Much like Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Time, René Magritte’s The Son of Man has become a landmark painting of the Surrealist movement. Whether or not you’re interested in art, there is a high likelihood that you have seen this iconic piece. Painted in 1964, it shows a man in a bowler hat with his face concealed by a green apple. Behind him is a wall, and beyond that is the sea.
Wikipedia describes Surrealist art as “unnerving, illogical scenes, sometimes with photographic precision, creating strange creatures from everyday objects, and developing painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself.” The concept of The Son of Man is rather simple as far as surrealist paintings go, and this is perhaps one of the reasons it is renowned. There is no apparent hidden meaning to be mined from its depths. It is just a man by the sea with an apple in front of his face. And yet, it is so bizarre and arresting.
What did René Magritte want to convey with this painting? Let’s take a look at the painting’s history and some of the fascinating facts behind it.
1. The Son of Man was painted as a self-portrait.
2. The man’s face in The Son of Man is not entirely obscured by the apple. You can see his eyes peeking out.
3. What does the apple obscuring the face signify? This is what Magritte had to say about it:
“At least it hides the face partly well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”From ‘Magritte: Ideas and Images’
4. Another surrealist and often unnoticed detail in the painting is that the man’s left arm is bent backwards at the elbow.
5. This painting shares similarities with some of Magritte’s other paintings such as The Great War and Man in a Bowler Hat.
6. René Magritte appeared to have had a fondness for bowler hats. Such a hat can be found in Golconda, Decalcomania, The Mysteries of the Horizon, The Spirit of Adventure, and Le Bouquet tout fait.
7. The green apple is also a recurring motif, seen in Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pomme, Le prêtre marié, The Listening Room, Force of Habit, and The Postcard.
8. Magritte’s green apple has played a very significant role in modern culture. Paul McCartney owned one of Magritte’s works titled Le Jeu De Morre in which the painter has featured yet another apple. Inspired by this, McCartney named the Beatles’ record company ‘Apple Corps’. This further inspired Steve Jobs to name his company ‘Apple Computers’.
9. Norman Rockwell paid homage to The Son of Man in 1970 with his painting Mr. Apple.
10. The Son of Man‘s influence has also spread to film. The painting played an important role in the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair. There are also many references to the painting in the 2006 Will Farrell movie Stranger Than Fiction. For example, in one scene, the protagonist is standing in front of wall painted to look like the sky. He is also often seen running to catch his bus with a green apple in his mouth.
11. In Christianity, the “son of man” refers to Jesus. Some art analysts interpret The Son of Man as a surrealist impression of Jesus’s transfiguration.
12. The painting is privately owned and very rarely displayed in public.
The Son of Man is one of those paintings that has never stopped fascinating people. What is it about this painting that makes its popularity enduring? Lily Pearsall, the Curatorial Project Manager at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art explains it well: “Magritte is interested in exploring our desire to see what is hidden. Like many of his images, The Son of Man alerts viewers to that desire and to how our perceptions shape our understandings and experience of the world. It is an endlessly compelling image because it shifts the act of meaning-making back onto the viewer, leaving us to consider whether what we see is concealing something else.”