René Magritte's enigmatic L’empire des lumières paintings are among his most desired and best known, rivalled only by the Surrealist's bowler-hatted man motif.
Magritte painted his first version of the subject in 1948 and went on to create 17 "Empire of Light" canvases: eerie works that depict a nocturnal landscape with a house, partially obscured by a tree and lit by a streetlamp, under a bizarrely sunny sky. This cinematic composition notably provided inspiration for a scene in the 1973 filmThe Exorcist.
On 2 March in London, Sotheby's will sell one of the largest in the series, measuring 114cm by 146cm, with an estimate in excess of £45m ($60m)—it carries a guarantee.
Titled L’empire des lumières, the work was painted in 1961 for Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet, the daughter of Magritte’s patron Pierre Crowet, whose likeness appeared in numerous works by the artist before they even met. Crowet and Magritte became lifelong friends, and this work has remained in the family's collection ever since, on longterm loan to the Musée Magritte in Brussels from 2009 to 2020.
While Helena Newman, the chairman of Sotheby's Europe and worldwide head of Impressionist & Modern art, will not be drawn on the exact reason the family is choosing to sell the painting now, she says: “Having been exhibited in the Magritte Museum in Brussels for the past ten years, the family feel that the work is now ready for the natural next stage in its journey."
The present auction record for a work by Magritte stands at $26.8m (with fees), achieved by Le Principe du Plaisir (1937), a portrait of the Surrealist patron Edward James, at Sotheby’s New York in 2018. But in 2020, the dealer Emmanuel Di Donna told The Art Newspaper that some works have sold privately for more, pointing to “a couple [sold] in the mid-$30m to mid-$40m range”.
Newman says that she has "heard of conversations and offers for Magritte works on the private market at this level (around $60m) but ultimately not coming to fruition as the owners were not ready to sell".
In valuing this work for auction, Newman says her team took into account both previous prices for Magritte works (in 2017, a L’empire des lumières, of around a quarter of the size of the Crowet example, sold for a then-record $20.5m at Christie's) and "across the board at works by 20th century masters, such as Picasso and Giacometti, that have sold for over $50m, mostly in the past year." The Crowet painting is, Newman says, the largest of the series (which was painted in landscape and portrait formats) to come to auction—the Guggenheim in New York holds a upright version of the scene, which measure 195cm by 131cm.
"The opportunities to buy something of this scale and importance by Magritte are very few and far between, and it comes at a time when we've seen the market for Magritte go from strength to strength over recent years, with demand from contemporary art collectors in particular increase," Newman says.
The painting will be unveiled today at Sotheby's in Los Angeles, before going on tour to New York then Hong Kong before coming to London to be sold. "It seems fitting that it will be unveiled in Los Angeles as the image has an extraordinarily cinematic strength," Newman says, adding that "the crispness and quality of the painting is exquisite—the way that Magritte plays with your eye, with the simulateous depiction of day and night, is absolutely extraordinary and the scale gives it such an expansive feel."