Incorporating an image of a painting into the picture itself, as he did repeatedly from the late 1920s onward, was one of the most effective and infinitely renewable pictorial devices that Magritte developed to challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions of reality and lay bare the mystery that he believed was inherent in the everyday world. In La Vengeance, a painting of a mountainous landscape beneath a cloud-flecked sky rests on an easel in a wood-paneled room. Three fluffy clouds, lifted from the painted image, float incongruously in front of the canvas, undercutting the traditional role of the frame in separating image from reality. The clouds, however, cast shadows on the rear wall; they seem as solid and substantial–as “real”–as the wooden sphere that rests on the floor. Rendered in Magritte’s distinctively deadpan illusionistic style, La Vengeance thus establishes a series of unsettling ambiguities–interior versus exterior, density versus lightness, reality versus illusion–that call into question the very nature of representation and the way in which perception allows us to make sense of the visible world.
La Vengeance has its conceptual origins in La condition humaine of 1933, which depicts a canvas on an easel in front of a window, the painted scene an exact duplicate of the landscape beyond (Sylvester, no. 351; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). “In front of a window seen from the inside of a room, I placed a picture representing exactly the section of the landscape hidden by the picture,” Magritte explained. “For the spectator, it was both inside the room in the picture and, at the same time, conceptually outside in the real landscape. This is how we see the world, we see it outside ourselves and yet the only representation we have of it is inside us. Similarly we sometimes place in the past something which is happening in the present. In this case, time and space lose that crude meaning which is the only one they have in everyday experience” (quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., op. cit., 1994, vol. II, p. 184).
In La Vengeance, Magritte has eliminated the window; the only deep vista is now the image on the easel, a subversive reference to perspectival tropes of painting since the Renaissance. Magritte has added a frame around the painted landscape as well, as though to underscore the traditional separation between the work of art and the outside world. “Yet, at the same time, we well know that this separation is an illusion, that what is in the frame and outside it are both made of the same substance–paint” (C. Grunenberg and D. Pih, Magritte A to Z, London, 2011, p. 77). In the first version of the composition, an oil dated 1935, the clouds continue from the painted image into the interior space, broken in two by the frame (Sylvester, no. 395); in the present gouache, by contrast, the clouds sit collage-like atop the landscape, emphasizing the flatness and artifice of their representation. “Despite the shifting abundance of detail and nuance in nature,” Magritte explained, “I was able to see a landscape as if it were only a curtain placed in front of me” (quoted in Magritte, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1992, pp. 14-15).
Magritte featured the present work in a solo show at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels in May 1939, shortly after it was painted. The exhibition comprised ten oil paintings and twenty-four gouaches, reflecting the recent upsurge in Magritte’s use of the latter medium. At least four other gouaches on the theme of the painting-within-a-painting appeared as well, including a second version of La Vengeance (Sylvester, no. 1147; Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp); unified visually by their distinctive wood-paneled interiors, these paintings formed an important leitmotif within the exhibition.