The Son of Man is a 1964 surrealist self-portrait by Belgian artist René Magritte. As one of the most recognizable paintings of the surrealist movement, the painting is both simplistic and ambiguous, with the meaning left to the interpretation of the viewer. Singulart will be exploring the theories behind the meaning of The Son of Man, as well as Magritte’s history with surrealism and his impact on popular culture.
Magritte and Surrealism
Although Magritte began his artistic career creating impressionist pieces, he truly excelled at creating witty, thought-provoking works in a surrealist style. While he was working as a draftsman in a wallpaper factory, he began to experiment with surrealism, producing his first surrealist work The Lost Jockey. This painting portrays a jockey riding through a landscape that appears to be on a stage, with curtains on either side and wooden floorboards visible under the horse’s feet. Magritte held his first solo exhibition in 1927, but was left desolate when art critics showed a strong dislike for his work.
The critics’ reaction to his show influenced his move to Paris, where he met fellow surrealists Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, and Max Ernst. While Paris gave him inspiration to complete works such as The Lovers and the Treachery of Images, he failed to make a lasting impact on the arts scene and moved back to Brussels in 1930. The outbreak of WWII inspired his Renoir period, where Magritte adopted a colorful style in opposition to the chaos and destruction of the war. He explained this in a letter, saying:
“The sense of chaos, of panic, which Surrealism hoped to foster so that everything might be called into question was achieved much more successfully by those idiots the Nazis… Against widespread pessimism, I now propose a search for joy and pleasure.”
Towards the end of the war, Magritte abandoned the impressionist style, marking the start of his “vache period.” In stark contrast to the cheerful, colorful paintings he had produced during the war, these artworks were angular, dark and provocative, inspired by Fauve in their execution. It was named his “vache period” because in French vache means cow, or in this context, an excessively large woman or lazy person. Magritte portrayed this crudeness through his pieces, and as he predicted, they were not well-received.
In 1948, Magritte reverted to the surrealism style he had explored before WWII. It was during this period he experienced his greatest critical and commercial successes, with a number of retrospectives being dedicated to his work.
The Son of Man: What is it and what does it mean?
Magritte was commissioned to paint a self-portrait in 1963, and so he began to work on The Son of Man. He found it difficult to paint a self-portrait in the traditional fashion, so he leaned more towards the surrealist style, finding self-portraits to be a “problem of conscience.”
In The Son of Man, we see a man standing in front of a seaside landscape. Although the sky above him is cloudy, sunlight is suggested by the slight shadows on the man’s left side. Dressed in an overcoat and bowler hat – the bowler hat making constant appearances in Magritte’s work, as well as possibly alluding to his political leanings towards the Communist party – the man seems out of place in a casual setting. It is hardly noticeable at first glance, but upon closer inspection, viewers can see that the man’s left elbow faces the wrong way.
However, the elbow is not the most surreal part of the painting; the green apple that partially obscures the man’s face is the signature motif. The apple hovers in front of his face, defying the laws of gravity and inviting the viewer to imagine what the man’s face might look like, leading them to their own interpretation. In an interview about the piece, Magritte said:
“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible. Humans hide their secrets too well… 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.”
It has been theorized that the title of the painting could be a reference to Christianity, and that the green apple is a symbol of the common man succumbing to temptation. In Christian mythology, the apple is a symbol of knowledge and of the fall of man, recalling the story of Eve accepting the apple from the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
It has also been suggested that the piece aims to reflect the anonymity of the modern businessman and having to hide one’s true identity in order to conform. The way that the apple obscures the man’s face means that he is hiding his true self from the eyes of society. One of the most enduring aspects of The Son of Man is it’s endless interpretations, which was Magritte’s aim.
The Son of Man, Magritte, and Pop Culture
The Son of Man is one of surrealism’s most recognizable artworks, which could be due to its many appearances in popular culture, parodied by everyone from Norman Rockwell to The Simpsons.
In 1970, Rockwell used Magritte’s apple technique in his painting Mr. Apple, but the subject’s head is replaced, rather than obscured, by a giant red apple. Magritte’s apple motif also inspired Paul McCartney to name his label Apple Records, which subsequently inspired Steve Jobs to name his company Apple Computers.
The painting itself was featured heavily in the 1999 crime film The Thomas Crown Affair, particularly in the last scene when numerous men dressed in bowler hats and overcoats infiltrate the museum to confuse the security team and distract them from Thomas Crown’s actions.
Homages to The Son of Man can also be seen in The Simpsons, (500) Days of Summer, Bronson, and Stranger Than Fiction.