Magritte’s The Empire of Light surrealist masterpiece expected to fetch US$60 million

In 2021, the art auction market saw stellar results – each of the top 10 sales of the year fetched more than US$60 million dollars. Now in 2022, an international auction house announced its first blockbuster work.

Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte's large-scale oil painting, L’Empire des lumieres (The Empire of Light), will be auctioned at Sotheby’s London on 2 March. It is expected to fetch more than US$60 million dollars. If sold, this painting would set a new auction record for Magritte.

Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte | L’Empire des lumieres, Oil on canvas

Created in 1961
114.5 x 146cm

  • Acquired from the artist in 1961

Expected to fetch more than US$60 million

Magritte's works often depict everyday things – with specific combination of placement, light and shadow effects, they impact our thoughts. For example, his masterpiece The Son of Man (1964), an ordinary man is painted in a suit, but his face is covered with a green apple. Things that should be visible is obscured and causes the audience to ponder.

The composition of L’Empire des lumieres is also composed of contrasts. The night-time street scene depicted in the painting is believed to be a street near the Parc Josaphat in Brussels, where the artist moved in 1954. It is juxtaposed by a bright blue sky above.

Two contrasting scenes appear on the same canvas – exuding a surreal feeling. This movie-like image later became the inspiration for a scene in the 1974 Golden Globe-winning horror movie, The Exorcist.

Magritte first started work on L’Empire des lumieres in 1948, where the first version of the painting was bought by Nelson Rockefeller. Throughout his career, Magritte painted a series of 17 oil paintings known as the L’Empire des lumieres series. Examples are held in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

L’Empire des lumieres became the inspiration for the horror movie, The Exorcist (1973)

L’Empire des lumieres (1953-1954) in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; with a vertical frame composition

The L’Empire des lumieres painting featured in this year's auction was created in 1961 for the Belgian Baroness, Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet. She is the daughter of Pierre Crowet, an early patron of Magritte.

After the painting was completed, it remained in the Crowet family’s collection. From 2009 to 2020, it was on loan to the Magritte Museum in Brussels.

Measuring 114.5 by 146 cm, this work is the largest horizontal version amongst the 17 Empires of Light oil paintings. Another larger work from the series is in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice – measuring 195.4 by 131.2 cm. The work uses a vertical frame composition. 

L’Empire des lumieres (1949) | 48.5 x 58.7 cm | Sold: US$20.5 million | Christie's New York, November 2017

Le Principe du Plaisir (1937) | 73 x 54.5 cm | Sold: US$26.8 million | Sotheby's New York, November 2018

Another painting of the L’Empire des lumieres series was painted in 1949. It was sold at US$20.5 million dollars at Christie's New York in 2017 – setting the auction record for Magritte at that time.

This record was later broken by Magritte's painting, Le Principe du Plaisir (The Pleasure Principle). This work sold at US$26.8 million dollars at Sotheby's New York in 2018. In this painting, the protagonist is the English poet, Edward James, English poet and influential patron of Surrealist art.

The L’Empire des lumieres painting starring in this year’s Sotheby's London sale is estimated at more than US$60 million dollars – nearly three times the painting sold in 2017. The 2022 version is 5.8 times larger than the 2017 version. Based on the sale price of the 2017 edition, Sotheby’s estimate this year is reasonable.

Prior to the auction, the painting will be on a global touring exhibition. Starting in Los Angeles from 11 to 14 January, then moving to New York from 22 to 27 January, Hong Kong from 8 to 9 February, and finally back to London from 22 February to 2 March.

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s London

Sale: Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction

Date: 2 March 2022