René Magritte and Le Barbare, 1938. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.
What’s a good disguise in a museum plastered with posters of René Magritte’s 1964 painting The Son of Man? A bowler hat and an overcoat, of course.
In the climactic scene of the 1999 art heist film, The Thomas Crown Affair, Crown (played by Pierce Brosnan) does just that—turning Magritte’s ubiquitous bowler hat motif on its head. Or, rather, on his head. As Crown enters New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to allegedly return a stolen Claude Monet painting, he makes sure that the police (who are watching him on video surveillance) see him don a gray bowler. Moments later, the hat makes him undetectable.
Crown’s bowler renders him anonymous, since he’s hired dozens of henchmen to wear the same disguise and stroll through the galleries (which are also plastered with posters of Magritte). “There’s guys with bowler hats all over the goddamn place,” retort two frustrated policemen.
There were guys with bowler hats all over Magritte’s paintings, as well. The bowler hat theme appears more than 50 times in his work between 1926 and 1966, making it one of the motifs for which the Belgian Surrealist is best known. (Dozens more are included in variations of that configuration.)
These abundant bowler-hatted gents were used as stand-ins for generic, bourgeois men, the sort who wouldn’t stand out. “The bowler…poses no surprise,” Magritte said in 1966. “It is a headdress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just middle-class man in his anonymity. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularize myself.”
Bowlers were designed for the British middle class, first emerging during the second half of the 19th century. “It denoted informality and practicality, as it was juxtaposed with the more formal top hat,” Beatrice Behlen, senior curator for fashion and decorative arts at the Museum of London, told Artsy. “In the early 20th century, the bowler became one of the most popular hats.”
The 1920s were also when the accessory first sparingly appeared in Magritte’s career, at a time when he was transitioning out of a day job as a fashion catalog illustrator. (For the record, he never drew a bowler hat ad.) Early paintings reference broader pop culture associations with bowler hats. Magritte, who was an avid reader of crime fiction, worked some of those associations into The Menaced Assassin (1927), where two threatening bowler-hatted detectives frame the canvas, about to enter a murder scene.
The artist then abandoned the bowler motif for decades, before it returned to pervade his later career in the 1950s and ’60s. By then, the meaning of the hat-wearing men had shifted—from having a clear popular reference (mainly to detectives) to being a recognizable symbol for the middle-class everyman.
But, as in most Magritte paintings, things are not what they seem. “He’s playing with this sense of, ‘We think we know who this person is, but do we?’” says Caitlin Haskell, an associate curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art who organized “René Magritte: The Fifth Season,” an upcoming show devoted to Magritte’s later work. “And there’s this sense of intrigue, even though the figure himself is so stereotypically bourgeois and lacking in specific interest.”
“If you distill Magritte’s genius, if you have to say it in one sentence, ‘Why does Magritte matter? Why are his images such an indelible part of the popular imagination or consciousness?’ It is this way that he creates exceptionally clear pictures that have unclear meaning,” says Anne Umland, curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The bowler hat functions in that way.”
The bowler also paradoxically functioned as a way for this singular artist to present himself as an anonymous type in public. Magritte began donning bowler hats for photographs around this time. The hatted gentlemen in the paintings are therefore often interpreted as a type of self-portrait—a theory first perpetuated by Magritte’s dealer, Alexander Iolas.
Urban streets were no longer teeming with bowler hats by the 1950s, though. “A bowler would have been seen as old-fashioned [then],” Behlen says. “Particularly as hat-wearing was on its way out.” And, so, in adopting decidedly retro fashion as a symbol for everyday anonymity—and painting it in a realistic style (during the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement)—Magritte’s bowlers stood out, instead of fading into a faceless crowd.
In effect, bowler hats became Magritte’s iconographic signature. “That’s the irony,” says Haskell. “He adopts it because it’s anonymous, and it becomes Magritte himself. He’s selecting anonymity as the marker of himself.”
This is illustrated in The Son of Man, a rare example of a Magritte that was definitely intended to function as a self-portrait. The artist paints himself with a bowler hat and an oversized apple floating in front of his face obscuring his actual identity.
Which all brings us back to The Thomas Crown Affair, oddly enough, which makes such ample use of The Son of Man. Crown has posed for the video surveillance cameras, showing us who and where he is, only to seamlessly melt as a bourgeois cipher into the crowd. We can’t quite put our finger on him. Never has such ordinary clothing been such a remarkable tease.