The title that Magritte ultimately gave to this large painting of abundant, natural verdure—L’Arc de Triomphe—may at first glance mystify the viewer, ostensibly having little in common with an ancient Roman-style monument celebrating a great victory and its heroes, certainly not the 19th-Century Parisian landmark that commemorates those who fought for the French Revolution and in the Napoleonic Wars, the most famous structure of this kind. There are, nonetheless, evocative visual similes of shape and form, by which the artist inferred further layers of significance in his choice and deployment of pictorial imagery. The central, primary presence of the tall tree does indeed form an arch shape against the rectangular block of densely packed, close-up foliage that frames and focuses one’s gaze on the arboreal subject, just as the massive masonry of a triumphal arch invites a visitor to approach and pass beneath it.
Here, Magritte has succeeded in capturing the essence of this tree. In his own, inimitable way, he has brilliantly subverted the viewer’s expectations, playing with perspective by juxtaposing a distant tree against a background of meticulously depicted leaves seen in close-up. Rendered on such a large format, this impossible contradiction creates a strong and poetic impression, immersing the viewer in the scene in the same way that a forest would.
The tree singly as subject, or in multiplicity comprising a wooded landscape as backdrop, is a frequent pictorial element in many of Magritte’s post-war paintings, and appears to represent this deeply cerebral, intellectually motivated artist’s ultimate reaffirmation of nature as an essential, centering theme in his idiosyncratic perception of reality and his poetic, transcendent vision of worldly existence. “Pushing up from the earth toward the sun,” Magritte wrote in an undated statement, “a tree is an image of a certain happiness. To perceive this image, we must be still, like a tree. When we are in motion, it’s the tree that becomes the spectator. It is witness, equally, in the shape of a chair, a table, a door, in the more or less restless spectacle of our life. The tree, having become a coffin, disappears into the earth. And when it is transformed into flames, it vanishes into the air” (K. Rooney and E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte: Selected Writings, Minneapolis, 2010, p. 234).
The welter of foliage that Magritte repetitively, most painstakingly represented in L’Arc de Triomphe, in which each stem sprouts between five and seven leaflets, appears to indicate that the great tree depicted full-height is a horse chestnut, aesculus hippocastanum. Admired for its height, the expansive spread of its densely foliate boughs, offering excellent shade, and a hardy, enduring age span, as long as three hundred years, the chestnut tree has been cultivated in temperate zones around the world, and has traditionally been a favorite species for placement in parks and other open, public spaces.
Magritte first noted his conception of this subject in an ink sketch he made in a letter to his friend and fellow Belgian painter André Bosmans, dated 14 February 1962, written while recovering from a bout with hepatitis. “I soon hope to be able to begin on a picture showing a tree against a background of leaves.” He dallied in the margin with five ideas for titles: “Préface”, “La Face”, “Moments musicaux”, “Relique” and “L’Eloge”. Having struck through each of them, he then inscribed above the drawing his choice of a promising, suggestive solution: “Les goûts et les couleurs” (“Tastes and colors”)—a reference to the notion that one’s tastes, as well as one’s preferences in colors, cannot be disputed—and indicated the dimensions of the large canvas he planned to employ, “162/130 [cm]”. Following up in a letter to Bosmans, dated 17 February, having received his doctor’s approval to resume working, Magritte wrote, “however, I’ll have to be careful. I shall start painting again next week. I shall be very interested to see ‘Tastes and colours’ appear on a large canvas (I’ll make a big picture of it)” (quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Objects and Bronzes, 1949-1967, Houston, 1993, vol. III, p. 357).
Magritte completed the present painting in late February or early March 1962, in time to show the newly dry canvas, titled Les goûts et les couleurs, in the annual Charleroi salon, which opened on 10 March. Harry Torczyner, Magritte’s attorney in America, a close friend, collector, and a dedicated promoter of and writer on the artist’s work, acquired the picture. As the invoice dated 9 April reveals, however, the artist had retitled the canvas, thenceforth to be known as it is today—L’Arc de Triomphe. Magritte explained this change to Bosmans in a letter dated 10 April: “As regards the title: ‘Tastes and colours’, which I find excellent in itself, because of its easy, familiar ring, which when one thinks about it would change if applied to an image more appropriate than the tree. Suzi Gablik has thought of a better one: ‘The triumphal arch’. This title satisfies me completely and will replace ‘Tastes and colours’” (ibid.).
