René Magritte (Belgian, 1898-1967) Le bain de cristal (Executed circa 1946 - 1949)

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Lot 14AR
René Magritte
Le bain de cristal

Sold for £ 173,000 (US$ 231,487) inc. premium
René Magritte (1898-1967)
Le bain de cristal
signed 'Magritte' (lower left)
sanguine on paper
47.6 x 36.5cm (18 3/4 x 14 3/8in).
Executed circa 1946 - 1949


  • The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by the Comité Magritte.

    Galerie Govaerts, Ostend.
    Private collection, Belgium (acquired from the above circa 1970 - 1975).

    'If we accept the reality of [a] secret desire which justifies the use of metaphor, we can also understand why we are affected by the sight of an ordinary object placed in an unfamiliar and lonely setting: our secret desire is for a change in the order of things, and it is appeased by the vision of a new order (isolation) [...] the fate of an object in which we had no interest suddenly begins to disturb us' (R. Magritte in a letter to the Belgian writer and Surrealist André Souris in 1932, quoted in M. Draguet & C. Goormans, 'Once the image is isolated what happens to the mind?' in A. Umland, (ed.), Magritte, The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926 - 1938 (exh. cat.), New York, 2013, p. 154).

    Le bain de cristal issues from a series of works on paper that René Magritte executed of this iconic subject from 1946 – 1949. Drawing on a key theme which had galvanised Magritte's practice from the early 1930s, the image aptly expresses the aims he sought within his art, namely to invoke the unfamiliar and thus to reveal the inherent mystery which lay at the heart of reality. In a letter to the dealer, Alexandre Iolas, on 2 March 1950, Magritte also appears to express a particular fondness for this subject. While asking Iolas to identify the paintings that were most likely to sell in an exhibition at his gallery in New York in September 1949, in which Magritte had included a gouache of the present subject, he was careful to add: 'let that not mean that those which don't sell (like, for instance, the wonderful gouache, Le bain de cristal) should be torn up' (R. Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. IV, Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papier Collés 1918 – 1967, Antwerp, 1994, p. 132).

    The first known version of this image was one of twelve drawings made to illustrate a new edition of poems entitled Les Nécessités de la vie et les consequences des rêves précédés d'Exemples by the fellow Surrealist and poet Paul Eluard in 1946. In an associated sketch that Magritte offered to the collector Pierre Andrieu, and now in the collection of the Musée national d'art modern Centre George Pompoidou, an inscription alongside the motif reads, 'The cut-glass bath' (Giraffe in a glass) (sunlit) impressionist technique'. In the drawing that Magritte executed for Eluard's collection of poems his reference to this 'impressionist technique' is discernible. Surrounding the glass and its unlikely inhabitant are a flurry of short, sinuous lines expanding in a circular direction from an orb of empty space (suggestive of the sun) to the left. This technique chimed with the impressionist style that Magritte was espousing in his painting at the time and references the 'sunlit' Surrealism that he was at pains to establish among his Surrealist counterparts at the time of execution.

    During the Second World War Magritte began to reformulate the tenets of Surrealism in a manner which positively responded to the dark reality war had engendered. Writing to Paul Eluard towards the end of 1941, Magritte articulates the change that his work has undergone, 'for some time now I've been enjoying working. No doubt I needed to find the means of realising what was tormenting me: pictures in which I would explore the 'bright side' of life... I have succeeded in freshening the air of my painting: a quite powerful charm has now replaced the disquieting poetry I used to strive for in my pictures' (R. Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, London, 1992, p. 257). During 1940, when Magritte had fled from occupied Brussels to France, he produced relatively little work, but as he started to paint once again Magritte began to infuse his new compositions with illumination and light, employing feathered, vibrant brush work much in the manner of Pierre-Auguste Renoir – prompting many commentators to refer to this phase as his 'Renoir period' – a term which the artist did not accept.

    In the present work however, and similarly in the gouache that Magritte realised of the same subject in 1946, he uses the same smooth handling and customary tonality that he had employed in the pre-war years. Despite the fervour with which Magritte expounded his new conceptualisation of Surrealism he continued to return to his habitual style. From the beginning of 1946 to spring 1947, of the 60 gouaches he executed, only half were rendered in a quasi-Impressionist manner. What remained constant for Magritte was the referencing of reality to create a work of astonishing mystery which provoked a 'bewildering' poetic effect within his viewers: 'Mystery is not one of the possibilities of the real; it is that which is necessary in order for the real to exist' (R. Magritte, quoted in S. Gablik, Magritte, London, 1970, pp. 11 - 12).

    In Le bain de cristal Magritte has conjured a bizarre and baffling scene. Set within a barren desert landscape, broken only by a cluster of palm trees to the distance, a gigantic crystal glass has appeared to the foreground, holding within it a seemingly life-size giraffe. The immediate incongruity of the union is captivating. Why is the giraffe standing in a crystal glass? How on earth did it come to be there? Why is the glass so large? The internal questions come tumbling from us unabated. This typical method of displacing objects borrowed from reality and resituating them in an unfamiliar context had been employed by Magritte from the early 1930s and developed a theory of the 'Surrealist object' that had been raised by the founder of Parisian Surrealism, André Breton, from around 1924.

