A consummate technician, his work frequently displays a juxtaposition of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. The representational use of objects as other than what they seem is typified in his painting, The Treachery of Images, (La trahison des images), which shows a pipe that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco store advertisement. Magritte painted below the pipe, This is not a pipe (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), which seems a contradiction, but is actually true: the painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. (In his book, This Is Not a Pipe, Foucault discusses the painting and its paradox.)

Magritte pulled the same stunt in a painting of an apple: he painted the fruit realistically and then used an internal caption or framing device to deny that the item was an apple. In these Ceci n’est pas works, Magritte seems to suggest that no matter how closely, through realism-art, we come to depicting an item accurately, we never do catch the item itself, per se, as a Kantian noumenon, but capture only an image on the canvas.

His art shows a more representational style of surrealism compared to the “automatic” style seen in works by artists like Joan Miro. In addition to fantastic elements, his work is often witty and amusing. He also created a number of surrealist versions of other famous paintings.

René Magritte described his paintings by saying,

My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does that mean?’. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.