Despite creating over a thousand oil paintings, Rene Francois Ghislain Magritte (1898-1967) didn’t consider himself an artist. The surrealist, instead, called himself a “thinker in paint.” A new biography, Magritte, A Life, by Alex Danchev, attempts to demonstrate why.

Magritte: A Life, by Alex Danchev. Pantheon, 464 pages, $45.

The oldest of three sons, Magritte grew up in Chatelet, a coal-mining district of Belgium. Magritte and his mother would visit his eccentric Aunt Flora on occasion and listen as she chanted a magic spell to ward off evil spirits while waving a poker at the sky, a scene suggestive of a Magritte painting.

Magritte’s mother, Regina, a milliner, was prayerful and frail. She wanted her children to practice Christian virtues, but they were more like their father, Leopold, a pornographer and a womanizer, contemptuous of authority. He worked as a tailor and later a textile salesman.

Their three boys, Rene, Raymond, and Paul, were lackadaisical students. Rene especially showed little interest in academics. He was, however, interested in his father’s pornographic magazines.

Rene had been “wallowing in pornography,” according to Danchev. His father liked his artwork (many of his early paintings were of female nudes) and encouraged him.

Magritte was 14 when his mother committed suicide. Her drowned body was lying on the beach beside the Sambre River, with her nightgown half-covering her face. Several of his paintings evoke this scene, showing images of a dead woman lying beside the sea with her face half-covered. Water and veiled characters are present in much of his work.

He also enjoyed mischief-making, such as putting yeast down toilets and flinging excrement over neighbors’ roofs. He was enthralled with films featuring the arch-criminal Fantomas, one of the anti-heroes of French pulp literature. At 17, Magritte entered the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where he excelled at painting.

After serving in the Belgian infantry from 1920 to 1921, he lived a bourgeoisie life, becoming a draftsman in a wallpaper factory and a designer of posters. He joined and left the Communist Party three times because he didn’t like to be told what to think. With his brother, Paul, he started an advertising company. Although he helped his wife, Georgette, with chores, such as doing dishes and walking the dog, the prankster in him would tease his wife by dropping dishes on the floor. Meanwhile, he painted in a corner of the dining room.

Then, in 1922, Magritte had his eureka moment when he saw a reproduction of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico’s The Song of Love. It inspired his belief that art must escape human limits and return to the vision of childhood. “My eyes saw thought for the first time,” he said.

The image led him to believe in the power of juxtaposition and gave him the idea that poetry took precedence over painting. As he put it, “This triumphant poetry … represented a complete break with the mental habits peculiar to artists who are prisoners of talent, virtuosity, and all the little aesthetic specialties.” Trying to blend art with poetry, he hoped to make visual poems.

He created his first surreal painting, The Lost Jockey, in 1923, formed a Belgian Surrealist group in 1924, and signed a contract with an art gallery that gave him a monthly salary and allowed him to paint full time. But his first exhibition, in 1927, was a flop. Depressed, he left for Paris, where he tried to befriend the French writer and surrealist poet Andre Breton. There, Magritte developed his style of surrealism, which focused on the poetic connection between two objects.

He wanted Breton to endorse his paintings, but Breton looked down on him because he was Belgian and spoke French with a heavy Walloon accent. Breton especially did not like what he called Magritte’s “Sunlit Surrealism” style. Magritte thought the Parisians were snobs and rejected the way surrealists delved into the unconscious mind and relied on automatic writing, a kind of subconscious surrealism practiced by Breton and others. Then, when Breton insisted that Magritte's wife, Georgette, remove the cross she wore around her neck and she refused, the Magrittes huffed out of Paris. Rene’s break with Breton never completely healed.

No one knows if Magritte was angry because of his religious beliefs. Scholars have suggested that Magritte was a covert believer and point to religious allusions in his art as in the titles of the paintings The Son of Man and The Last Supper. Magritte, himself, said little about his religious views. Danchev says that Magritte wasn’t so much religious as he was a rebel and resented authority, as did his father.

Author of numerous books, including well-regarded biographies of Braque, Cezanne, and Picasso, Danchev argues that Magritte is the “single most significant purveyor of images to the modern world.”

Danchev died in 2016 before finishing this volume and giving it a careful edit. Completed by Sarah Whitfield, an art historian, the book includes numerous footnotes, illustrations, and excerpts from Magritte’s writing as well as from his correspondence with family and friends.

It zigzags from Magritte’s life to people and events that influenced Magritte’s artistic development. It looks at the history and culture that shaped Magritte’s creative output. The Second World War, for example, left Magritte nearly destitute, so he counterfeited Belgian notes. He forged paintings by Picasso, Titian, and others, which he sold.

Magritte gave his paintings poetic titles that contributed an ironic quality to his work. He specialized in enigmatic images bearing poetic titles and captions, which seemed to contradict the picture he painted, as in his iconic portrayal of a pipe with the caption, “This is not a pipe.”

Magritte enjoyed the company of poets more than he did that of artists. In later years, he wrote prodigiously — art criticism, philosophical reflections, short stories, articles, reviews, and over a thousand letters. He explained his theories of art and said his paintings point to the hidden universe where art and poetry intermingle, and, as this perceptive biography suggests, this quality led to his unique style and his enduring significance.

Diane Scharper has written several books. She teaches memoir and poetry for the Johns Hopkins University Osher Program.