According to Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m. relates to "a period of six months passed in the presence of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, transported my every moment into a state of enchantment. We constructed a fantastical palace in the night—a very fragile palace of matches. At the least false movement a whole section would collapse. We always began it again." The woman in question is often identified as one of Giacometti's lovers, known only by her first name, Denise. In the summer of 1933 Giacometti told André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement, that he was incapable of making anything that did not have something to do with her.
from The Erotic Object: Surrealist Sculpture from the Collection, June 24, 2009–January 4, 2010
An empty architecture of wood scaffolding, The Palace at 4 a.m. undoes conventional ideas of sculptural mass. Even early on, Giacometti once wrote, he had struggled to describe a "sharpness" that he saw in reality, "a kind of skeleton in space"; human bodies, he added, "were never for me a compact mass but like a transparent construction." Here he extends that vision to render a building as a haunting stage set.
Haunting and haunted, for the palace is lived in: isolate forms and figures inhabit its spaces. The enigma of their connection charges the air that is the sculpture's principal medium. Giacometti was a Surrealist when he made the Palace, and it has the requisite eerie mood. It was his practice, he said, to execute "sculptures that presented themselves to my mind entirely accomplished. I limited myself to reproducing them . . . without asking myself what they could mean."
Yet Giacometti did relate The Palace at 4 a.m. to a period he had spent with a woman who enchanted him, and with whom he had built a "fantastic palace at night, . . . a very fragile palace of matchsticks." He did not know why he had included the spinal column or the skeletal bird, though he associated both with her. As for "the red object in front of the board; I identify it with myself."
from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 153