René Magritte, Painted into the Story of Brussels

Rocco Forte Hotels

When considering the wonderful, whimsical world of surrealist artist René Magritte, Brussels lies at the start. Belgium’s capital is where he won his first solo exhibition, where a chance meeting led him to the love of his life, and where he spent the majority of his prolific career. The two are irrevocably intertwined. 

One of the most prominent Surrealist painters, whose bizarre flights of fancy blended horror, peril, comedy, and mystery, Magritte’s works were characterised by particular symbols, notably the bowler hat and the apple. 

His legacy is dotted throughout the Belgian capital – from the two museums dedicated to his life and work, to the sculptural Magritte Fountain by Italian artist Luca Patella – and is now reimagined at Hotel Amigo’s new destination cocktail bar, Bar Magritte.

Creativity as a cure

Born in the quaint city of Lessines on 21st November 1898, Magritte’s childhood was marred by the death of his mother when he was just 12. He found solace in creativity and poured his grief into his burgeoning artistic talents. Three years later, at a local funfair, he met a young woman, Georgette Berger, who was to become his lifelong inspiration and muse.

Make your way to the Brussels Botanical Gardens and you’ll be standing in the very spot where the couple reunited, following their enforced separation due to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. See a stunning series of manicured gardens topped with a magnificent glass conservatory. Picture a young Magritte, strolling arm-in-arm among the blooms with his love, after he moved to Brussels to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

From that time on, Georgette became his muse, his model and his confidant. Once married, they were inseparable, indeed while working, he would move his easel from room to room to be close to her while he painted, even hastily clearing his canvas from the table so she could serve dinner.

Magritte spent the first few years of his career working as a graphic artist and quasi-abstract painter, kept well-supplied by the art shop where Georgette worked. It wasn’t until 1927 that his artistic career really began to take hold with his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Le Centaure, ten minutes’ drive from Hotel Amigo. Making waves with the macabre ‘The Menaced Assassin’, the show gained global attention, announcing his arrival on the Surrealist scene.

Life in Brussels

After a brief and moderately successful sojourn in Paris, Magritte and Georgette rarely travelled and settled into a rather conventional life in the quiet suburban neighbourhood of Jette. His home and studio for thirty years – now the René Magritte House-Museum – elements of the apartment’s interior feature in his paintings. The staircase which leads nowhere in ‘Forbidden Literature’ and the mantelpiece with an emerging steam train in ‘Time Transfixed’, are just two examples.

The couple joined the Belgian chapter of the Surrealist movement and La Fleur en Papier Doré cafe became their regular stomping ground. A short walk from Hotel Amigo, it is one of the city’s oldest cafes and still a popular spot for local artists to congregate today.  Magritte, however, was not the burning sun of the group, more an orbiting planet who kept a discreet distance.  

He had to wait until his 50s for fame, and when he finally achieved international recognition, he moved with Georgette to the affluent and leafy suburbs of Schaerbeek, 20 minutes by car from our hotel. Magritte’s artistic influence still hangs over the neighbourhood, a hotspot for young creatives with its elegant boulevards and Art Nouveau architecture.

Blending in as Belgium’s everyman

Keen to avoid any of the bourgeois associations with middle-class life so eschewed by the Belgian Surrealist movement, Magritte later adopted his now iconic bowler hat because it was the uniform of the Belgian ‘common man’.

He was a self-confessed homebody who preferred to entertain his Surrealist friends at home, or enjoy a game of chess at the Greenwich cafe, an Art Nouveau brasserie in downtown Brussels just a seven-minute walk from our hotel, where as a younger man, he had tried in vain to sell his first paintings. 

Described by those who knew him as a sincere, kind and real man, without a hint of frivolity about him. A serious Surrealist who treated the movement with candour, poetry, and respect. It is perhaps these qualities that made him and his work so unique, so profound. And why, almost 60 years after his death, his art has such a hold on Brussels and the world beyond, long considered a source of beauty and creative influence for future generations.

For a truly Surreal experience, venture to Bar Magritte, Hotel Amigo’s stunning destination bar, and raise a toast to Magritte with a signature cocktail inspired by his incredible life and work. 

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