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Rene Magritte and the Meaning of Meaning

A fish with a woman’s legs. A train emerging from a fireplace. An umbrella with a glass of water sitting atop it. Rene Magritte, like other surrealistic painters of the early 1900s, is known for his paintings of objects placed out of their usual context. But unlike most other surrealistic painters, Magritte insists that his paintings had no meaning. In fact, for Magritte, the whole point was to show that images themselves conceal nothing and as mere images, they mean nothing.

Does Magritte’s refusal to attach meaning to his paintings reflect a deeper refusal to attach meaning to events in his life?

Rene Magritte was born in Hainaut, Belgium in 1898, the son of a struggling tailor. Due to the unstable nature of the business, the family moved often and in 1910, Magritte found himself in Chatelet where he began to study sketching. Two years later, at age 14, Magritte suffered a terrible tragedy – the suicide death of his mother by drowning. Apparently, the family followed her footsteps to the river and found her dead in the nearby river, her nightgown covering her face. Surprisingly, Magritte’s only recollection of the event years later was the attention he received from his involvement in the suicide. Could Magritte’s refusal to attach meaning to objects be the result of his attempt to deaden the impact of this painful episode in his life? It’s hard to say.

For Rene, life went on after the suicide and at age 18, he received permission from his father to study at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. There, he met painters, poets and philosophers and exhibited his work for the first time. He remained at the academy for two years. In 1922, at the age of 24, he married Georgette Berger and supported her by working as a commercial artist. But within a few years, he began to devote himself to serious painting once again and by 1927, he moved to Paris to join other Surrealists working there. Despite his association with Surrealists and their influence upon his work, Magritte despised the means they often used to inspire themselves such as drugs, dreams and even magic. Nevertheless, he gained some recognition through their movement. With the advent of a recession in Paris, Magritte was forced to move to Brussels in 1930 and turn to commercial work to pay his bills. Luckily, he was able to get through these difficult times with the support of friends and patrons and began to establish his reputation abroad. By 1947, Magritte had become quite successful in New York by focusing on the elements of his previous paintings that were best liked by the public, a strategy suggested by his dealer. Magritte was at first reluctant to allow himself to be guided by public approval but surprisingly, the strategy resulted in great personal satisfaction. In 1965, a retrospective of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, symbolizing his success as an artist. Despite his eventual success, Magritte lived simply and inconspicuously. He died quietly of cancer in 1967 at the age of 68.

Throughout his artistic career, Magritte deviated from his style two times but dissatisfied with the results, returned to his original style. Although the subjects of his paintings were decidedly unconventional, his techniques reflect his classical training. The smooth brush strokes accompanied by realistic proportions and graceful composition actually serve to emphasize the bizarre nature of the subjects of his paintings. Magritte’s interest in language inspired him to sometimes add words to his paintings, challenging the symbolism of the word as a representation of an object. He also became fixated with motifs, such as clouds, birds and fire which can be found repeatedly in his work. The man with the bowler hat became one of his favorite motifs and is perhaps the best-known symbol of his work.

Is it really possible for an artist to attach no meaning to his paintings? Perhaps it is the lack of meaning that is meaningful. And perhaps the best way to understand Magritte’s work is to examine what he is not saying in his art and in this way, note what he is trying so hard to express.

To see a gallery of Rene Magritte’s art, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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