Proud Coffin: René Magritte’s Perspective: Madame Récamier by David

René Magritte, Perspective: Madame Récamier by David, 1951 oil on canvas, 60.5 x 80.5 cm. Purchased 1997. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of René Magritte / SODRAC (2022)


Laughing out loud may seem inappropriate when viewing a painting — especially one that features a coffin. But, nestled among the National Gallery’s selection of Surrealist works, René Magritte’s Perspective: Madame Récamier by David, inspires just this. As humourous as it is morbid, it is one of only two Magritte oil paintings in public collections in Canada. And if you are a Magritte lover who can’t make it to Brussels’ Year of Magritte celebrations in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the painter’s death, you can view Perspective any time­ — it’s on permanent view in the European and American Galleries.

In this macabre work, Magritte substitutes a coffin for the sitter in an unfinished early nineteenth century portrait by Jacques-Louis David. Painted in 1951, Magritte’s version replicates David’s Neoclassical colours and fine detail brushwork, but replaces the main subject of the painting, Madame Récamier, with a coffin. The wife of a Parisian banker, Madame Récamier was a popular socialite in Napoleonic Paris, whose great beauty enticed many men to fall in love with her.


Jacques-Louis David, Madame Récamier, 1800, oil on canvas, 174 cm x 244 cm. Paris, musée du Louvre. Photo  © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Gérard Blot


In Magritte’s uncanny take, a wooden coffin appears to sit upright on a classically inspired ochre and green French sofa. Angled slightly towards the viewer, the coffin gives the distinct impression of looking proud as it faces the viewer, reclining nonchalantly as though it is indeed sitting for a portrait.

While Perspective evades any single interpretation — is it an aggressive act effacing female beauty or a simple reminder of death’s inevitability? — it is sure to surprise and unsettle.

René Magritte’s Perspective: Madame Récamier by David is on view at the National Gallery of Canada. It is one of only two oil paintings by Magritte in public collections in Canada, and the only one on view during the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death.

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