Canvassing the Masterpiece: Magritte's “The Lovers“

René Magritte's work "Les Amants" is as mysterious as it gets, attracting the interest of all who see it.

By Cécile Martet | 22 Aug 2023

This week, the Rise Art editorial team has decided to closely examine a rather enigmatic artwork: "The Lovers" by René Magritte! This exceedingly mysterious work piques the interest of all who observe it. We must thank its creator, René Magritte, who has left us without a clue that would allow us to decipher this surrealist masterpiece! As enthusiasts of riddles and hidden messages, Rise Art steps into the shoes of the surrealist painter to unveil the secret behind this enigmatic artwork!


René Magritte in a Few Words

Born in 1898 and passing away in 1967, René Magritte was a Belgian surrealist painter. As a child, Magritte was captivated by comics and cinema. Tragically, his mother committed suicide when he was just 14 years old.

It was in 1915 that Magritte turned to painting: he left his studies to settle in Brussels, near the Fine Arts. He intended to take courses there and initially painted in an impressionist style. Right from the beginning, Magritte embraced a mocking and anarchic temperament.

Artwork Under the Loupe: Magritte's 'The Lovers'
Photoportrait of René Magritte © Bridgeman Images

Within the Academy, he discovered and engaged with the Cubist and Futurist movements, and then the Dada movement, in the very early 1920s. But it was in 1926 that Magritte created "The Lost Jockey," a painting considered to be the very first of his Surrealist Works!

It was at this point that he joined the group of Belgian Surrealists that had just formed. Magritte eventually decided to leave Belgium for Paris. In 1927, he met the group of Surrealists formed around André Breton, Salvador Dali, Paul Éluard, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy.

Artwork Under the Loupe: Magritte's 'The Lovers'
The Lost Jockey, 1926, by René Magritte © MoMA

Among his fellow Surrealists, Magritte is certainly the only one not to subscribe to the psychoanalysis and automatic writing advocated by André Breton. He is more interested in symbols, enigmatic and metaphorical images, sometimes even humorous ones.

His works, often functioning like puzzles, highlight our lack of distinction between reality and the mental images generated by our minds. His paintings often offer two levels of interpretation and consist of several superimposed images.


Three Details Under the Magnifying Glass

1. The First Painting in a Series of Four

What many people often overlook is that René Magritte's painting "The Lovers" is actually part of a series of four paintings created in the same year, 1928. All three paintings bear the same title, each followed by a Roman numeral to distinguish them.

Artwork Under the Loupe: Magritte's 'The Lovers'
The Lovers, 1928, by René Magritte © MoMA, NY

The one we're interested in today is the first in the series. It's currently housed at the MoMA in New York, part of the Richard S. Zeisler collection.

The work "The Lovers II" by Magritte, much like the first, depicts a couple with their faces covered by a white sheet. This time, they're not kissing, but standing side by side. They appear to be posing, as if for a photograph!

Artwork Under the Loupe: Magritte's 'The Lovers'
The Lovers II, 1928, by René Magritte at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

"The Lovers III" once again portrays a couple, but this time Magritte lets us see the faces of these two characters. However, something immediately disturbs us: the man depicted alongside the young woman has no body. His head seems to float above her shoulder! This is particularly unsettling...

Artwork Under the Loupe: Magritte's 'The Lovers'
The Lovers III, 1928, René Magritte, Private Collection

Finally, the last in the series, "The Lovers IV," depicts the same couple, but here, not in close-up. Indeed, the young woman is comfortably seated on a rock, yet once again, the man still has no body, only a floating head.

Artwork Under the Loupe: Magritte's 'The Lovers'
The Lovers IV, 1928, by René Magritte, Private Collection

A truly enigmatic series, which adds even more mystery to the artwork "The Lovers," which already raises many questions within the artistic sphere on its own!


2. Cinematic Framing

In his painting "The Lovers," René Magritte depicts an intertwined couple kissing through a white sheet covering their heads. The genders of the characters are only discernible through their attire. The woman wears a red dress, and the man she kisses wears a black suit.

In this artwork, Magritte chooses to give us very little information about the location of the couple. This lack of information is mainly due to the cinematic close-up framing on the heads of the two characters.

Artwork Under the Loupe: Magritte's 'The Lovers'
The Lovers, 1928, by René Magritte © MoMA, NY

This cinematic framing is likely influenced by Magritte's passion for cinema since his earliest years! Indeed, the couple occupies the entire canvas and is situated in the foreground, as if in a love scene one might see in a romantic film!

Ultimately, only a few architectural elements allow us to speculate about the location: perhaps the entrance of a house, and in the distance, a threatening or stormy sky? Regardless, the minimalist setting and framing allow Magritte to focus the viewer's attention on this mysterious couple!


3. The Sheet: Symbol of Blind, Discreet, or Unconscious Love?

René Magritte often employs metaphor in his art, diverting objects and playing with words, much like puzzles. Here, the indispensable element of the artwork, without which the canvas would be devoid of meaning, is the white sheet covering the faces of the two characters.

These white sheets give Magritte's artwork its meaning: they are the most crucial element, as without them, the artwork would have a more mundane and obvious character. It's these sheets that arrest our gaze on the artwork and make us question.

Many art critics have drawn parallels with the veil that covered his mother's face after her drowning suicide. However, it's important to set aside this fascination with psychoanalysis, mistakenly intertwined with surrealism, to which Magritte did not subscribe at all.

Artwork Under the Loupe: Magritte's 'The Lovers'

It might be more fruitful to interpret his artwork as a puzzle, much like we often do with his other iconic works. Thus, this white sheet that deprives the two lovers of sight and a sensual skin-to-skin experience could evoke either blind love, discreet love, or even a desire that's entirely unconscious and irrational.

Perhaps Magritte is suggesting through his artwork that one should fall in love with closed eyes and love without seeing. The sheet could also refer to the object of desire that the lovers are to each other.

These two faces covered by a sheet can inspire numerous interpretations. According to Magritte, explaining his artwork would destroy the mystery to which the viewer attaches importance, giving the artwork its significance. The surrealist artist deliberately cultivates this taste for mystery, letting us choose the meaning that resonates with us the most!

"It means nothing because mystery means nothing... Art is art, and everyone has their own interpretation."

–René Magritte

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