In 1940, Magritte wrote to his friend, the playwright and collector Claude Spaak, discussing three of his most recent paintings, 'versions of 'The search for the absolute', which is a leafless tree (in winter) but with branches that provide the shape of a leaf, a Leaf even so!' (Magritte, January 1941, quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 282). La recherche de l'absolu, the third of these paintings, appears to show a landscape wrapped in the gentle tones of dawn, the leaf-tree dominating the canvas, with only an incongruous white sphere in the background providing any visual relief. Of the three paintings of the same theme, La recherche de l'absolu is the only portrait-format version, lending the tree itself an iconic intensity that is somewhat dissipated in the other, more landscape-oriented, versions.
Magritte's art demands that the viewer reappraise the world around us. His paintings are intended to prompt a modern Damascene revelation, the scales of our lazy and jaded perception of existence falling from our eyes. For life can make us grow complacent in looking at the universe, and can numb us to the intense poetry of everyday things. In La recherche de l'absolu, Magritte has taken the tree, something simple, something that we see every day, and has demanded that we look at it again, to savour its inner mysteries and qualities afresh. Although Magritte's Surrealism had been evident in his art as early as the 1920s, it was only in the mid-1930s that he developed his truly unique visual juxtapositions, experiments in reality. One of the earliest of these works was La géante, which showed a large green leaf rooted in the ground. However, with La recherche de l'absolu Magritte has further disrupted the properties of leaf and tree by rendering the leaf-tree without leaves, creating a sight that appears both natural, and completely jarring. While the title of this work concisely expresses an idea of Magritte's artistic experiments, its reference to Balzac's work of the same name serves as a warning of the pitfalls of such an obsessive and elusive philosophical quest.
The uncluttered composition of this painting adds to its strength. This painting has an almost existential authority in its simple horizon and eerie gloaming, with the exciting potential of the hint of light of the imminently rising sun adding a subtle tension. In atmosphere it is reminiscent of some of the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, inspiring a similar but Surreal awe at existence and hidden mysteries. Magritte himself was clearly satisfied with the result, concluding his letter to Spaak, 'These researches have allowed me to produce three very pure pictures, with which you would have been very pleased, I think' (Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 282).