painting has been requested by The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for their forthcoming exhibition René Magritte: The Fifth Season to be held in May-October 2018.
Between 1949 and 1964, Magritte painted seventeen versions in oil, with ten more in gouache, of the idea to which he referred as L’empire des lumières. The artist’s friend Paul Nougé, the leader of the Brussels Surrealist group, provided the title, for which the most appropriate English translation is “The Dominion of Light”. “English, Flemish, and German translators take [dominion] in the sense of ‘territory’,” Nougé noted, “whereas the fundamental meaning is obviously ‘power’, ‘dominance’” (quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, vol. III, p. 145).
The present L’empire des lumières is the very first oil painting that Magritte completed which bears this title. The idea in this picture quickly became popular, and during the next fifteen years the artist created variants based on this original conception, sixteen more canvases in all, for interested collectors.
Each successive picture displays the key elements in the present, original L’empire des lumières—a nocturnal street scene in a placid, well-maintained, bourgeois quarter of town, similar to the Magritte’s own rue de Esseghem in Brussels (some versions were given country settings), with eerily shuttered houses, some curtained windows faintly lit from within, and a single lamppost, shining forth like a beacon, the sole illumination along this darkened length of avenue. The hour is late, and most of the occupants are presumably abed. Only the onlooker is witness to the bizarre vision that hovers above the roof- and treetops—a night sky with neither moon nor stars, lacking the least hint of darkness. For as far as one can see, a blue, midday, sunlit sky with lazily drifting white clouds fills the ether expanse. In the characteristic, straightly descriptive manner in which Magritte painted this scene, all is as natural—but in myriad connotations, also as paradoxical—as night and day.
As David Sylvester recorded, this painting was named as one of three the artist sold to his dealer Alexandre Iolas, on a statement of account dated 8 August 1949 (ibid.). Iolas shipped the painting in September to the Hugo Gallery, New York, of which he was director. Nelson A. Rockefeller, then chairman and president of Chase National Bank in Rockefeller Center, while also serving in similar roles at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchased this L’empire des lumières from the Hugo Gallery on 30 March 1950. That Christmas, he gave the picture as a gift to Mrs. Louise A. Boyer, his secretary, who later became his executive assistant when he served as Governor of New York State during 1959-1973. Following Mrs. Boyer’s death in 1974, the painting became the property of her son Gordon A. Robins, and subsequently entered two further private collections, including that of the present owner.
Magritte discussed L’empire des lumières in a commentary written for a 1956 television program, later published in the exhibition catalogue Peintres belges de l’imaginaire, Grand Palais, Paris, 1972:
“For me, the conception of a picture is an idea of one thing or of several things which can be realized visually in my painting. Obviously, all ideas are not ideas for paintings. Naturally, an idea must be sufficiently stimulating for me to get down to painting the thing or things that inspired the idea. The conception of a painting, that is, the idea, is not visible in the painting: an idea cannot be seen by the eyes. What is depicted in the painting is what is visible to the eye, the thing or things that had to inspire the idea. So, in the painting L’empire des lumières are things I had an idea about—to be precise, a nocturnal landscape and a sky above in broad daylight. The landscape evokes night and the sky evokes day. This evocation of day and night seems to me to have the power to surprise and enchant us. I call this power ‘poetry’. I believe this evocation has such a ‘poetic’ power because, among other reasons, I have always been keenly interested in night and in day, although I’ve never had a preference for one or the other. This intense personal interest in night and day is a feeling of admiration and astonishment” (quoted in K. Rooney and E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte: Selected Writings, Minneapolis, 2016, p. 167).
The diurnal antipodes of day and night have long served as poetically symbolic realms that represent the contrasts in the human experience of existence, most fundamentally the give-and- take between demands stemming from interaction with the outer world, and those arising from the inner world of the individual self. The tensions between reality and dream—day and night—lie at the very heart of the Surrealist ethos.
