Magritte was born in Lessines, in the province of Hainaut, in 1898, the eldest son of Leopold Magritte, a tailor, and Adeline, a milliner. He began drawing lessons in 1910. In 1912, his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Sambre. Magritte was present when her body was retrieved from the water.
The image of his mother floating, her dress obscuring her face, may have influenced a 1927-1928 series of paintings of people with cloth obscuring their faces, including Les Amants, but Magritte disliked this explanation.
He studied at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels for two years until 1918. In 1922 he married Georgette Berger, whom he had met in 1913.
Magritte worked in a wallpaper factory, and was a poster and advertisement designer until 1926 when a contract with Galerie la Centaure in Brussels made it possible for him to paint full-time.
In 1926, Magritte produced his first surreal painting, The Lost Jockey (Le jockey perdu), and held his first exhibition in Brussels in 1927. Critics heaped abuse on the exhibition. Depressed by the failure, he moved to Paris where he became friends with Andre Breton, and became involved in the surrealist group.
When Galerie la Centaure closed and the contract income ended, he returned to Brussels and worked in advertising. Then, with his brother, he formed an agency, which earned him a living wage.
During the German occupation of Belgium in World War II he remained in Brussels, which led to a break with Breton. At the time he renounced the violence and pessimism of his earlier work, though he returned to the themes later. His work showed in the United States in New York in 1936 and again in that city in two retrospective exhibitions, one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992.
Magritte died of pancreatic cancer on August 15, 1967 and was interred in Schaarbeek Cemetery, Brussels. Popular interest in Magritte’s work rose considerably in the 1960s, and his imagery has influenced pop, minimalist, and conceptual art. In 2005 he came ninth in the Walloon version of De Grootste Belg (The Greatest Belgian); in the Flemish version he was 18th.