L’empire des lumières, 1949 is celebrated as one of the artist’s most iconic works and is the very first example that Magritte completed from his landmark L’empire des lumières series. A theme that he would spend the subsequent 15 years exploring.
The iconic series which was launched with this picture is centered around a concept which explores the harmony and tension between day-and-night, a theme at the very heart of Surrealism....
Each successive picture displays the key elements seen in the present, original L’empire des lumières—a nocturnal street scene in a placid, well-maintained quarter of town. This quiet view was similar to Magritte’s own rue de Esseghem in Brussels, with eerily shuttered houses, windows faintly lit from within and a single lamppost, shining forth like a beacon. The hour is late, and most of the occupants are presumably asleep. Only the onlooker is witness to the bizarre vision above—a night sky with neither moon nor stars, lacking the least hint of darkness. For as far as one can see, a blue sunlit sky with lazily drifting white clouds fills the ether expanse. In the characteristic, straightly descriptive manner in which Magritte painted this scene, all is as natural—but in myriad connotations, also as paradoxical—as night and day.
The beauty and revelation of L’empire des lumières—perhaps what contributed to its enduring status—is that Magritte reconciles the traditionally opposing elements of earth and sky, night and day, darkness and light to the underlying harmony found in these contrasts. “After I had painted L’empire des lumières,” Magritte explained to a friend in 1966, “I got the idea that night and day exist together, that they are one. This is reasonable, or at the very least it’s in keeping with our knowledge: in the world night always exists at the same time as day. (Just as sadness always exists in some people at the same time as happiness in others.) But such ideas are not poetic. What is poetic is the visible image of the picture” (quoted S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., The South Bank Centre, London, 1992, no. 111).