In Masterpieces in Detail, KAZoART offers insight into famous artworks. Today, we take a closer look at an iconic work from surrealist artist René Magritte, The Son of Man. 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…

An enigmatic painter

Master of Surrealism René Magritte was born in Belgium in 1898. He is known for creating enigmatic paintings that are heavy with symbolism for which only he has the key. His works most often play on a discrepancy between an object and its depiction, between reality and dream, and portray irrational scenes. Magritte was interested in the nature of painting itself, of the depiction of reality. The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe) is one of his most striking examples.

René Magritte, The Son of Man
René Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, (116 x 89 cm), private collection

Magritte was a highly skilled illustrator and worked as an advertisement designer in parallel to his work as an artist. His easily recognizable style is characterized by his precise and realist drawings, which once again create a sharp contrast with the absurdity found in the subjects. The Son of Man was painted very near the end of Magritte’s life, just three years before his death. This painting – which, like many works by the Belgian master, is highly sought-after – was sold to a private collector in 1998 for more than $5 million.

Discussing The Son of Man in an interview, Magritte said,

“In a recent painting, I showed an apple in front of a person’s face. (…) At least, it hides the face partly well. So you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

This is the only clue given directly by the artist to help explain the mystery behind the painting.

Three details in-depth

The recurring apple

René Magritte, The Son of Man

Magritte used many recurring themes and objects in his compositions. The best known perhaps are his grelots or horse bells (a sort of black sphere) and birds. Another, seen here, is the apple, still green and intact. Apples are often the subject or key element in his paintings. In this case, it hides the person’s face, transforming an unremarkable painting into something else entirely. It creates a feeling of frustrating for the spectator, as the face is obscured.

The apple is a reference to the apple from the Garden of Eden, which embodies sin, temptation and the mortal condition of human beings. This relatively religious imagery works well with the artwork’s title, The Son of Man – a direct reference to Christ, translated as “son of Adam”, once again returning to the theme of original sin.

One visible eye

René Magritte, The Son of Man details

The eye seen behind the green apple could be a symbol of grief for the painter, as, in 1912, when René Magritte was still a teenager, his mother committed suicide by jumping into the Sambre.

Her body was found with her face partially covered by her nightshirt, with only her left eye visible. Perhaps this detail had a lasting impression on the young man, who chose to use it in The Son of Man, where only the person’s left eye is visible behind the apple.

The self-portrait theory

The Son of Man, photographed by Bill Brandt
René Magritte with his painting The Son of Man, photographed by Bill Brandt, 1964. © Bill Brandt

The man obscured by the apple is a classic of Magritte’s iconography. He is found in many of the artist’s paintings, and is always dressed in a black suit and wearing a red tie and bowler hat. This is unlikely to be a coincidence, as Magritte often dressed in exactly the same way.

Many critics therefore see this as a late self-portrait of the painter, despite the artist often criticizing the practice as being narcissistic. That would also explain why the details of the subject’s face are hidden behind an innocent apple…

Similar artists at KAZoART: Valy

KAZoART artist Valy takes inspiration from René Magritte’s works to produce original photos. The work René… my name is René combines the world of James Bond with the painting Son of Man.

Valy,  "René... my name is rené"
Valy, “René… my name is rené”, €210