Magritte reveals in his imagery the affinities and relationships between conventional and commonplace elements by means of displacement, juxtaposition, fusion and disparaties of scale. To this end the artist employed a technique and a style that are unadorned and straightforwardly descriptive; painterly devices and stylistic distortions are not allowed to distract from the poetic purity of the image. The restrained, matter-of-fact neutrality of his style disarms the viewer and permits the strange and sometimes disquieting quality of his imagery to take hold.
L'Empire de la reflexion is entirely in character with this understated yet astonishing reordering of reality. In 1950 Magritte might have imagined what it would be like to view the earth from another heavenly body, and indeed less than two decades later American astronauts on the surface of the moon were to observe the earth rising in the sky as if it were the sun or moon. Magritte actually refers here to a more ancient conception of the world. In a commentary for the exhibition at the Hugo Gallery in New York in 1948, where he showed an earlier version of this subject (Sylvester no. 1246), Magritte and his friend Wergifosse wrote "in the sky a large mirror sends back to us the image of the earth" (quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., p. 94). It is as if the great dome of heaven imagined by medieval man captures earth's reflection. Magritte's level, featureless landscape echoes the medieval view of the earth as a flat, disc-like habitation. Indeed, the very anachronism of this conception lends to its eery, dislocated feeling, as if for a moment mankind pauses quietly to stand beside itself and regard its own image.
Magritte first depicted this image in oil painting of 1938 (Sylvester no. 462) and again in 1942 (Sylvester no. 510). The later version shows the sea in the distance. The present gouache and the earlier version mentioned above date from around the same time. Of the two gouaches, the present version conforms more closely to the original idea of 1938. The earth appears as a hazy, radiant orb, reflecting the light of the sun, and illuminating the landscape below.