This artwork by Belgian artist Rene Magritte has become an iconic image and is possibly one of the most easily recognized surrealist paintings to date. It is entitled The Son of Man and was painted in 1964. It started out as a self-portrait but ended up as an anonymous man in a bowler hat, although the bowler hat was a trademark of Magritte’s wardrobe.

The most striking aspect of this painting is the apple which obscures the man’s face. The viewer might find this annoying and perplexing, with only one eye peeking through. The idea of illustrating an object covering up whatever is behind it is a theme recycled throughout much of Magritte’s works. It reminded me of the masks we wear today. Oftentimes I fail to recognize someone I know due to the bottom half of the face being concealed. Or if I meet someone new who is wearing a mask, I don’t know what they look like beyond their eyes and hair.

Another oddity of the painting is that the left elbow of the man is painted in the wrong direction. If you concentrate on his left arm only, it looks as if the man is facing the sea, not the viewer. Why? Who knows. That is the beauty of surrealism.

The association between the use of the apple and the title, The Son of Man, has caused some experts to consider whether this is a deliberate reference to the temptation of Adam in the Garden of Eden and the fall of humankind. Again, no one knows for sure what Magritte had in mind.

Being Human Connection: Commenting on the “hidden” theme of the painting, Magritte said, “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.”

Speculating on the meaning of this painting, these are some of my thoughts:

  • The temptations of this world blind us to the truth of the Gospel.
  • What really matters is hidden by “forbidden fruit” or the singular pursuit of knowledge (Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge).
  • Our fallen condition makes it hard to behold the glory of the world around us, such as the beauty of the sea behind the man, which could be enjoyed if only we turn around.
  • Perhaps our worldview causes us to see each other’s sin (the apple) rather than see each other’s humanity (the face).

What else? I would love to hear your thoughts on the meaning of this painting. That is one of the joys of art—we each can interpret it differently.

Featured art: Renee Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, private collection

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Matthew 10:26