Painted in 1926 and 1927, it was one of the last paintings he created in Belgium; soon after the completion of this work, Magritte moved to Paris, where he began one of the most prolific periods of his career. The painting also represents one of the first he created in the surrealist style he became known for.
While Magritte was a surrealist painter, his paintings were typically rendered in a simple but realistic fashion using proper perspective and light sources. The figures in some of his paintings, such as this one, sometimes appear stylised. This style of rendering may have been influenced by Magritte’s earlier career in commercial illustration.
"The Menaced Assassin" presents the viewer with an unanswerable mystery: a nude woman lays dead on a chaise lounge in a bare room while the murderer stands nearby, listening to a gramophone, his coat and hat resting on a chair beside him. Closer to the viewer, just out of view of the murderer, two men wearing bowler hats wait for the culprit to emerge. The men waiting outside the room are often described as detectives, yet the weapons they brandish are not typical for the police: one wields a crude-looking club and the other a net.
"The Menaced Assassin" is not as blatantly surreal as many of the artist’s most well-known paintings, but the three identical men watching through the window add the subtle dream-like quality Magritte’s work would become known for. These men are also watching the scene, or perhaps even the viewer himself, observing from a similar vantage point to the viewer’s own.
While many of Magritte’s paintings have a disquieting effect on the viewer, only "The Menaced Assassin" and a painting created soon after, "Young Girl Eating a Bird" (1927), depict acts or the aftermath of violence. "Young Girl Eating a Bird" may even be considered as a companion piece to this painting — in The Menaced Assassin, the woman has been subjected to violence, while in "Young Girl Eating a Bird," it is the girl who is inflicting the violence.
Many art historians make reference to Magritte’s childhood when analysing his work. Most notably, Magritte’s mother met a tragic end when she threw herself into a river. As the story is told, his mother’s body was recovered with her nightgown covering her face. Fabric obscuring the body — as it does to the murdered woman in this painting — became a motif that would be repeated in Magrite's later work, most notably in "The Lovers" (1939).
Another recurring motif in Magritte’s work is that of spaces or rooms opening into other spaces. In this painting, the framing created by the openings in each space — the door and then the window — draw the viewer’s eye through the painting to the three men watching from the other side.
Identical men, such as the men in the window or the two detectives, also frequently appear in Magritte’s paintings. Men wearing bowler hats, as the two men in the foreground do, would become particularly popular with the artist in his later artwork. The men in bowler hats in "The Menaced Assassin" represent one of the earlier appearances of this motif; it would later take centre stage in paintings such as "Man in a Bowler Hat" (1964), "The Son of Man" (1964) and "La Décalcomanie" (1966). Most interpret the men in bowler hats as being a representation of Magritte himself as he was often photographed wearing one of these hats.
Additional recurring visual motifs featured in this painting include the chaise lounge, female nudity, windows and a stark room — all motifs that Magritte would revisit in greater detail in his later work.
Most analysis of The Menaced Assassin cite Fantômas, a masked character popularised in novels and films, as being a significant influence on the painting as the composition of the painting echoes that of a scene from a 1912 Fantômas film. Magritte’s biographer, David Sylvester, contends that the painting is in fact a reference to a poem, at the time unpublished, by Magritte’s friend, Paul Nouge.
Regardless of its inspiration, "The Menaced Assassin" remains a striking and notable painting in Magritte’s body of work.