In March of 1847, Edgar Allen Poe’s story, The Domain of Arnheim, was published for the first time. In 1962, Rene Magritte attempted to capture the landscape described in Poe’s short story by painting it. In order to understand the painting, one must first understand the story.
Poe’s Domain of Arnheim tells the tale of a man named Ellison who sets out to create a landscape that reflects the “supreme majesty and dignity of the poetic sentiment.” A huge part of story is devoted simply to describing the landscape of Arnheim and attempting to convey its supreme beauty. Poe seems to suggest that the landscape reflects an inner sense of serenity and balance, which any human being can attain, provided they are properly guided. While Poe’s story is open to interpretation, it is probably best viewed in symbolic terms.
For Magritte, the fictitious Arnheim landscape perfectly expressed the idea of beauty and the quest to attain it. His desire to put it on canvas is, therefore, hardly surprising.
Magritte is best-known for his surreal imagery, but The Domain of Arnheim is one of his most grounded, realistic paintings. Unlike many of his other works, Magritte’s interpretation of Arnheim doesn’t feature any physical impossibilities or baffling aesthetic flourishes. It is an attempt to express beauty as an artistic and poetic ideal, rather than a visual experiment. Nonetheless, it does contain one subtle surrealist touch: one of the mountains in the painting’s background is shaped like an eagle. This delicate, subtly amusing touch is typical of Magritte. The word ‘Arnheim’ means ‘home of the eagle’ in German, and Magritte clearly wanted to acknowledge this in his painting.
Magritte actually created two versions of The Domain of Arnheim- an oil painting and a gouache. Both versions employ a serene blue-and-grey colour scheme and feature an eagle’s nest in the foreground, which gives the eye something to focus on before panning up to take in the majestic, moonlit mountains that dominate most of the canvas.
The Domain of Arnheim is one of Magritte’s most restrained and elegant work. It’s a simple colour scheme, minimal use of surrealism and total lack of visual clutter make it an impressively neat and well-composed piece of art.