Surrealist Painting by René Magritte Comes to Auction After 70 Years in Private Hands

Liz Catalano
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A long-hidden René Magritte painting from the 1930s will make its auction debut with Bonhams on December 7th, 2021. The piece, titled Torse nu dans les nuages, comes from the collection of Swiss-American artist and art patron Amalia de Schulthess. It has a presale estimate of USD 6 million to $9 million. 

Torse nu dans les nuages is a highly significant painting within René Magritte’s oeuvre, exemplary of his first Surrealist phase,” said Molly Ott Ambler, Bonhams’ Head of Fine Art, Americas, in a press release. “Strange and otherworldly, it is a pictorial puzzle that reconfigures expectations and offers an alternative representation of reality. It is quite simply a Surrealist masterpiece, an impressive meditation on the complex nature of spatial and perceptual experience.”

René Magritte, Torse nu dans les nuages, c. 1937. Image from Bonhams.
René Magritte, Torse nu dans les nuages, c. 1937. Image from Bonhams. 

René Magritte completed this painting around 1937, a time when Surrealism was at its height. Magritte had enjoyed his first solo exhibition in the United States one year prior. The art world fully recognized him as a member of Surrealism’s vanguard, and he drew upon a robust personal vocabulary for his art. Casts of nude torsos played a prominent role in Magritte’s paintings during this period. The motif referenced ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, as well as plaster torsos used by art students learning to draw the human figure. Magritte felt that the image of a sculpted torso was strong enough to carry the weight of his ideas. Such an image exists as a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object; Magritte’s paintings reflect the idea of a sculpture without the object itself. 

In Torse nu dans les nuages, René Magritte focused on one of these truncated torsos. It rests on a table against a black background. Surreal waves rise toward the figure’s hips while puffy clouds float around the chest and collarbones. This piece indirectly references an earlier Magritte painting titled La magie noir. That work shows a nude figure gradually transforming into an idyllic natural background. Magritte and his Surrealist contemporaries returned to the transforming nude motif several times in the 1930s and beyond. 

Archival photo of René Magritte’s Torse nu dans les nuages at the Copley Galleries, Beverly Hills in 1948. Image from William Nelson Copley papers, 1948 - 1967 via Bonhams.
Archival photo of René Magritte’s Torse nu dans les nuages at the Copley Galleries, Beverly Hills in 1948. Image from William Nelson Copley papers, 1948 – 1967 via Bonhams.

Torse nu dans les nuages last appeared before the public eye in 1948. American artist William Copley held a deep interest in Surrealism, and he opened his short-lived Copley Galleries to build the movement along the West Coast. The available painting appeared in Copley’s dedicated Magritte exhibition in September of 1948. The Esther Robles Gallery of Los Angeles later facilitated its sale to Amalia de Schulthess, possibly in the mid-1950s. 

The daughter of avid art patrons and collectors, Amalia de Schulthess emigrated from Switzerland to the United States in 1941. De Schulthess financially supported artists such as Piet Mondrian, as well as various art institutions. She also painted and sculpted while traveling between California, New Mexico, and Florence. Art dealer Esther Robles represented de Schulthess as an artist and linked her to collecting opportunities in California. After de Schulthess purchased Magritte’s Torse nu dans les nuages from Robles, the work remained in her collection until her death in May of 2021. 

Duane Michals, Magritte Tipping Hat, 1965. Image via the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, inv. 12229. © Succession of Duane Michals.
Duane Michals, Magritte Tipping Hat, 1965. Image via the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, inv. 12229. © Succession of Duane Michals. 

This painting is not the first major René Magritte work to hit the auction block in recent years. Sotheby’s established Magritte’s current auction record when it sold Le Principe du plaisir for $26.8 million in 2018. That price has remained unchallenged in the years since. Previously, a version of Magritte’s L’empire des lumières held the artist’s record high. Christie’s auctioned the 1949 piece for $20.6 million in 2017. 

René Magritte’s Torse nu dans les nuages will come to auction with Bonhams in New York on December 7th, 2021. The sale will present several other notable items from Amalia de Schulthess’ private collection, including an Alberto Giacometti sculpture from 1950 (estimate: $1.2 million – $1.8 million). Find more information about this auction by visiting Bonhams

Auction Daily regularly explores top lots coming to market from around the art world. Check out our coverage of other masterworks available this auction season, including key items from the Macklowe Collection

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Liz Catalano
Liz Catalano
Senior Writer and Editor

Liz Catalano is a writer and editor for Auction Daily. She covers fine art sales, market analysis, and social issues within the auction industry. She regularly collaborates with auction houses and other clients. A Chicago native, she holds a BSW degree and is based in Pennsylvania.

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