The Son of Man, a surrealist self-portrait created by the renowned Belgian artist René Magritte in 1964, stands as a hallmark of the surrealist movement. Simultaneously simplistic and cryptic, the painting invites viewers to interpret its meaning according to their own perceptions.
Rene Magritte. The Son of Man, 1964. Oil on canvas. 45.67 in × 35 in (116 cm × 89 cm). Private collection.
Born in Belgium in 1898, René Magritte was an artist known for his enigmatic masterpieces, rich with symbolism, for which only he held the true meaning. His works often played with the contrast between objects and their depictions, blurring the lines between reality and the realm of dreams, portraying scenes that seemed irrational yet captivating.
Magritte in front of his painting The Pilgrim, by Lothar Wolleh, 1967
The Son of Man was painted during the final years of Magritte’s life, a mere three years prior to his passing. The artwork is part of a series of 3 paintings with a shared theme, where the central figures’ faces are concealed. The other two pieces are The Great War on Facades, showcasing a woman standing with purple flowers obscuring her face, and Man In a Bowler Hat, featuring a dove in front of a man’s face, seemingly in mid-flight from right to left. Each of these paintings contributes to a compelling exploration of hidden identities and mysterious narratives.
The Great War on Facades (left) and Man In a Bowler Hat (right)
The creation of The Son of Man came about through a commission by Magritte’s friend and advisor, Harry Torczyner. In 1963, Torczyner expressed a desire for a self-portrait from the artist. However, Magritte grappled with concerns, feeling a “problem of conscience” regarding the request. He clarified that he intended to paint a picture rather than a traditional portrait.
To fulfill the commission while maintaining his artistic vision, Magritte chose to obscure his face with a symbolic piece of fruit. He explained that his intention was to explore the concept that everything we perceive conceals another layer, and there’s an inherent desire to uncover what lies beneath the surface.
In The Son of Man, the painting presents a man standing against a backdrop of a coastal landscape. Dressed in an overcoat and a bowler hat – a recurring motif in Magritte’s oeuvre – the man appears somewhat out of place in this relaxed setting.
Detail of The Son of Man
A closer look reveals that the man’s left arm bends backward at the elbow, suggesting that he could be actually facing away from the viewers. In the meantime, the apple defies gravity as it hovers before the man’s face, leaving us to wonder about his identity and countenance.
“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.”
The title of the painting has sparked various theories, with some suggesting it could be a reference to Christianity, where the green apple symbolizes man’s succumbing to temptation. Others propose that the artwork reflects the anonymity prevalent in modern society, highlighting the need to conceal one’s true identity to conform. The apple’s placement, obscuring the man’s face, implies that he hides his authentic self from society’s gaze.
Undoubtedly, one of the most enduring aspects of The Son of Man lies in its ability to evoke endless interpretations, a goal that Magritte deliberately sought to achieve.
Words of wisdom
“Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist” ―René Magritte
“Everything you can imagine is real.” ―Pablo Picasso
“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” ―Friedrich Nietzsche
“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” ―Leonardo da Vinci