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Perspective: Madame Récamier by David

Rene Magritte
Perspective: Madame Récamier by David, 1951
Oil on canvas
60.5 x 80.5 cm
Purchased 1997
© Estate of Rene Magritte / ADAGP (Paris) / SODRAC (Montréal)

In the late 1940s, the Belgian Surrealist artist Rene Magritte (1898-1967) began a series of paintings under the general title "Perspective" that was based on well-known paintings by the earlier French artists Jacques Louis David, François Gérard and Édouard Manet. Characteristic of this series was Magritte's substitution of coffins for the people in the original paintings. In the fall of 1950, Magritte turned to the famous portrait of Madame Récamier, which David had left unfinished in 1800, as the subject for his last two paintings in the series. In the original painting, Madame Récamier, who was celebrated as a great seductress as well as for her literary and political salons, is depicted reclining in a white gown on a Neo-Classical day-bed.

Magritte was interested in the sitter, but other factors that could have tempted him to appropriate this image are the extremely austere interior setting and the fact that the original painting was left unfinished, thereby offering the opportunity to put the finishing touches on a famous portrait. These touches are both disturbing and surprisingly humourous, particularly when you catch a glimpse of the remains of the original sitter's gown squeezing out from underneath a coffin, instead of cascading over a young seductive woman.

Perspective: Madame Récamier by David, with its beautifully painted surface and evocative imagery that poignantly interweaves and echoes the themes of seduction, death, and laughter, is a major painting; it provides a strong complement to Salvador Dali's enigmatic Gala and the Angelus of Millet Immediately Preceding the Arrival of the Conic Anamophoses of 1933 in the National Gallery's collection.