The beauty and revelation of L’empire des lumières—perhaps the latent message that contributed to its enduring iconic status—is that Magritte gazes far beyond any such antithetical notions, even if in this painting he appeared to cast such contradictions as the traditionally opposing elements of earth and sky, night and day, darkness and light. The alignment of element with idea, with one alternative or the other—in either a positive or negative sense—is fraught, however, at every turn with shifting ambiguities and reversals. The artist discovered instead the underlying conciliation and harmony of these opposing ideas. “After I had painted L’empire des lumières,” Magritte explained to a friend in 1966, “I got the idea that night and day exist together, that they are one. This is reasonable, or at the very least it’s in keeping with our knowledge: in the world night always exists at the same time as day. (Just as sadness always exists in some people at the same time as happiness in others.) But such ideas are not poetic. What is poetic is the visible image of the picture” (quoted S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., The South Bank Centre, London, 1992, no. 111).
The circumstances behind the evolution of the Empire des lumières idea into a painting are not clearly apparent. While staying with his collector Edward James in London during February-March 1937, Magritte gave a presentation at Roland Penrose’s London Gallery in which he considered, as stated at the outset, “certain features peculiar to words, images and real objects” (D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, vol. II. p. 53). In one example early in the discussion, the artist cited the opening line of André Breton’s poem L’Aigrette (from Terre de clair, 1923): “If only the sun would shine tonight” (ibid.). Although many of Magritte’s outdoor settings appear in daylight, and numerous interior subjects are given a suitably nocturnal mise-en-scène, the conflation of elements signifying day and night had outwardly figured only occasionally in his paintings. For example, in Le promenoir des amants (1929 or 1930; Sylvester, no. 324), two framed images of daytime clouds appear as if hung on the wall of a night sky, above buildings and trees. A night sky with a crescent moon and stars emblazons the façades of buildings at sunset in the gouache Le Poison (1938 or 1939; Sylvester, no. 1142).
Evidence of Magritte’s intent in the L’empire des lumières theme at the end of the 1940s may be found in a series of texts that he authored during 1946-1947, five manifestos under the title Surrealism in the Sunshine. The artist railed against the idea, sanctioned at the end of the Second World War and still more recently during the emergence of the Cold War, in “philosophies (materialist or idealist),” that “The man on the street...thinks he must live and suffer and that the very meaning of life is that it is a dream-nightmare.” Magritte reminds us that “La Terre n’est pas une vallée de larmes... We must not be afraid of the sunlight using the excuse that it has always served to shed light on a wretched world.” He concluded by announcing: “Here comes the sun to dissipate life’s shadows: joy and understanding to help out. Our mental world is filled with sunlight: the joy we have chosen as a sun to guide us. We have chosen pleasure as a reaction to the years of tedious terror, and consequently we stand firm in our longing for joy, a joy that will spread and grow more intense for everyone when the last noxious fumes of ‘knowledge’ have vanished from everyone’s mental universe.” (K. Rooney and E. Plattner, eds., op. cit., 2016, pp. 94, 96 and 101). This is likely the vision of a “Dominion of Light” that Magritte sought to express in L’empire des lumières.
The English word “empyrean” may be relevant here, as an adjective relating to the heavenly or celestial, or as a noun signifying “the highest part of heaven, thought by the ancients to be the realm of pure fire” (Oxford English Dictionary)—but only, however, insofar as this image may conjure, by way of simile, Magritte’s night sky filled with light. The artist would have taken issue with any suggestion derived from a religious tradition, or any “mystical” notion, as he revealed in comments regarding an interpretation that his friend the poet Paul Colinet had offered for the fourth version of L’empire des lumières (formerly in the collection of Georges de Menil; Sylvester no. 781). “His attempt to explain it is distressing: it appears I am a great mystic, providing consolation (because of the luminous sky) for our miseries (the landscape of houses and black trees). The intention is no doubt good, but all this keeps us on the level of pathetic humanity” (quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, vol. III, p. 200).
A Poetic Art
“The art of painting, as I see it, makes possible the creation of visible poetic images. They reveal the riches and details that our eyes can readily recognize: trees, skies, stones, objects, people, etc. They are meaningful when the intelligence is freed from the obsessive will to give things a meaning in order to use or master them.
“The searching intelligence sharpens when it sees the meaning in poetic images. The meaning goes with the moral certainty that we belong to the World. And so, this actual belonging becomes a right to belong. The changing content of these poetic images tallies with the richness of our moral certainty. It does not happen at will, it does not obey any system, whether logical or illogical, rigid or fanciful.
