‘I really was his painting’. My life with Magritte
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Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet still recalls when René Magritte announced he’d make her a version of his famous painting, L’Empire des Lumières. A typically surrealist concoction by the Belgian – it shows a house shrouded in nighttime, its windows aglow under a paradoxically clear blue sky – it was a hit the first time he produced one in 1948; aided by 16 later versions he made, it has become one of his most loved images, inspiring, for instance, the poster for The Exorcist.
“He knew I loved the picture,” says Gillion Crowet, a Belgian baroness who had known the artist from her youth – her father, the lawyer and businessman Pierre Crowet, was one of the artist’s first patrons. “So he said, ‘I’ll do you one,’ and I said, ‘I want the biggest one!’ And he managed it – he put all of his genius into it.” Between the genius and the relative size (the canvas measures 114cm x 146cm), it helps explain why she is now selling it, via Sotheby’s, with a starting price of £45mn – the highest price ever expected for a Magritte, and one of the highest estimates ever for a work of art in Europe.
Gillion Crowet was close friends with Magritte until he died in 1967. His own personal image was quite classic, even bourgeois, often clad in a simple suit, but she promises he was anything but: “He was surrealist from every pore!” However, she also insists a lot that he was “real”, meaning that he was simple and unpretentious. “His surrealism wasn’t an act, like it was with a lot of the other so-called surrealists” – alluding to someone like the much more “on-brand” Dalí. The first time they met, when she was 16, he compared her to a horse. She had come to his studio to have her portrait painted, and sat down next to a picture of his, La belle idée (1950), which blends a woman’s body and an equine face. “He looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘You see, I was painting you before I even met you.’” (La belle idée is quite elegant, and she has only ever considered this as a compliment.)
Magritte had, it turned out, made works using her features even 10, 20 years beforehand, imagining her face before ever seeing it; and then, when he had, producing even more, from La Fée ignorante, which ended up on a Belgian stamp, to a vast 16m frieze in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Charleroi. It’s why she struggles when people call her Magritte’s muse. “I think I was more than that for him. I really was his painting.”
Gillion Crowet is full of small odd details of their friendship: how he was obsessed with lobster, so it was pretty much all she ever served him, and how when she went for dinner, “there was a table with a huge tablecloth that fell all the way to the floor, and when you stretched your legs out, you found a huge trombone underneath.” She feels the influence of Magritte everywhere. “He taught me to become like him – to see things in a different way. It’s a virus you catch quickly.” She is still sad, though, that she refused to let him paint her when she was newly married to Roland Gillion. Admittedly, he wanted to portray her made out of precious stones, with a bag of blood attached to her head. The young Anne-Marie, who had wanted something nice to give her husband, declined. “And he was furious! So disappointed, and he never made the picture… I was so young, so stupid.” Instead Magritte painted her much more classically, with a flesh-pink rose beside her, but “he called it ‘Le Combat’ – because it had been a fight!”
Magritte gave Gillion Crowet her Empire des Lumières more than 60 years ago, and she had it in her living room until she loaned it to Brussels’ Magritte Museum from 2009 to 2020. She is categorical that it is his masterpiece. “It had such an importance for him – he was proud of the perfection he’d reached in making it.” She notes admiringly that he “played with all the blacks in the canvas in an extraordinary way – the different tonalities he managed! It was very modern, really, compared to what he used to do, which were more charming little pictures – this is a really strong picture.” She calls Magritte an “excellent painter”, which is almost a surprise, as the potency of his images has arguably surpassed much consideration of his craft. “Yes – I don’t get that,” she says. “It’s a mistake. He really knew how to paint.”
Why is she selling it, though? “I consider it to be a global masterpiece, and I can’t be selfish and keep it in our collections. I think this picture should travel the world and be seen and admired by everyone.” As for the vast price expected, “I have no clue about that,” she insists. “I have to say, it’s the side of things which I really don’t like, but which is necessary. And it’s important for Magritte.” Perhaps she needs it for her other purchases – she has been an insatiable collector for decades, donating a huge collection of art deco to Belgium’s national museum, or just recently publishing a book on her latest passion, Moroccan Berber jewellery. She also has more Magrittes, but “they’re staying at home”, she promises, to be left to her daughter and grandson. But this Empire, she insists, is a case apart. “I think it’s my duty to send it trotting around the world. Everyone has to see it. Voilà.”
Gillion Crowet actually once filled a special basement bar with art nouveau furniture just for Magritte. The artist “hated lifts – was scared of them,” and she lives on the sixth and seventh floors, so she prepared a “rather fun 1900s-style bar” downstairs where she’d receive him for dinner. Once he was there, though, he took exception to one of her symbolist birdcages into which she’d put a straw bird. “He said: ‘What are you doing with that straw bird in a cage?’ And I said, ‘honestly, René, what would you have me put in there?’ He replied: ‘an egg!’” So he brought her an ostrich egg, and she put that in the cage instead. “All surrealist memories,” she sighs, his enchantment still clear in her voice.