Empire of Light: A Surreal Masterpiece by René Magritte


Empire of Light: A Surreal Masterpiece by René Magritte

Empire of Light (L’Empire des lumières) is a series of paintings by the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte. The paintings depict a paradoxical scene of a nighttime street illuminated by a single street lamp, while the sky above is bright and blue as if it were daytime. The contrast between the dark and light creates a sense of mystery and ambiguity that challenges the viewer’s perception of reality.

The History of Empire of Light

Magritte painted the first version of Empire of Light in 1950, and he later created 16 more variations between 1950 and 1954. The paintings were inspired by a poem by Paul Éluard titled L’Empire des lumières, which Magritte had read in 1947. The poem describes a dreamlike vision of a world where night and day coexist peacefully.

The paintings were also influenced by Magritte’s own memories of his childhood in Belgium, where he often witnessed the transition from dusk to dawn. He said: “I was fascinated by the light that came on at night in the streets, in houses, in railway stations. It was like a new world that suddenly appeared.”

Magritte painted most of the versions of Empire of Light in oil on canvas, but he also experimented with other media such as gouache and lithography. He also varied the size, composition, and details of the paintings, such as the number and position of the windows, trees, and clouds. He sometimes added other elements such as birds, stars, or moons to enhance the surreal effect.

The Meaning of Empire of Light


The History of Empire of Light

Empire of Light is one of Magritte’s most famous and celebrated works, and it has been interpreted in various ways by critics and viewers. Some see it as a metaphor for the coexistence of opposites, such as night and day, reality and fantasy, or reason and imagination. Others see it as a commentary on the illusion and deception of appearances, or as a reflection of Magritte’s own psychological state.

Magritte himself did not offer a definitive explanation for his paintings, but he did say that they were not meant to be realistic or logical. He said: “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and indeed when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question ‘What does that mean?’. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

Magritte also said that he wanted to create a sense of wonder and surprise in his paintings, and to challenge the conventional expectations of art. He said: “I want to show that something can be both known and unknown at the same time.”

The Influence of Empire of Light


The Meaning of Empire of Light

Empire of Light has been widely admired and influential in the fields of art, literature, film, music, and popular culture. Some examples are:

  • The painting was featured in the opening scene of the 1973 film The Exorcist, where it is seen hanging in the bedroom of Father Merrin.
  • The painting was referenced in the 1989 novel The Book of Evidence by John Banville, where the narrator compares his own situation to that of the painting.
  • The painting was used as the cover art for the 1994 album Empire Burlesque by Bob Dylan.
  • The painting was parodied in the 1995 episode Homer Badman of The Simpsons, where Homer Simpson is seen holding a donut under a street lamp while the sky is blue.
  • The painting was reproduced in Lego bricks by Nathan Sawaya in 2010.

Empire of Light is currently displayed in several museums around the world, such as the Museum of Modern Art in

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