The Son of Man is a surreal painting made by Belgian painter René Magritte in 1964. It is one of his most famous paintings and it has had great cultural influence.
The painting depicts a man in a dark coat and a bowler hat standing upright facing the audience, with a sea and a cloudy sky in the background. The man looks completely ordinary, except for the fact that his face is obscured by a green apple sitting in the air.
There are three other paintings by Magritte that depict people with obscured faces; one where the face is obscured by flowers, one by a bird, and one another one by an apple.
The recurring motif of the hidden face might have been influenced by the death of Magritte’s mother, who committed suicide when Magritte was 13 years old, by drowning herself in a river. When her body was found, her face was covered by cloth. This experienced left a mark upon Magritte, and it may have inspired the hidden face which can be found in several of his paintings.
But what is the meaning of The Son of Man?
The painting can have a religious meaning. ”Son of man” is a biblical name for Christ, and the apple is a common symbol for sin that stems from the story of Adam and Eve and the fall, in the book of Genesis. With this in mind, the painting can be about the way sin prevents people from seeing the face of Christ, thus how sin separates mankind from God.
The painting could also refer to the way trivial things can prevent us from seeing what is important. An apple is a trivial thing, while the face of a person is important. We have a tendency to fret about small things that actually don’t matter, and we are often unable to focus on what is essential. For example, we can spend hours at the mirror to make sure we look good, while neglecting to take care of our emotional well-being. And during conversations, we might pay more attention to our smartphone than the person we are talking to.
Magritte himself said this about the painting:
”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.”
We cannot see everything. We are limited by our perspective. But we always want to see the things we cannot see. Similarly, we cannot understand everything. We are limited by our perception and our circumstances. But we always want to know more and understand what we do not comprehend. We search for meaning in things, but we cannot find it because we don’t have the full picture. For example, we the meaning of an artwork will always be different for different people, depending on our conception and context.
The painting can also reflect how things that seem ordinary can actually be extraordinary. The man looks like a normal man in his cloak and bowler hat, but his obscured face conveys a mystery. What looks ordinary can have hidden depths. Usually, things are more intricate than they seem at first. If we take time to examine and explore, things can also be a lot more fulfilling. For example, analyzing art can be highly comforting and rewarding. Likewise, people are a lot more interesting and complex if we delve under the surface and truly get to know the person.
The Son of Man is a captivating and thought-provoking painting, like all of Magritte’s art. It’s meaning is not clear, and its obscurity is purposeful. Magritte wanted to challenge his audience through his art. His art is not supposed to give us an easy answer or instant gratification. And that is what makes it so compelling. It makes us think outside the box. It makes us see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Magritte was a great artist, and his art remains after his death. We should cherish and appreciate it.