10 Surprising Facts About René Magritte’s ‘The Son of Man’

René Magritte’s surrealist masterpiece is his most recognized work—but you may never get to see the real thing.
René Magritte’s ‘The Son of Man’
René Magritte’s ‘The Son of Man’ / Wikipedia.com/Fair Use Under U.S. Copyright Law (painting); enjoynz/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

Belgian painter René Magritte forged a reputation for wit and whimsy, but none of his works captured the world’s imagination as intensely as Le Fils de l’Homme (The Son of Man). Even viewers who don’t know it by name instantly recognize the surrealist landmark, but there’s much more to know about this famous painting and how it fits into Magritte’s art as a whole.

1. The Son of Man is a self portrait.

The man behind that floating apple and beneath that bowler hat is none other than Magritte. If you look closely, you can see his eyes peeking out between the apple and its leaves.

2. It isn’t Magritte’s only apple-centric painting.

'Rene Magritte - The Treachery of Images' Exhibition In Frankfurt am Main
‘Ceci n’est pas une pomme’ (‘This is not an apple’) on view in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. / Hannelore Foerster/GettyImages

Apples appeared in many of Magritte’s works, including Ceci n’est pas une pomme (1964), Le prêtre marié (1961), The Listening Room (1952), and The Postcard (1960).

3. The Son of Man is part of a series.

The oil painting is often grouped with two other works that were also created in 1964. The first is Magritte’s Man in the Bowler Hat, which has a similar figure whose face is obscured by a passing bird. The second is The Great War of the Facades, which depicts an elegantly dressed woman in a similar seaside setting with blossoming flowers blocking her face. Juxtaposing ordinary elements in unusual ways was a key theme in Magritte’s works.

4. The Son of Man most closely resembles The Taste of The Invisible.

Another painting from 1964, The Taste of the Invisible, contains the same dapper, bowler-topped gent, complete with red tie, black coat, and green apple. But this variation is less well known, and not generally mentioned in connection with its apparent related pieces.

5. The bowler hat is also a recurring motif in Magritte’s oeuvre.

A bowler hat on a background of blue sky and clouds
A bowler hat. / SEAN GLADWELL/Moment/Getty Images (hat); Roc Canals/Moment/Getty Images (sky)

This distinctive chapeau can also be found in Golconda (1953), Decalcomania (1966), Le Chef d’Oeuvre (1955), The Spirit of Adventure (1962), and Le Bouquet tout fait (1957).

6. Some critics have suggested The Son of Man is a religious painting.

Though the imagery of a modern man and a floating apple near the sea doesn’t immediately suggest religious iconography, the title The Son of Man does. In the Christian faith, the phrase son of man refers to Jesus, so some analysts view Magritte’s painting as a surrealist depiction of Jesus’s transfiguration.

7. Magritte’s explanation of the painting’s theme was more oblique.

Rene Magritte and his wife Georgette Berger
Rene Magritte (holding a schipperke) and his wife Georgette Berger. / Apic/GettyImages

In a 1965 radio interview, Magritte said:

“At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. 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. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

8. Norman Rockwell drew an homage to The Son of Man.

Norman Rockwell’s signature style was anything but surreal, but in 1970 he tried his hand at Magritte’s look and composed Mr. Apple, an illustration of a person whose entire head was a red (not green) apple. When this painting was put up for auction in 2011, the artist’s letters about its creation went on the block as well.

“I must tell you that I got the two apples, and I haven’t eaten them, but I have put them in the refrigerator so they will keep bright and shiny,” Rockwell wrote in part. “It will be fun doing such a unique painting.”

9. The Son of Man has shown up in movies, books, and music videos.

Allusions or copies of Magritte’s most iconic piece have popped up in movies like Stranger Than Fiction (2006), Bronson (2008), and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968); books such as The Magicians by Lev Grossman and The Starry Starry Night by Jimmy Liao; TV shows like The Simpsons, and even music videos, including those for Michael Jackson’s “Scream” and Yes’s “Astral Traveller.”

10. It’s rare to see the real Son of Man.

Although prints of the piece are popular and readily available, the original painting is privately owned and rarely goes on public display. The Son Of Man was last sighted in the U.S. in SFMOMA’s 2018 exhibition René Magritte: The Fifth Season.

A version of this article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated for 2023.