René Magritte’s L’empire des lumières presents one of the artist’s most enduring and recognizable images: a dimly lit nocturnal street scene under a bright blue, sunlit sky filled with white clouds. Juxtaposing two paradoxical phenomena — night and day — Magritte disrupts convention through his desire to reveal the unseen mysteries of the world. Between 1949 and 1964, Magritte painted 17 oil paintings and 10 gouache versions of L’empire des lumières, each showing subtle compositional differences and variations, with many now residing in major museums and collections around the world. The present work, painted in 1955, is one of the earliest gouaches in the series, and was exhibited at the Galerie Cahiers d’Art in Paris in the same year. Organized by Magritte’s dealer, Alexandre Iolas, with whom the artist had signed a contract in 1948, this one-man show was only the second of its kind to be held in Paris and was vital in enhancing the Belgian artist’s burgeoning international renown at this time.
Magritte had first explored the subject of L’empire des lumières in 1949, in an oil painting of the same name (D. Sylvester (ed.), René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, no. 709, p. 145). Immediately popular among collectors of Magritte’s work, this first painting was quickly sold to American art patron, Nelson Rockefeller. A year later, Magritte painted a second version, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Throughout his career, the artist continued to return to the subject, remaining fascinated by the poetic mystery that the uncanny pictorial combination of night and day evoked. The artist explained the particular visual appeal of the subject in an interview in 1956, the year after the present work was painted “The reason why I believe the evocation [of night and day] to have this poetic power is, amongst other things, because I have always felt the greatest interest in night and day, without however having any preference for one or the other. This great personal interest in night and day is a feeling of admiration and astonishment” (R. Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), ibid., p.145). This duality of day and night became central to Magritte and featured in a number of subsequent paintings within his oeuvre, including La fin du monde and Le banquet.
In presenting two normally irreconcilable states, night and day, or light and dark, in L’empire des lumières, Magritte has subverted expected and regular convention and distorted the viewer’s sense of time. The contrast between night and day is made all the more apparent through the abrupt contrast between the silhouetted black outline of the trees against the light-filled blue sky and bright white clouds, all rendered in Magritte’s distinctive representational and illusionistic style. The exploration and evocation of the mystery of the world was one of the central aims of Magritte’s oeuvre; he used contradictory and paradoxical juxtapositions to reconfigure the familiar, in the artist’s words, he used painting to, “show what the mind can say and which was hitherto unknown” (R. Magritte quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 22). Contrasting realities was a concept that fascinated André Breton, the founder of Surrealism in Paris in the 1920s. Breton had particularly espoused his interest in the conflation of night and day when he wrote longingly, “If only the sun were to come out tonight” (A. Breton, ‘L’Aigrette’ in Clair de terre, 1923, quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat. South Bank Centre, London, 1992, cat. 111). For Breton, Magritte’s L’empire des lumières was the embodiment of this duality and he praised the painting for its ability to arrest the viewer with its bewildering paradox; he wrote, “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 René Magritte’ in Magritte, exh. cat., Arkansas, 1964, n.p.).
The title of the present gouache, L’empire des lumières, was suggested by Magritte’s friend, the Belgian poet and philosopher, Paul Nougé. Magritte placed great importance in the titles of his work, often entrusting the task of naming them to his closest friends. Nougé explained Magritte’s method in titling his work, writing in 1933, “Titles play an important part in Magritte’s paintings, but it is not the part one might be tempted to imagine. The title isn’t a programme to be carried out. It comes after the picture. It’s as if it were confirmation, and it often constitutes an exemplary manifestation of the efficacy of the image” (P. Nougé, quoted in S. Whitfield, op. cit., p. 39). Indeed, Magritte, particularly disliked the search for hidden or symbolic meanings within his painting, believed that titles were not meant to aid in the interpretation of an image, nor describe or illustrate it. Instead, he felt, “the best title for a painting is a poetic one. In other words, a title compatible with the more or less lively emotion which we experience when looking at a painting. I imagine it requires inspiration to find this title…The poetic title has nothing to teach us, it should surprise and enchant us” (R. Magritte quoted in G. Ollinger-Zinque and F. Leen (eds.), René Magritte 1898–1967, exh. cat., Brussels, 1998, p. 25). Simultaneously referring to the “power” or “dominion” of light, the title expands the imaginative vision that the bold contrast of night and day within the painting evokes. Within a suburban, seemingly ordinary landscape, in L’empire des lumières, Magritte has envisaged an extraordinary phenomenon, conjuring a new vision of the world in a resonant image that perfectly encapsulates the artist’s belief that a painting does not just illustrate ideas, but has the power to create them.