Helena Newman, Head of Europe at Sotheby’s, announced the presence of the painting in the next auction on 2nd March in London: “The empire of lights brings together two fundamental elements of everyday life – day and night – on a paradoxical canvas.”. Magritte created the picture in 1961 and dedicated it to Anne Marie Gillion Crowet, daughter of the patron Pierre Crowet, a historical friend of the painter. He certainly never expected his “empire des lumières” to be not only considered one of the most representative works of surrealism, but also to reach an estimate of € 52 million by Sotheby’s.
The famous canvas, until now, had been part of the Crowet family collection, lent to the Magritte Museum in Brussels from 2009 to 2020. The dimensions of the work of art are also important, 114 cm x 146 cm, and belongs to a series of 17 paintings, all depicting a nocturnal landscape with a house, on one side obscured by a tree and on the other illuminated by a lamppost, in a play of light and shadow, under a sunny sky. The possible source of inspiration for the artist may have been “L’Aigrette” by André Breton: “If only the sun would come out tonight”.
In fact, at first glance it might seem like a simple painting of a house immersed in silence and in the blanket of trees, with a mirror of water that reflects and enhances the warm light that comes from the streetlamp and the open windows. However, with a closer look it becomes clear that, with a contrast between light and dark and between day and night, Magritte violates a basic rule of reality: the light of the sun, instead of being a source of clarity, generates the typical disturbance of darkness. The brightness of the sky becomes overwhelming and makes the empty darkness below even more impenetrable. This bizarre subject is treated in a precise, impersonal style, typical of veristic surrealist painting, preferred by Magritte since the mid-1920s.
The idea of the canvas came to Magritte in 1948, the year in which he began to work on it, enriching this image from time to time in subsequent paintings, in the wake of Van Gogh and Monet, who painted different versions of the same subject basing on the lights and the colours that changed during the day and night, as well as during the different seasons. Magritte’s series of paintings immediately appealed to audiences and critics alike, and banker Nelson Rockefeller bought the first version of the series. There are also other specimens preserved in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Menil Collection in Houston and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
Currently, the highest auction value for a work by Magritte is $ 26.8 million, for the work “Le Principe du Plaisir” (1937), which portrays Edward James, one of the greatest patrons of surrealist art and presented to Magritte by Salvador Dalí in 1937. But on 2nd March it will be overtaken by the painting “The empire of lights”, a cinematographic painting that with its power and immediacy confirms Magritte as one of the most sought-after artists on the market.