Masterpiece in the spotlight: The Son of Man, Magritte

This famous painting created in 1964 has been copied and revisited on many, many occasions. Mysterious and intriguing, like many of Magritte’s works, it hides many secrets...

By Cécile Martet | 22 Aug 2023

One of Surrealist artist René Magritte's most emblematic works, The Son of Man, is the subject of today's Canvassing the Masterpieces. Painted in 1964, this canvas has been the subject of numerous copies and misappropriations. This intriguing surrealist painting conceals many secrets...


An Enigmatic Painter

Master of Surrealism, René Magritte was born in Belgium in 1898. He is known for his enigmatic paintings, filled with symbols that only he understood. His paintings often play on a disconnect between an object and its representation, between reality and dream, depicting irrational scenes.

Magritte questioned the very nature of painting and the representation of reality. The painting The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe) is the most striking example of this.

A Closer Look at Magritte's The Son of Man
René Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, (116 x 89cm), Private Collection

Magritte was an excellent draftsman and also had a career in advertising illustration alongside his artistic work. His very recognisable style is marked by precise and realistic drawing, which contrasts once again with the absurdity contained in his subjects. "The Son of Man" was painted at the very end of his life, three years before his death.

The painting, highly sought after like many of the Belgian master's works, was sold in 1998 for over 5 million dollars to a private collector.

About The Son of Man, Magritte stated in an interview:

"In a recent painting, I showed an apple in front of the face of a character. (...) At least, it partially hides his face. So there is the apparent face, the apple that hides the hidden face, the face of the character. (...) Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.

There is an interest in what is hidden and what the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a fairly intense feeling, a sort of struggle, I would say, between the hidden visible and the apparent visible."

This is the only direct clue from the artist that explains the mystery of this painting.


Three Details Not to Miss

1. A Recurring Apple

A Closer Look at Magritte's The Son of Man

Magritte had many recurring themes or objects that he placed in his compositions. The most famous is undoubtedly the bell, a kind of black ball, or the bird. Another recurring theme is the apple, always green and intact. It often serves as the subject or crucial object of the painting. Here, it hides the face of the character, transforming a mundane portrait into something entirely different. It induces a feeling of frustration in the viewer, as it conceals the face.

This apple is a reference to the apple from the Garden of Eden, which embodies sin, temptation, but also the mortal condition of human beings. This somewhat religious orientation fits well with the title of the artwork, The Son of Man, a direct reference to Christ, and which translates to "son of Adam," once again referring to original sin.


2. An Unveiling Eye

The eye that can be glimpsed behind the green apple could be a symbol of mourning for the painter. Indeed, in 1912, when René Magritte was still a teenager, his mother committed suicide by jumping into the Sambre River.

A Closer Look at Magritte's The Son of Man

Her body was found with her face partially covered by her nightgown, revealing only her left eye. This detail may have marked the young man and can be seen in The Son of Man, where only the left eye of the character is visible behind the apple...


3. The Self-Portrait Clue

A Closer Look at Magritte's The Son of Man
René Magritte with his painting The Son of Man, photographed by Bill Brandt, 1964. © Bill Brandt

The man behind this apple is a classic in Magritte's iconography. He appears in many of the painter's works. He is always dressed in a black suit, with a red tie and a bowler hat. And it's probably not a coincidence, as Magritte often dressed exactly this way.

Many critics have seen this work as a late self-portrait of the artist, despite the fact that he often mocked this narcissistic theme. This is perhaps why he hid the features of the character behind an innocent apple…

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