“The unexpected appearance of a poetic image is celebrated by the intelligence, ally of the enigmatic and marvelous Light that comes from the World.”
(From La Carte d’après Nature, 8 January 1955, p. 6; in K. Rooney and E. Plattner, eds., op. cit., Minneapolis, 2016, p. 161).
Selected highlights from among the variant versions of L’empire des lumières
Magritte’s repeated treatment of the Empire des lumières idea amounts to a theme with variations; the alterations from one canvas to the next, in nuance and motif, serve to expand and enhance the poetic effect of the artist’s intentions. Changes in the size of the canvases, alternating as well between horizontal and vertical formats, allow the viewer to experience the impact of Magritte’s conception in different ways.
At this point, it should be mentioned that the present L’empire des lumières, while the first picture of this subject that Magritte completed, is not the first he actually began. This honor belongs to the penultimate, sixteenth version (Sylvester, no. 954), which Magritte began in 1948, but set aside when no more than two-thirds completed, before he turned to the present canvas (see below).
The artist painted the second version (Sylvester, no. 723) of L’empire des lumières less than a year following the present painting, in June 1950, on a larger sized canvas, allowing a broader array of building façades, in which the artist told Iolas he had “revealed the full strength of the idea” (quoted in cat rais., op. cit., 1993, vol. III, p. 157). The more engaging, intimate effect of the present, original painting, however, is undeniable. Iolas sold the first variant to Jean and Dominique de Menil by the end of the year; they immediately gifted the picture to The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Because the De Menils desired a L’empire des lumières for their own collection, Iolas placed an order for the fourth version (Sylvester, no. 781), which Magritte completed in August 1952. It was shipped to New York in January 1953 and there acquired by the De Menils (sold, Christie’s New York, 7 May 2002, lot 36).
Version 6, 1953 (Sylvester, no. 797) was sold to Richard Rodgers, the composer of South Pacific and other Broadway musicals, in 1953 (sold, Christie’s New York, 11 November 1992, lot 18). Version 7, 1953 (Sylvester, no. 803) was acquired by New York collector Arnold Weissberger after 1953 (sold, Christie’s New York, 14 May 1986, lot 53).
Peggy Guggenheim purchased version 8, 1954 (Sylvester, no. 804) in October 1954, having seen it in the Venice Biennale. Because of confusion stemming from the efforts of three parties to reserve the picture prior to the Biennale, Magritte discovered he had in effect promised it to each of them—Willy van Hove, the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, and his dealer Iolas. The artist thereafter painted in 1954 three more variants, versions 9-11 (Sylvester nos. 804, 810, and 814) to satisfy his obligations to all three clients.
Magritte painted version 12 (Sylvester, no. 842), probably in 1956, and sold it directly to a private collector. The artist also managed the re-sale of this painting to Chicago collector Barnet Hodes in 1960.
In response to a request from Iolas, the artist painted an Empire des lumières in 1957 (version 13; Sylvester, no. 858). A member of the dealer’s family saw the work while in progress, and upon completion became its owner; the painting thereafter remained in the family’s possession.
Harry Torczyner, one of Magritte’s most dedicated collectors and the author of Magritte: Images and Ideas (New York, 1977), commissioned version 14 (Sylvester, no. 880) directly from the artist in 1958 (sold, Christies New York, 19 November 1998, lot 313).
Version 16, mentioned above (Sylvester no. 954) is the completion of the painting that Magritte began in 1948. Having seen it in the studio, the eventual owners learned from Magritte that he had been unable to resolve the picture in its vertical format. They offered to purchase the canvas if the artist would finish it, which was accomplished in 1962 (sold, Christie’s London, 25 June 1996, lot 40).
Magritte inserted into the final version 17 (Sylvester, no. 1006) the silhouette of the man in the bowler hat, his proxy, seen from behind, which he painted in 1964 or 1965, for a private collection.
A painting showing a daylit sky above a nocturnal scene was left unfinished and untitled at Magritte’s death on 15 August 1967 (Sylvester, no. 1066).