A team of researchers has discovered the face of a woman peering out from beneath Surrealist painter René Magritte’s 1943 painting “La cinquième saison” (“The Fifth Season”). The figure, uncovered using infrared reflectography, could be a representation of the artist’s wife Georgette Magritte.
Francisca Vandepitte, a senior curator of modern art at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, and Catherine Defeyt, a researcher at the museum as well as Belgium’s University of Liège, uncovered the portrait as part of a larger project focused on scientific approaches to studying Magritte’s oil paintings. Vandepitte and Defeyt used chemical and light technology to examine 50 works dated between 1921 and 1967, and their compiled findings are slated to be published later this summer.
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The newly uncovered portrait reveals a blonde woman, and although Georgette had brown hair, her face shape, nose, and hairstyle match the painting’s subject, the researchers say. Another possible sitter is Adrienne Crowet, a blonde model Magritte painted in 1940.
René and Georgette Magritte met in 1920 and were married from 1922 until René’s death in 1967. Existing letters suggest a wholesome decades-long love affair (a notion Paul Simon cemented in his 1983 song “René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War“).
Vandepitte and Defeyt pointed out that the hidden painting is similar to three portraits Magritte created a year later. In 1944, the artist painted Georgette, Jacqueline Nonkels (Magritte’s neighbor and friend), and Lou Cosyn (the wife of Magritte’s dealer) staring directly at the viewer, their realistically rendered faces appearing in stark contrast to the swirling brushstrokes behind them.
This nod to Impressionism is on full view in the final version of “La cinquième saison.” During World War II, Magritte abandoned the defined shapes of his famous Surrealist works. He was convinced that the Soviets would soon vanquish the Nazis occupying his native Belgium and began creating sunny paintings featuring cheerful imagery, intentionally mimicking the style of Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The subsequent body of paintings was unfavorably dubbed the vache period (which directly translates to “cow” and can be taken more loosely to mean vulgar).
Staying true to his Surrealist inclinations, Renoir did not completely leave behind his philosophical musings during this period. In “La cinquième saison,” two men dressed in bowling hats carry paintings with gilded frames under their arms, a potential reference to the artist’s fixation on the nature of representation. It’s a picture within a picture, a concept the artist explored in works such as “The Treachery of Images” (1929), his famous painting of a pipe with the phrase “This Is Not a Pipe” written in French below it.
While the hidden portrait adds one more layer to Magritte’s paintings within a painting, the artist is also known to have reused old canvases. In 2017, researchers at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium found another hidden gem. After exhibiting “La Pose enchantée (The Enchanted Pose)” (1927) in the 1920s, the artist separated it into four pieces. Between 2013 and 2016, three sections of the painting were found underneath layers of paint in Magritte works at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and the Norwich Castle Museum in the United Kingdom. “God is Not a Saint” (1935–1936), a painting at the Magritte Museum in Brussels, was the last piece.