Salvador Dali Biography Essay

"The fact that I myself, at the moment of painting, do not understand my own pictures, does not mean that these pictures have no meaning; on the contrary, their meaning is so profound, complex, coherent, and involuntary that it escapes the most simple analysis of logical intuition."


Salvador Dalí is among the most versatile and prolific artists of the twentieth century and the most famous Surrealist. Though chiefly remembered for his painterly output, in the course of his long career he successfully turned to sculpture, printmaking, fashion, advertising, writing, and, perhaps most famously, filmmaking in his collaborations with Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock. Dalí was renowned for his flamboyant personality and role of mischievous provocateur as much as for his undeniable technical virtuosity. In his early use of organic morphology, his work bears the stamp of fellow Spaniards Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. His paintings also evince a fascination for Classical and Renaissance art, clearly visible through his hyper-realistic style and religious symbolism of his later work.

Key Ideas

Freudian theory underpins Dalí's attempts at forging a visual language capable of rendering his dreams and hallucinations. These account for some of the iconic and now ubiquitous images through which Dalí achieved tremendous fame during his lifetime and beyond.

Obsessive themes of eroticism, death, and decay permeate Dalí's work, reflecting his familiarity with and synthesis of the psychoanalytical theories of his time. Drawing on blatantly autobiographical material and childhood memories, Dalí's work is rife with often ready-interpreted symbolism, ranging from fetishes and animal imagery to religious symbols.

Dalí subscribed to Surrealist André Breton's theory of automatism, but ultimately opted for his own self-created system of tapping the unconscious termed "paranoiac critical", a state in which one could simulate delusion while maintaining one's sanity. Paradoxically defined by Dalí himself as a form of "irrational knowledge," this method was applied by his contemporaries, mostly Surrealists, to varied media, ranging from cinema to poetry to fashion.

Most Important Art

The Persistence of Memory (1931)

This iconic and much-reproduced painting depicts the fluidity of time as a series of melting watches, their forms described by Dalí as inspired by a surrealist perception of Camembert cheese melting in the sun. The distinction between hard and soft objects highlights Dalí's desire to flip reality lending to his subjects characteristics opposite their usually inherent properties, an un-reality often found in our dreamscapes. They are surrounded by a swarm of ants hungry for the organic processes of putrefaction and decay of which Dalí held unshakable fascination. Because the melting flesh at the painting's center resembles Dalí, we might see this piece as a reflection on the artist's immortality amongst the rocky cliffs of his Catalonian home.

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Salvador Dalí Artworks in Focus:

Salvador Dalí Overview Continues Below



Dalí was born in Figueres, a small town outside Barcelona, to a prosperous middle class family. The family suffered greatly before the artist's birth, because their first son (also named Salvador) died quickly. The young artist was often told that he is the reincarnation of his dead brother - an idea that surely planted various ideas in the impressionable child. His larger-than-life persona blossomed early alongside his interest in art. He is claimed to have manifested random, hysterical, rage-filled outbursts toward his family and playmates.

From a very young age, Dali found much inspiration in the surrounding Catalan environs of his childhood and many of its landscapes would become recurring motifs in his later key paintings.His lawyer father and his mother greatly nurtured his early interest in art. He had his first drawing lessons at age 10 and in his late teens was enrolled at the Madrid School of Fine Arts, where he experimented with Impressionist and Pointillist styles. When he was a mere 16, Dalí lost his mother to breast cancer, which was according to him, "the greatest blow I had experienced in my life." When he was 19, his father hosted a solo exhibition of the young artist's technically exquisite charcoal drawings in the family home.

Early Training

In 1922 Dalí enrolled at the Special Painting, Sculpture and Engraving School of San Fernando in Madrid, where he lived at the Residencia de Estudiantes. Dalí fully came of age there and started to confidently inhabit his flamboyant and provocative persona. His eccentricity was notorious, and originally more renowned than his artwork. He kept his hair long and dressed in the style of English aesthetes from the nineteenth century, complete with knee-length britches that earned him the title of a dandy. Artistically, he experimented with many different styles at the time, dabbling in whatever piqued his ravenous curiosity. He fell in with, and became close to, a group of leading artistic personalities that included filmmaker Luis Buñuel and poet Federico García Lorca. The residence itself was very progressive and exposed Dalí to the most important minds of the time such as Le Corbusier, Einstein, Calder and Stravinsky. Ultimately though, Dalí was expelled from the academy in 1926 for insulting one of his professors during his final examination before graduation.