“Magritte’s friend Mme Rakofsky told us,” David Sylvester recounted, “that the title had been found at one of the weekly gatherings at Magritte’s house. Magritte, she said, had been so delighted by Suzi Gablik’s suggested title that he had rushed over to a desk, opened one of the drawers, taken out cat. 1498, the related gouache, also painted in 1962, and presented it to her on the spot” (ibid.).
Torczyner shed some further light on the import that Magritte accorded his imagery in L’Arc de Triomphe. “Sometimes, word play, by which I mean the witty exchange of serious thoughts,” he wrote in 1977, “threw up a problem the solution of which demanded the whole attention of Magritte’s mind. Thus, Max Jacob’s lines ‘Seen against the light or otherwise, I don’t exist, and yet I am a tree’, and my lines [Torczyner was also a published poet] ‘Whether the day is dozing or the night awake, the living green tree watches over the life, the survival of mankind’, raised this kind of question for him. The inspired solution was this tree entirely surrounded by a halo of scattered leaves, a glorious image in green and blue which was to be given the only suitable title: The triumphal arch” (ibid.).
Magritte’s selection of the chestnut—as the distant tree, presumably, as well as the close-up profusion of leaves—may relate to another passage in the work of Max Jacob, from the late prose-poem “Write Your Memoirs”. Contemplating his recollections of Rosa-Josepha, a favorite circus performer during his youth, the poet decided he must “go back to the Place de la République by tram… Along the way I lost a little old suitcase. A man in grey was waiting under a chestnut tree. It was me. Rosa-Josepha has two souls in a single body while I have one soul in two” (trans. W. Kulik, Selected Poems of Max Jacob, Oberlin, 1999, p. 98).
Just as Jacob experienced his sense of a soul in two bodies, simultaneously internal and exterior to himself, so Magritte characteristically conceived his art in dualities of objects situated in incongruous spatial relationships, contrasted or juxtaposed to the point of defying all rational logic, often resulting in conundrums of subtle or glaringly contradictory irony. “The basic device was the placing of objects out of context,” Magritte explained in his 1938 lecture La ligne de vie. “The objects chosen had to be of the most everyday kind so as to give the maximum effect of displacement… Such in general were the means devised to force objects of the ordinary to become sensational, and so establish a profound link between consciousness and the external world… This is how we see the world, we see it outside ourselves and yet the only representation we have of it is inside us” (trans. D. Sylvester, in op. cit., 1997, vol. V, pp. 20 and 21).
Magritte’s chief pictorial ploy in L’Arc de Triomphe is that of dislocation, of instigating “differences of a spatial order,” as he explained to Bosmans, regarding an earlier work, in a letter dated 24 August 1961. By superimposing the image of the tree upon its leaves, he reversed—indeed, conflated—the pictorial conventions of image and ground, foreground and background. “The difference in spatial nature thus becomes a spiritual possibility, a poetic force rather than an exercise in mental geometry” (quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., South Bank Centre, London, 1992, no. 121). The result here is akin to the rhetorical trope—a figure of speech—known as synecdoche, in which a part stands for the whole, or vice versa. The effect in L’Arc de Triomphe is simultaneous and replete, perfectly equivalent in both respects. Within the two-dimensional confines of the painter’s canvas, the difference in scale between leaf and tree is no longer of any account; we understand that both representations constitute a perfect, total unity in which microcosm and macrocosm have become one and the same.
“What is the reason for a unity/oneness?” Aristotle pondered, to which he proposed that “many things have a plurality of parts and are not merely a complete aggregate but instead some kind of a whole beyond its parts” (Metaphysics 8; 1045a). Magritte celebrates in this painting the triumph of a harmonious, transcendent unity, a wholeness of wondrous design, creation, and perpetual renewal that is manifest in nature only—the sublime beauty of absolute synergy—to which humankind can only aspire in its works.
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever”
(Ecclesiastes, 1:4; King James Version).