Time Transfixed

View enlargement
Email to a friend
Print this page

René Magritte
Belgian, 1898–1967

Time Transfixed, 1938

Oil on canvas
57 7/8 x 38 7/8 in. (147 x 98.7 cm)
Signed, l.r.: "Magritte"
Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1970.426

© 2014 C. Herscovici, London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Impressed by René Magritte’s submissions to the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, the collector Edward James invited the artist to paint canvases for the ballroom of his London home. In response, Magritte conceived On the Threshold of Liberty (in the collection of the Art Institute) and his now-famous Time Transfixed. The artist later explained this picture: "I decided to paint the image of a locomotive. . . . In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery— the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined." The surprising juxtaposition and scale of unrelated elements, heightened by Magritte’s precise realism, gives the picture its perplexity and allure. The artist transformed the stovepipe of a coalburning stove into a charging locomotive, situating the train in a fireplace vent so that it appears to be emerging from a railway tunnel. Magritte was unhappy with the English translation of the original French, La Durée poignardé, which literally means "ongoing time stabbed by a dagger." He hoped that the painting would be installed at the bottom of the collector’s staircase so that the train would "stab" guests on their way up to the ballroom. Ironically, James installed it over his fireplace instead.

— Entry, The Essential Guide, 2013, p.278.


René Magritte owed a direct debt to Giorgio de Chirico, whose work he first saw in 1922. This painting is one of Magritte's most compelling images. In it, the influence of de Chirico is apparent in a shared approach to the creation of mysterious and enigmatic images through incongruous juxtapositions of familiar objects; it is also evident in Magritte's adoption of some of de Chirico's motifs (the clock, the locomotive), as a comparison with de Chirico's The Philosopher's Conquest makes clear. Magritte has, however, given his own imprint to the ideas implicit in de Chirico's early paintings. His images are less complicated and more immediately comprehensible than de Chirico's. His brand of realism is more meticulous in both technique and composition. Magritte's emphasis on order is apparent in the uncluttered and precisely rendered surfaces, in the grid of moldings and frames that controls the com-position, and in details such as the smoke of the locomotive, which tidily disappears under the mantelpiece. There is an engaging coarseness and naiveté de Chirico's images that Magritte exchanged in this painting for clarity and immediacy. There is, nevertheless, nothing slavish about Magritte's realism, as illustrated by his deliberate omission, in his final composition, of the shadow of the candlestick on the right. A comparison of the painting with a preparatory sketch shows this and other small but significant changes, such as the enlargement of both the clock's face and the locomotive. In typically compulsive fashion, these two circular forms are made to share the same diameter.

In a letter of 1959, Magritte commented at length on this painting, emphasizing that his goal was to unveil or evoke "the mystery" of things "that seem familiar to us [out of error or habit]." Having decided on a locomotive as his subject, "the problem," he explained, was "how to paint this image so that it would evoke mystery." Magritte added, "The image of a locomotive is immediately familiar: its mystery is not perceived. In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery—the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined with the image of the locomotive." He also remarked that "the title La duree poignardee is itself an image (in words) joined to a painted image" and that Time Transfixed did not seem to him "a very accurate translation." Indeed, although the English title has the memorable quality that Magritte often sought, it is both more catchy and less forceful than the original French. It does not convey the sense of duration and passage through time in the word "duree" (duration) or the violent impact of something stabbed with a dagger in the word "poignardee" (stabbed).

—Entry, Margherita Andreotti, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, The Joseph Winterbotham Collection at The Art Institute of Chicago (1994), p. 170-171.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

New York, Museum of Modern Art, Réne Magritte, December 15, 1965–February 27, 1966, no. 38, p. 37 (ill.); traveled to Waltham, Massachusetts, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, April 3–May 1, 1966; Chicago, Art Institute, May 30–July 3, 1966; Pasadena, Art Museum, August 1–September 4, 1966; Berkley, University Art Museum, October 1–November 1, 1966.

London, Tate Gallery, René Magritte, February 14–April 2, 1969, no. 62, p. 81 (ill.).

London, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Rene Magritte, May 19–August 2, 1992; traveled to New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 9–November 22, 1992; Houston, Menil Collection, December 15, 1992–February 21, 1993; and Chicago, Art Institute, March 16–May 30, 1993.

Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique, Réne Magritte, March 6–June 28, 1998.

Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, La Revolution Surrealiste, February 27–June 24, 2003; traveled to Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfallen, July 20–November 24, 2002.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, René Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, December 10, 2006–March 4, 2007, pg. 146 (ill.).

Kansas City, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830–1960, September 13, 2008–January 18, 2009.

Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle, June 24, 2011-Febuary 26, 2012.

Publication History

James Thrall Soby, René Magritte (New York, 1965), p. 37 (ill.).

Patrick Waldberg, René Magritte, translated by Austryn Wainhouse (Brussels, 1965), p. 37 (ill.).

The Collections of the Tate Gallery (London, 1967), p. 162.

David Sylvester, Magritte (New York and Washington, 1969), pp. 2, 81 (ill.).

Simon Watson Taylor, “René Magritte and André Breton,” Studio International, CLXXVII (February 1969) p. 69 (ill.).

Burlington Magazine, CXII (September 1970), p. lxxviii (ill.).

Arts Magazine, CXII (September 1970), ill.

“So Real Surrealism,” The Detroit News (January 12, 1971), ill.

Anne D’Harnoncourt, “Acquisitions of Modern Art by Museums,” Burlington Magazine, CXIV (February 1972), p. 123 (ill.).

José Vovelle, Le Surrealisme en Belgique (Brussels, 1972), p. 116 (ill.).

A. M. Hammacher, René Magritte, translated by James Brockway (New York, 1973), p. 114 (ill.).

David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2 (Houston: The Menil Foundation, 1993).

Magritte A bis Z, ed. Christoph Grunrmberg and Darren Pih, Exh. cat. (Alberina Publishing, 2012), p. 8, ill. 232, ill. 233, ill. 235, p. 259.

Magritte A to Z, ed. Christoph Grunenberg and Darren Pih, Exh. cat. (Tate Publishing, 2012), ill. 58, p. 59, 195, 204.

Ownership History

Edward James, London, until 1970. Purchased by Art Institute, October 1970.