Following his dismissal from school, Dalí went idle for a number of months. He then took a life-changing trip to Paris. He visited Pablo Picasso in his studio and found inspiration in what the Cubists were doing. He became greatly interested in Futurist attempts to recreate motion and show objects from simultaneous, multiple angles. He began studying the psychoanalytic concepts of Freud as well as metaphysical painters like Giorgio de Chirico and Surrealists like Joan Miró, and consequently began using psychoanalytic methods of mining the subconscious to generate imagery. Over the course of the next year, Dalí would explore these concepts while working to consider a means of dramatically reinterpreting reality and altering perception. His first serious work of this style was Apparatus and Hand (1927), which contained the symbolic imagery and dreamlike landscape that would become Dalí's inimitable painting signature.

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Salvador Dalí Biography Continues

Mature Period

In 1928, Dalí partnered with the filmmaker Luis Buñuel on Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), a filmic meditation on abject obsessions and irrational imagery. The film's subject matter was so sexually and politically shocking that Dalí became infamous, causing quite a stir with the Parisian Surrealists. The Surrealists considered recruiting Dalí into their circle and, in 1929, sent Paul Eluard and his wife Gala, along with Rene Magritte and his wife Georgette, to visit Dalí in Cadaques. This was the first time Dalí and Gala would meet and shortly after the two began having an affair which eventually resulted in her divorce of Eluard. Gala, born in Russia as Elena Dmitrievna Diakona, became Dalí's lifelong, constant and most important muse, as well as being his future wife, his greatest passion, and his business manager. Soon after this original meeting, Dalí moved to Paris, and was invited by André Breton to join the Surrealists.

Dalí ascribed to Breton's theory of automatism, in which an artist stifles conscious control over the creative process by allowing the unconscious mind and intuition to guide the work. Yet in the early 1930s, Dalí took this concept a step further by creating his own Paranoic Critical Method, in which an artist could tap into their subconscious through systematic irrational thought and a self-induced paranoid state. After emerging from a paranoid state, Dalí would create "hand painted dream photographs" from what he had witnessed, oftentimes culminating in works of vastly unrelated yet realistically painted objects (which were sometimes intensified by techniques of optical illusion). He believed that viewers would find intuitive connection with his work because the subconscious language was universal, and that, "it speaks with the vocabulary of the great vital constants, sexual instinct, feeling of death, physical notion of the enigma of space - these vital constants are universally echoed in every human." He would use this method his entire life, most famously seen in paintings such as The Persistence of Memory (1931) and Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936).

For the next several years, Dalí's paintings were notably illustrative of his theories about the psychological state of paranoia and its importance as subject matter. He painted bodies, bones, and symbolic objects that reflected sexualized fears of father figures and impotence, as well as symbols that referred to the anxiousness over the passing of time. Many of Dalí's most famous paintings are from this highly creative period.

While his career was on the rise, Dalí's personal life was undergoing change. Although he was both inspired and besotted by Gala, his father was less than enthused at this relationship with a woman ten years his son's senior. His early encouragement for his son's artistic development was waning as Dalí moved more toward the avant-garde. The final straw came when Dalí was quoted by a Barcelona newspaper as saying, "sometimes, I spit for fun on my mother's portrait." The elder Dalí expelled his son from the family home at the end of 1929.

The politics of war were at the forefront of Surrealist debates and in 1934 Breton removed Dalí from the Surrealist group due to their differing views on communism, fascism, and General Franco. Responding to this expulsion Dalí famously retorted, "I myself am Surrealism." For many years Breton, and some members of the Surrealists, would have a tumultuous relationship with Dalí, sometimes honoring the artist, and other times disassociating themselves from him. And yet other artists connected to Surrealism befriended Dalí and continued to be close with him throughout the years.

In the follwing years, Dalí travelled widely, and practiced more traditional painting styles that drew on his love of canonized painters like Gustave Courbet and Jan Vermeer, though his emotionally-charged themes and subject matter remained as strange as ever. His fame had grown so widely that he was in demand by the rich, well known and fashionable. In 1938, Coco Chanel invited Dalí to her home, "La Pausa," on the French Riviera where he painted extensively, creating work later exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. But undoubtedly, Dalí's true magic moment came that year when he met his hero, Sigmund Freud. After painting his portrait, Dalí was thrilled to learn that Freud had said, "So far, I was led to consider completely insane the Surrealists, who I think I had been adopted as the patron saint. This young Spaniard with his candid, fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery has made me change my mind."

Around this time Dalí also met a major patron, the wealthy British poet Sir Edward James. James not only purchased Dalí's work, but also supported him financially for two years and collaborated on some of Dalí's most famous pieces including The Lobster Phone (1936) and Mae West Lips Sofa (1937) - both of which decorated James' house in Sussex, England.

