Masters on the Market: René Magritte

James Ardis
Published on
Rene Magritte in a Bowler Hat by Duane Michals. Image from the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Rene Magritte in a Bowler Hat by Duane Michals. Image from the Museum of Contemporary Art.

In his art and personal life, Surrealist painter René Magritte became synonymous with the most unremarkable thing he could imagine: the bowler hat. While contemporaries like Salvador Dalí enjoyed standing out, Magritte embraced mundanity. “The bowler… poses no surprise. It is a headdress that is not original,” said René Magritte. “And I wear it. I am not eager to singularize myself.”

Both Magritte and his bowler-hat motif will be represented in Christie’s Art of the Surreal Evening Sale in early March of 2021. The artist’s Le Mois des Vendanges or “The Harvest Month” (estimate: GBP 10 million – £15 million or $13.4 million – $20 million) is among the event’s featured lots. In the painting, dozens of bowler-hatted men stand shoulder to shoulder outside an open window, gazing at the viewer with a calm but expectant look.

Le Mois des Vendanges by René Magritte. Image from Christie’s.
Le Mois des Vendanges by René Magritte. Image from Christie’s.

Produced in 1959, Le Mois des Vendanges is among René Magritte’s later works. The bowler-hatted men first appeared in the artist’s paintings in the 1920s, but they disappeared in the following decades. By the 1950s, they had reappeared and would never again leave his work. 

Why did René Magritte gravitate towards everyday items? And why did bowler hats, in particular, become his calling card? Auction Daily revisits the artist’s work and its history at auction ahead of this Christie’s sale.

René Magritte and a Pink Rubber Glove

The Song of Love by Giorgio de Chirico. Image from the Museum of Modern Art.
The Song of Love by Giorgio de Chirico. Image from the Museum of Modern Art.

In his early 20s, René Magritte made ends meet as a wallpaper designer and a fashion catalog illustrator. The future of his personal artwork was unclear. Then, in 1922, Magritte stumbled upon a reproduction of The Song of Love by Giorgio de Chirico. The de Chirico painting juxtaposed a classical bust with a pink rubber glove nailed to a wall. De Chirico had put mundane items on the same footing as works of antiquity and felt no need to provide any further context. This artistic decision would greatly inspire René Magritte.

By the end of the decade, the former wallpaper designer turned full-time artist had moved to Paris and met Surrealists such as André Breton. Magritte began creating works that made the familiar feel unfamiliar, including La Trahison des Images or “The Treachery of Images.” In the painting, Magritte presents a pipe and writes underneath it, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” or “This is not a pipe.”

La trahison des images by René Magritte. Image from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
La trahison des images by René Magritte. Image from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

René Magritte and His Bowler Hats

The bowler hat emerged as a symbol of the British middle class in the early 20th century. Magritte’s early work featuring the bowler hat, though, focused more on its association with detectives and crime thrillers than on its meaning to the everyday man.

In a 1927 painting titled L’Assassin Menacé, two detectives prepare to catch a murderer with a club and net. If the sight of the victim and the murderer were not enough, three more men gaze on through a doorway that leads to an unexplained mountain range. The men’s gaze rests not on the scene unfolding before them but on the viewer, similar to Le Mois des Vendanges

L'Assassin Menacé by René Magritte. Image from the Art Institute of Chicago.
L’Assassin Menacé by René Magritte. Image from the Art Institute of Chicago.

When the bowler hats reemerged in René Magritte’s work in the 1950s, the artist used them to make his scenes feel workaday and yet ominous. One example is Golconda, in which businessmen appear in mid-air. It is unclear if the men are descending towards the viewer, flying towards the heavens, or simply levitating. Regardless, the men appear indifferent, as if on their daily commute. 

The strangeness of Magritte’s middle class businessmen makes viewers question the idea of normalcy. “[Margritte’s] playing with this sense of, ‘We think we know who this person is, but do we?’” says the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s associate curator, Caitlin Haskell.

Lithograph of Golconde by René Magritte. Image from Artsy.
Lithograph of Golconde by René Magritte. Image from Artsy.

The anonymity of the bowler-hatted man was something Magritte also wanted for himself. Around this time, the artist started wearing these hats in his daily life. However, the style had already started to decline in popularity when Magritte fully embraced it. The bowler hat that was supposed to grant him privacy became his glaring insignia. 

The Artist at Auction

Le Mois des Vendanges comes to auction next March with an estimate of GBP 10 million to £15 million (USD 13.4 million – $20 million). Should the lot sell at or above the high estimate, it will come close to the record for Magritte at auction, set by Sotheby’s in November of 2018. 

The record-holding piece, Le Principe du Plaisir or “The Pleasure Principle,” depicts another one of Magritte’s businessmen, this time without a bowler hat. The painting inspired four minutes of bidding between seven different people before crossing the auction block for $23.5 million.

Sotheby’s success with Le Principe du Plaisir was reassuring to those with Magritte works in their collection. The night before the Sotheby’s event, Christie’s had offered two Magritte pieces that went unsold, casting a brief, 24-hour period of doubt about the artist’s viability in the current market. 

Le Principe du Plaisir by René Magritte. Photo from Sotheby’s.
Le Principe du Plaisir by René Magritte. Photo from Sotheby’s.

Christie’s Art of the Surreal Evening Sale will be held on March 9th in London. Follow Christie’s website for the latest on the sale, including the forthcoming auction catalog. 

Want to read more in-depth pieces about artists and their history at auction? Auction Daily editor Liz Catalano recently looked at the history of the Cuban artist collective Los Carpinteros.