The Comité Magritte has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Magritte first employed imagery of a giraffe in his 1946 gouache, Le bain de cristal (Sylvester 1215). This work was based on one of the illustrations the artist had made in 1945-1946 for a new edition of a collection of poems by Paul Eluard. In this work, a giraffe is awkwardly perched in a crystal glass, its legs crammed into the small curve of the vessel. Magritte later revisited this image, in 1949, in a gouache which he sent to his dealer Alexander Iolas for sale in the United States. In this second version (Sylvester 1312a; fig. 1), Magritte retains the form of the giraffe in the glass, but amends the background. In the 1946 version, the giraffe is placed amidst a swirling landscape with trees and grass whereas in the 1949 version, he constructs a balmy, calm desert of pinks and oranges in which to situate the animal. Magritte had a particular fondness for the 1949 work, referring to it as “the sublime gouache” in a letter to Iolas the following year (quoted in D. Sylvester, S. Whitfield and M. Raeburn, René Magritte, catalogue raisonné, London, 1994, vol. IV, p. 132).
The giraffe itself may be a reference to Magritte’s fellow Surrealist, Salvador Dalí, with whom he had an increasingly fraught relationship. Magritte and Dalí were the foremost artists responsible for the reorientation of Surrealist art away from its initial emphasis on automatic techniques and towards a privileging of the imagery. The two had met in the late 1920s and were initially sources of influence on one another. Over time, however, their practices had grown apart, Dalí’s extravagant persona and elaborations of unconscious dramas being of no interest to Magritte. Magritte would write to André Bosmans in 1959, “Dalí is superfluous; his flaming giraffe, for example, is a stupid caricature, and unintelligent bid—because it is facile and useless—to outdo the images I painted showing a piece of paper in flames and a burning key, an image I subsequently refined by showing only one flaming object – a trumpet (the title of it is L’Invention de feu)” (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte, Ideas and Images, New York, 1977, p. 66).
In the present work, Magritte puts the giraffe in an entirely new position, hanging from the gallows amidst the enchanted light of the desert. The background is calm and serene, similar to the 1949 version of Le bain de cristal. In the midst of a vast emptiness, a lone gallow is constructed with a giraffe floating below it. A noose is placed around the giraffe’s neck; however, it hovers weightlessly in the metaphysical landscape. The animal’s body is composed of detailed stippling, the small dabs of the brush contrasting with the flat and smooth application of gouache in the background.
This work was a gift from Magritte to Mrs. Robert de Vecchi. The de Vecchi’s bought a small gouache from Iolas in New York, and then arranged to meet Magritte in Brussels in 1953. They subsequently purchased three oil paintings directly from the artist, developing a friendship with him over the course of their transactions. In 1956, when visiting with Magritte in his studio, Mrs. de Vecchi chose the present work as a gift, which Magritte then signed, dated and dedicated to her. It has remained in her family ever since.
(fig. 1) René Magritte, Le bain de cristal, 1949. Private collection.
(fig. 2) Salvador Dalí, Girafes en feu, circa 1936-1937. Kunstmuseum, Basel.