Magritte was born in Lessines, in Hainaut, in 1898, the eldest son of Léopold Magritte, a tailor and textile merchant, and Regina (nee Bertinchamps), a milliner until her marriage. Family move a lot: Lessines, Gilly, Châtelet, Charleroi, Châtelet, Charleroi where his eduction and that of his brothers, will be entrusted to his grandmother and governesses.
On 12 March 1912, his mother committed suicide by drowning in the river Sambre. It was not his first attempt to kill himself, and after several of them, her husband Leopold shut her in her room. After escaping and disappearing several days, she is discovered in the nearby river. Magritte, aged 13, was present when his body was removed from the water, her dress covering her face. This image has been suggested as the source of several of Magritte's works in 1927-1928 representing people whose faces are hidden by a cloth. Magritte will defend himself all life long of any psychological and analytical understanding of his work.
His career as an artist started early: first drawing lessons in 1910. The first paintings of Magritte, dated 1915, were Impressionistic style. From 1916 to 1918, he studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, with Montald Constant. The paintings he produced during the years 1918-1924 were influenced by Futurism and Cubism as practiced by Metzinger.
In 1922 Magritte married Georgette Berger, whom he already knew from his childhood and a fair in Charleroi in 1913. From December 1920 to September 1921, Magritte served in the Belgian infantry in Flanders, Beverloo. In 1922-1923, he worked as a draftsman in the wallpaper factory Peters-Lacroix with the painter Victor Servranckx, and also designs posters and advertising until 1926, when a contract with Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels offers him the ability to paint at full time.
Magritte meets E. L. T. Mesens in 1920 and Camille Goemans and Marcel Lecomte in 1924, who introduce him with Dada. The Surrealist group in 1924 Brussels begins as Nougé, Goemans and Lecomte join Mesens and Magritte, and Louis and Irene Hamoir Scutenaire in 1926. Magritte saw a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico's painting The Song of Love (1914), and the image, illustrated in the Roman periodical Valori Plastici, is said to have moved him to tears. The strange juxtaposition of objects in de Chirico's work revealed to Magritte the poetic possibilities of painting, and thereafter his pictures challenged expectations. "My eyes have seen the thought for the first time," he wrote remembering this revelation.
In 1926, Magritte produced his first surreal painting, The Lost Jockey, and held its first exhibition in Brussels in 1927. Critics heaped abuse on the exhibition. Depressed, he moved to Paris where he became friends with André Breton and the Surrealists group (Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí), and participates in their activities. He exhibits at the Galerie Goemans.
Gallery le Centaure closes its doors at the end of 1929, ending Magritte income. Have not been more successful in Paris and after his quarrel with Breton, Magritte returned to Brussels in 1930 and resumed working in advertising. With his brother, Paul, Magritte creates an agency which provides a decent income. It presents an exhibition organized in 1931 by Mesens, with a preface by Nougé. The following year he joined the Communist Party of Belgium and met Paul Colinet. Magritte exhibits in 1933 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1934 and draws the Rape for the cover of André Breton's What is Surrealism?. In 1936 he has his first exhibition in New York at the Julien Levy Gallery, and meets the following year Marcel Marien , then stayed in London, where he exhibited in 1938 at the London gallery of Mesens.
During the World War II occupation of Belgium, he remained in Brussels. He briefly adopted a colorful style in 1943-44, interlude known as his "Renoir Period", as a reaction to his feelings of alienation at the time of the occupation. In 1946, renouncing to the violence and pessimism of his earlier work, he signed the manifesto of "Surrealism in full sunlight."
In 1948, for his first solo exhibition at the Galerie du Faubourg in Paris, Magritte painted in six weeks forty paintings and gouaches in a provocative Fauve style, this will be his "Vache Period", of which no work will be sold in Paris. Irene Hamoir had these works bequeathed to the Museum of Brussels. During this time, Magritte produces fake Picassos, Braques and Chiricos at the initiative of his brother Paul Magritte and fellow Surrealist Marcel Marien, to whom had devolved the task of selling the forgeries. At the end of 1948, he returned to the style and themes of his pre-war Surrealist art.
Alexander Iolas, who became Magritte's principal dealer in the United States, successfully exhibits the artist's work in New York. Iolas then suggests that Magritte forget Renoir and focus his output on images which overwhelmingly appealed to the public, like Treasure Island. Obligated to come to terms with the necessities of life, Magritte creats new combinations out of old images.
From 1952 to 1953, Magritte realizes the Enchanted Domain a eight panels wall decoration for the Casino of Knokke.
Magritte died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 15, 1967 in his own bed, aged 68, and was buried in the cemetery of Schaerbeek in Brussels.
Popular interest in Magritte's work rose considerably in the 1960s, and his imagery has influenced pop art, minimalism and conceptual.