Between 1949 and 1964, Magritte made seventeen oils and ten gouache versions of L'Empire des lumières, one of his most famous and sought-after themes, each of which displays some variation on a dimly lit nocturnal street scene with an eerily shuttered house and glowing lamppost below a sunlit blue sky with puffy white clouds. Magritte explained the origin of the image in a radio interview in 1956, stating: "What is represented in a picture is what is visible to the eye, it is the thing or the things that had to be thought of. Thus, what is represented in the picture [L'Empire des lumières] are the things I thought of, to be precise, a nocturnal landscape and a skyscape such as can be seen in broad daylight. The landscape suggests night and the skyscape day. This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us. I call this power: poetry" (quoted in D. Sylvester, op cit., p. 145). The first painting from this series (Sylvester, no. 709) depicts a somewhat urban street with a couple of houses and an off-center streetlight. This composition was immediately popular with Magritte's collectors, and was purchased by Nelson Rockefeller in January of 1950. Although Magritte initially preserved this format (fig. 1), by 1951, he had switched this scene to a more rural setting (Sylvester, no 768), depicting a manor house lit from within and introducing the enormous conical tree that also dwarfs the large house in the present work.
The major gouache seen here is similar to versions in oil that Magritte executed in 1954 (fig. 2; Sylvester, nos. 804, 809-810), when collectors were clamoring for further interpretations of this image. The painter increased the size of these works, and selected a vertical format, thus focusing attention on a single dollhouse-like residence whose tightly shuttered first floor is illuminated by lamplight. The glowing second floor windows are obscured by the lowest branches of the tall tree that stretches into the daytime sky. The markedly increased psychological tension of these works from the mid 1950s illustrates Siegfried Gohr's conviction that, by repeating and reinterpreting successful themes, Magritte was "arranging and rearranging visual elements until they produced a shock like a blow from a boxer's glove--whose force, however, remained purely visual and mental" (in Magritte, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2000, p.17). Indeed, this version of L'Empire des lumières best instantiates the uncomfortable if not threatening idea of domesticity that can be found in works by his contemporary Louise Bourgeois (fig. 3). Magritte's mysterious house was also fundamental to the development of early works by Vija Clemins such as House #1 (fig. 4), a house-shaped box that opens to reveal fiery orange tufts of fur.
Magritte's friend, the Belgian poet and philosopher Paul Noug (1895-1967) suggested the title for this image, playing on the double meaning of l'empire ('dominion') as 'territory' and 'dominance.' Noug was undoubtedly sensitive to Magritte's conviction that his paintings never expressed a singular idea, but rather were a form of stimulus that created new thoughts in the mind of the viewer. "Titles play an important part in Magritte's paintings," stated the poet, "but it is not the part one might be tempted to imagine. The title isn't a program to be carried out. It comes after the picture. It's as if it were its confirmation, and it often constitutes an exemplary manifestation of the efficacy of the image. This is why it doesn't matter whether the title occurs to the painter himself afterwards, or is found by someone else who has an understanding of his painting. I am quite well placed to know that it is almost never Magritte who invents the titles of his pictures. His paintings could do without titles, and that is why it has sometimes been said that on the whole the title is no more than a conversational gambit" (quoted in Sarah Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat. The South Bank Centre, London, 1992, p. 39). Indeed, when Paul Colinet, one of Magritte's closest friends, ventured a definitive explanation for the imagery of L'Empire des lumières, Magritte confided to another friend, "The attempt at an explanation (which is no more than an attempt) is unfortunate: I am supposed to be a great mystic, someone who brings comfort (because of the luminous sky) for unpleasant things (the dark houses and trees in the landscape). It was well intentioned, no doubt, but it leaves us on the level of pathetic humanity" (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte, Ideas and Images, New York, 1977, n.p.).
By including day and night, two normally irreconcilable conditions, within a spatially continuous scene, Magritte disrupts the viewer's sense of time. "After I had painted L'empire des lumières," he recalled 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 in ibid.). André Breton also recognized in this work the unconventional reconciliation of opposites that the Surrealists prized, stating: "To [Magritte], inevitably, fell the task of separating the 'subtle' from the 'dense,' without which effort no transmutation is possible. To attack this problem called for all his audacity--to extract simultaneously what is light from the shadow and what is shadow from the light (l'empire des lumières). In this work the violence done to accepted ideas and conventions is such (I have this from Magritte) that most of those who go by quickly think they saw the stars in the daytime sky. In Magritte's entire performance there is present to a high degree what Apollinaire called "genuine good sense, which is, of course, that of the great poets" (A. Breton, "The Breadth of Rene Magritte" in Magritte, exh. cat., Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, 1964, n.p.).
(fig. 1) René Magritte, L'Empire des lumières, 1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25995213
(fig. 2) René Magritte, L'Empire des lumières, 1954, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. BACODE 20625528
(fig. 3) Louise Bourgeois, Femme-maison, 1946-47, private collection. BARCODE 25995190
(fig. 4) Vija Clemins, House #1, 1965, Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25995206