A Formal Analysis of The Lovers by René Margritte

Often fascinated with the mysterious and magical elements of dream, surrealist painters have tried to capture these ideas floating around in the subconscious. The Lovers, an oil painting done by René Magritte in the year 1928, is able to capture this fascination with the unknown. Through veiling the subject’s faces in a white sheet, Magritte is able to shroud their identity. This concept of doing a portrait while not disclosing the identity of the subjects to the viewer completely encapsulates the surrealist movement. Because Magritte is able to suggest themes of surrealism more through concept than image in this painting, The Lovers pushes against the standards set by the surrealist movement and shows surrealism as it could be seen in real life—not just the imagination.

Hanging on a white wall illuminated with warm, white lights, this painting is enclosed within a darkly-stained wooden frame. The painting itself measures nearly twenty-nine inches across and twenty-one and a half inches high. The oil paint on the canvas has a moderate shine in the light which adds to the highlights in the composition. At first glance, this painting seems to be a portrait of a man and a woman from the chest up. The two appear to be kissing, however, each of their heads is covered in a white fabric, separating their lips from one another and removing any sort of facial identity from the two. The sheets covering their heads are dramatically folded and creased, creating a lot of diversity in highlights and shadows within the whiteness of the sheets. While the genders cannot be confirmed, one can assume that the figure on the right is a man due to his black suit, black tie, and white dress-shirt, and the figure on the left is a woman due to her red, sleeveless top. While there is very little environment in the painting, two walls and a ceiling can be seen behind the figures. While the right wall is painted red, the wall directly behind them is more of a greenish-grey. The ceiling is an off-white, connected only to the red wall with a white crown molding. No molding is visible between the ceiling and the back, greenish-grey wall.

While other surrealist painters of the time focused much more on portraying things that could exclusively been seen in the wildest of dreams, Magritte focuses on a much more real-life interpretation of surrealism. As opposed to showing a creature, creation, or landscape that cannot be found on Earth, Magritte rather presents viewers with a situation the would normally not be found. Many questions arise to the viewer when first exhibiting this work, such as “How could they be kissing through the fabric?” or “Who are these people and what exactly is their relationship?”. The mystery that these questions surround forces viewers to step back into their own shoes and apply their own meanings to the artwork. One possible interpretation of this painting would be that the lovers are not meant to be together, and cannot. Although they are technically together in the physical sense of the word, they can never be together in the emotional sense due to the clear barriers of fabric between them. In addition, because the portrait is cropped at the lovers’ chests, we cannot see if they are embracing each other during this kiss, leaving more ambiguity as to their true relationship. The entirely blank walls that surround them create a sort of dream-like atmosphere in which they are framed—for in dreams, details are often ignored and overlooked. It seems as though Magritte put most of his attention to detail in the creases and folds in the sheets, rather than the individuals or the environment. In this sense, these folds and creases are the lovers’ identities.

Magritte may not have been the first to capture the ideas of surrealism with themes and images from the real world, but The Lovers is certainly a prime example of how to do so. In looking at faceless portraits, viewers will often assign their own identities to the subjects. In creating this painting, did Magritte assign his own personalities and identities to the lovers? If so, it would be interesting to see how the individuals that he based this painting off of are reflected in the light, shadows, technique, and environment in which they are placed.

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