Skip to main content Skip to main content

Art Through Time: A Global View

Writing Art: La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe)

» René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967)

La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe)

La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe)
Artist / Origin: René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967)
Region: Europe
Date: 1929
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 23 3/5 in. (60 cm.), W: 31 4/5 in. (81 cm.)
Location: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Credit: © 2009 C. Herscovici, London/ARS, NY. Courtesy of Banque d’Images, ADAGP/Art Resource, NY

The Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte often challenged viewers’ expectations and perceptions through the juxtaposition of unrelated objects in his works.

Extending this strategy, Magritte also included text in many of his paintings, sometimes labeling images with the “wrong” word or playing on the relationship between word and image by exchanging one for the other. His paintings, thus, raise questions about the ways people tend to talk about and understand images. In particular, Magritte investigated the common habit of using the same words to describe both pictures of things and the actual objects they represent. So, for instance, without the words, no one would hesitate to identify this picture of a pipe as “a pipe.” Adding the words makes this more difficult; if it is a pipe, could someone smoke it?

In La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), or The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe), Magritte sets image and words against each other to great effect. The pipe is rendered quite simply and naturalistically. The writing across the bottom of the canvas, “This is not a pipe,” also appears in careful, perfectly legible script. Ironically, however, these two maximally clear systems of representation undermine clarity when placed in combination. The writing in this painting functions almost like the opposite of a traditional picture caption. Rather than saying what is in the picture, these words are phrased in the negative. The text, rather than explaining the image, subverts what seems to be an easy picture, making it more difficult to grasp and prompting viewers to rethink the nature of visual signs.

Additional Resources

Barron, Stephanie, Michael Draguet, and Dickran Tashjian. Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images. Los Angeles: Ludion in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2006.

Camille, Michael. “Simulacrum.” In Critical Terms for Art History, edited by Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, 31–44. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Garrels, Gary. Magritte. New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2000.

Gohr, Siegfried. Magritte: Attempting the Impossible. New York: D.A.P. 2009.

Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

LACMA Collections Online. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art Web site.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

The Museum of Modern Art Web site.

Series Directory

Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2