'Sheherezade is the name given to the pearl-woman object in memory of The Thousand and One Nights' (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester & S. Whitfield, René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Oil paintings and objects, 1931-1948, Antwerp, 1993, p. 387).
Shéhérazade appears to have been painted in May 1947 and is considered to be one of the earliest pictures to feature one of René Magritte's iconic motifs, the pearl woman. This picture shows the woman, whose mouth and eyes are shown as islands of flesh surrounded by a mysterious framework of strings of pearls, against a backdrop of a sky hewn out of monumental arches of blue. Next to her on the tabletop are two tall pyramids, a glass of water and a thick, claret-coloured curtain. This manages both to invoke the tradition of the Old Masters of Magritte's native Belgium and also to create an intimacy, a domesticity, a normality, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security that is prised apart by the mirage-like vision of the woman who so bracingly stares out from the canvas like some Orientalist incarnation of the Cheshire Cat. She is some form of apparition, perhaps conjured by the rituals of which the pyramids and water may be the paraphernalia. At the same time, she is the alluring and ornate hostess introducing the viewer to a world that has been rearranged in order to reveal its infinite wonder.
The triumphal arches through which the clouds pass in the background of Shéhérazade recall Magritte's earliest Surreal works. Similarly, the presence of the pearl-woman herself recalls the collage-like juxtapositions upon which many of those works were founded, harking back to the original epiphany that had launched Magritte's career as a Surrealist, his viewing of Giorgio de Chirico's 1914 painting Le chant d'amour. Indeed, several of the elements of the composition of Le chant d'amour appear to find new, transmogrified counterparts in Shéhérazade: the curtain echoes the hanging glove, the pyramids echo the crisp architecture of his piazze and the pearl-woman provides an ethereal contrast with the monumentality and solidity of the ancient bust shown in de Chirico's painting. In Shéhérazade, Magritte has evoked an otherworldly realm of infinite mystery that is filled with a similar Stimmung, or atmosphere, to that which filled de Chirico's greatest works. Magritte has thus returned to the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects in Shéhérazade, rather than those with affinities or those that had undergone transformations, which had occupied much of his work in the interim.
Magritte titled several of the pictures that feature the pearl-woman Shéhérazade after the narrator of the Thousand and One Nights (she also features as a motif in Le libérateur and Les grands rendez-vous). Only the year before Shéhérazade was painted, Magritte had written to Marcel Mariën that, 'I have started re-reading the Thousand and One Nights with pleasure, will it be kept up?' (Magritte, letter to Marcel Mariën, 19 August 1946, quoted in Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, p. 374). Magritte's question about his enjoyment appears to have been a playful reference to the framing story within the Thousand and One Nights, by which the narrator Sheherazade prolonged her own life by telling tales which so enthralled the king that he stayed her execution, rather than killing her as he had his previous wives. Sheherazade kept her life by leaving her tales unfinished, and thus leaving the king on tenterhooks. Each narrative had been conjured briefly and tantalisingly, a parallel, perhaps, to the woman whose face partially appears in Shéhérazade, a deliberately incomplete and therefore all the more enticing image.
It may have been this idea of the Thousand and One Nights that prompted the commentary created by Jacques Wergifosse for Magritte when Shéhérazade was exhibited the year after being completed: 'Looks, kisses and pearls make love stories attractive' (quoted in ibid., p. 387). Another cue for the title may have been Magritte's own variations on the theme: as well as a small number of oil paintings that Magritte created showing the pearl-woman over the following years, he created over a dozen gouaches of the subject, each different from the other. A large number of these had been shown in the Galerie Lou Cosyns in 1947, emphasising their deliberate multiplicity and seriality, each able to stand alone as a work in its own right, autonomous, yet becoming part of a larger pattern, as was the case in the tales of the Thousand and One Nights from which each Shéhérazade took its name.
Shéhérazade was shown at an exhibition of Magritte's works that was held at the Galerie Dietrich early in 1948. The preface for the small publication that accompanied the exhibition in lieu of a catalogue was the last piece written on Magritte by Paul Nougé. In this, Nougé focussed on the novel treatment of the sky in Magritte's pictures and on the revelations that they contained. 'The analysis of this considerable object has not as yet been carried very far. Someone should write a human history of the sky and unravel over the ages its curious interweaving of impressions, stimuli and naïve illuminations,' he explained.
'In this area, few are the revelations supplied by painters. And banal; to see this, you only have to dip into an encyclopaedia of painting. Magritte, however, is an exception. Moving from the most fluid, the most luminous or the most murky profundity to the organisation of that profundity: going from the sign to the object by way of an unexampled dialectic which suddenly comes up against unexpected terminal points: solidity, hardness, great bursts of stone and victorious thought - this is what throws the spectator into a world of new feelings... Let us think of the torn sky, the blocks of sky in a dark room, the sky in process of construction, the sky as triumphal arcades. The obvious truth then becomes manifest' (Paul Nougé, quoted in ibid., p. 152).
Having been exhibited at the Galerie Dietrich, Shéhérazade was sent across the Atlantic and featured in two important shows in the United States of America. The first was in New York at the Hugo Gallery which was run by Alexander Iolas and was partly backed by the de Menil family, whose own patronage of Magritte would prove so important. This was the second exhibition of Magritte's works to take place in this gallery, but was the first since the artist and dealer had met in person. From this point onwards, Iolas would become an increasingly important dealer of Magritte's works, representing him for the following two decades, during which he was responsible for much of the artist's reception and reputation in the United States and farther afield. Iolas, one of the most famous New York dealers of the post-war era, was a former ballet dancer who became one of the great New York taste makers, supporting Surrealism and Pop Art alike.
Shéhérazade was subsequently shown at the short-lived but highly influential Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills, with which Iolas had set up a relationship. Founded by William Copley and his brother-in-law, the Copley Galleries' exhibition of Magritte's works was the first to take place in Southern California and exposed him to a new market. This market included Copley himself, who bought Le libérateur, featuring the cloaked man holding a sceptre topped with a Shéhérazade-like pearl-woman; he later donated the painting to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. During the 1950s, Copley came to know Magritte and would also become the owner of one of his most famous early images, La trahison des images; Copley would also become a successful artist in his own right.