    In Breton's definition, the aim of Surrealism was the 'rehabilitation of an object': 'alienating it from its habitual context so that its purpose would become unknown, or at least altered. This would serve to awaken the latent life in objects – it would enlarge [their] experience of them, which otherwise tends to be bound by utility and guarded by common sense' (S. Gablik, ibid., p. 102). Another source for developing the Surrealist conceptualisation of the object was the absurdist prose-poem Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont of 1938. In this ground-breaking work, Lautréamont linked objects within the text in a completely illogical and unconnected fashion, as illustrated in the much-cited phrase: 'as beautiful as... the fortuitous encounter upon an operating table of a sewing machine and umbrella' (S. Gablik, ibid., p. 44). The Surrealists including Magritte were highly influenced by these writings, and in 1948 Magritte supplied 77 illustrations for a later edition of Lautréamont's Oeuvres complètes.

    In contrast to the Surrealists however, who emphasized the role of chance in juxtaposing unrelated objects, Magritte considered that every object was linked to another by means of a fundamental, rational logic which needed to be discovered deep within our consciousness. As such, Magritte set about carefully searching for the hidden affinities between objects, and began to conceive of painting as a way of resolving this intrinsic philosophical problem visually. Works such as Les affinities electives from 1933 intuitively served to provoke the disturbing, jolting effect so desired by Magritte, but it was not until 1936 that he became aware of the means of his methodology, a realisation which was to guide his investigations into the problem between objects until his death:

    'One night in 1936, I awoke in a room in which a cage and the bird sleeping in it has been placed. A magnificent error caused me to see an egg in the cage instead of the bird. I then grasped a new and astonishing poetic secret, because the shock I experienced had been provoked precisely by the affinity of the two objects, the cage and the egg, where previously I used to provoke this shock by causing the encounter of unrelated objects. Ever since that revelation I have sought to discover if objects other the cage could not likewise manifest – by bringing to light some element peculiar to them and rigorously predetermined' (R. Magritte, 'La Ligne de vie' lecture given in Antwerp on 20 November 1938, quoted in S. Gablik, ibid., p. 104).

    The motif of the glass was one that Magritte returned to time and again throughout his oeuvre. However, Le bain de cristal appears to be the earliest known example of Magritte exploring the metaphysical links underlying this particular object. In Les valeurs personelles (1952), he invests the same stemmed glass with almost anthropomorphic qualities, placing it within a set-like environment alongside a comb, powderpuff and match. Meanwhile, a stemmed glass is levitated into the evening sky and intersected with a floating baguette in La force des choses (1958) and in 1960 he presents an enormous crystal champagne coupe in an empty landscape (much akin to Le bain de cristal) with a cloud hoovering just at its rim. In Les vacances de Hegel of 1958 Magritte uniquely employs a filled glass balancing atop an umbrella as a visual synthesis of the Hegelian dialectic which underpins much of Magritte's own thinking - a process based on conceptual paradox in which conflicting possibilities come together to form a coherent 'solution'.

    Returning to ponder the secret affinity between the glass and the giraffe: could it be that their shared long neck is the intrinsic logic which brings them together? Or could the connection be a witty riposte to Dalí's Burning Giraffe of 1936 - 1937? A work with which Magritte was certainly familiar and not enamoured with. Despite the incongruity of coupled animal and object, what is perhaps more baffling still is the extraordinary change in scale which has taken place and we begin to wonder if we have not been hoodwinked into a glorious pictorial deception. Indeed, within the differing versions of Le bain de cristal, apart from a switching of the giraffe's profile from left to right, the only other alterations are employed to deliberately confound our perception of scale and space.

    In the gouache from 1949 along with the present drawing, Magritte sets the glass directly before our eye line while the palm trees are depicted in the far distance giving the impression that the glass is in fact to the scale of a normal sized glass. An entirely plausible assumption until we realise the impossibility of a miniature giraffe. Meanwhile, in the gouache from 1946, the goblet has metamorphosed into a magnificent tower of crystal the same size as a tree depicted further to the foreground to emphasise the scale of the glass. These pictorial devices modify our spatio-temporal experience of the scene by emphasising the integral artifice of the image. Magritte always maintained the unequivocal character of the painting as an image rather than a representation of reality: 'It is not a cigar one sees but an image of a cigar' (R. Magritte, quoted in S. Gablik, ibid., p. 106). Writing in 1938, he described the landscape as if it were the two-dimensional backdrop upon which he could place his object protagonists, 'Despite the shifting abundance of detail and nuance in nature, I was able to see a landscape as if it were only a curtain placed in front of me... I became uncertain of the depth of fields, unconvinced of the remoteness of the horizon' (R. Magritte, quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, (exh. cat.), London, 1992, pp. 14 – 15).

    The present work is realised in sanguine, a red chalk that Magritte often used to complete large stand-alone drawings to feature alongside the series of paintings or works on paper of the same subject. One such example is Le Balcon (circa 1949) of the same size and likely to have been executed around the same time as Le bain de cristal, which now resides in The Art Institute of Chicago. In these drawings, there is a sensitively and immediacy of touch which distinguishes them from the more highly worked paintings or ephemeral sketches. In Le bain de cristal, the earthy tone of the sanguine lends itself to the presentation of the parched desert landscape as well as the natural colouring of the giraffe itself, yet it also underscores the conceptual power of the work by emphasising the aridity of the scene - the notion of the giraffe bathing within the empty crystal glass is rendered even more futile and absurd.

    As with so many other works by Magritte, Le bain de cristal remains an interpretive mystery. A conceptual conundrum which gestures towards the complexities and paradoxes of lived experience. Magritte strongly resisted any attempt to decipher his imagery or fathom its meaning. Rather, it is through the interstices of understanding experienced by his viewers that he evokes the underlying mystery of our existence.
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