Dalí and Gala in the United States

Dalí had a presence in the United States even before his first visit to the country. The art dealer Julien Levy organized an exhibition of Dalí's work in New York in 1934, including The Persistence of Memory. The exhibition was incredibly well received, turning Dalí into a sensation. He first visited the US in the mid-1930s. Dalí continued to ruffle the waters wherever he went, oftentimes staging deliberate public appearances and interactions, which were in essence early examples of his love for performance. On one such occasion, he and Gala went to a masquerade ball in New York dressed as the Lindbergh baby and his kidnapper. This caused such a scandal that Dalí actually apologized in the press, an action that prompted contempt from the Surrealists in Paris.

Dalí also participated in other Surrealist events while in New York. He was featured in the first exhibition on Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. He also made quite the scene at a showing of Joseph Cornell's Surrealist films when he knocked over the projector, famously fuming "my idea for a film is exactly that, and I was going to propose it to someone who would pay to have it made. I never wrote it down or told anyone, but it is as if he had stolen it."

After the devastation of the Second World War in Europe, Dalí and Gala returned to the United States in 1940. They would remain for eight years, splitting time between New York and California. During this period, Dalí became highly productive, expanding his practice beyond the visual arts into a wide array of other creative interests. He designed jewelry, clothing, furniture, sets for plays and ballets, and even display windows for retail stores. Dalí's eccentric personality often took center stage in many of these pursuits - for example, while being consigned by the department store Bonwit Teller, Dalí was so angered by changes to his artistic vision that he shoved a bathtub through the window display case.

Dalí (and Gala) wanted to become stars and make a large amount of money so Hollywood was a natural destination for the couple. They did not succeed in their quest for cinematic celebrity, but Dalí was asked by the famous director Alfred Hitchcock to create the dream sequence in his thriller Spellbound (1945). In addition, Walt Disney cooperated with Dalí to create the animated cartoon Destino, but the project was suspended due to financial difficulties following World War II and not actually completed until much later (2003).

Return to Port Lligat

After being ousted from the family home in 1929, Dalí purchased a small seaside house in the nearby fisherman village of Port Lligat. Eventually he bought up all of the houses around it, transforming his property into a grand villa. Gala and Dalí moved back to Port Lligat in 1948, making it their home base for the next three decades.

Dalí's art continued to evolve. Besides exploring different artistic mediums, Dalí also started using optical illusions, negative space, visual puns, and trompe l'oeil in his work. Starting in 1948 he would make approximately one monumental painting per year - his "Dalí Masterworks" - that were at least five feet long in one or both directions and creatively occupied Dalí for at least a year. His studio had a special slot built into the floor that would allow the huge canvases to be raised and lowered as he worked on them. He painted at least 18 such works between 1948 and 1970.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Dalí's paintings focused primarily on religious themes reflecting his abiding interest in the supernatural. He famously claimed, "I am a carnivorous fish swimming in two waters, the cold water of art and the hot water of science". He aimed to portray space as a subjective reality, which may be why many of his paintings from this period show objects and figures at extremely foreshortened angles. He continued employing his "paranoiac-critical" method, which entailed working long, arduous hours in the studio and expressing his dreams directly on canvas in manic bouts of energy.

Dalí became quite reclusive while encompassed in his studio making paintings. Yet, he continued to step out to orchestrate stunts, or what he called "manifestations" that were just as outrageous as before. Designed to provoke, these performance-based interactions reminded the public that Dalí's inner imp was alive and well. In one, Dalí sipped from a swan's egg as ants emerged from inside its shell; in another he drove around in a car filled to the roof with cauliflower. When his book, The World of Salvador Dalí, was published in 1962 he signed autographed copies at a bookstore in Manhattan while hooked up to a monitor recording his blood pressure and brain waves. Customers left with a signed copy and a printout of Dalí's vitals. He also made a number of commercials for televisions and other media for companies such as Lanvin Chocolates, Alka Seltzer, and Braniff Airlines - casting his star-power far and wide.

In the 1960s when Dalí came to New York City, he always stayed at the St. Regis hotel on 5th Avenue. He made the hotel bar practically his living room, where parties raged throughout his stay. At the time Dalí had an entourage of strange and charismatic characters that he spent his time with. Andy Warhol, another eccentric collector of outrageously wacky humans, also spent time with Dalí at the St. Regis. In one legendary story, Warhol brought a silkscreen painting as a gift to Dalí, but the older artist threw it on the ground at the hotel and proceeded to pee on it. Rather than get offended, Warhol supposedly loved the whole episode. The group that Warhol later put together at The Factory was considered a modern evocation of the setting Dalí produced earlier.

Late Period and Death

The last two decades of Dalí's life would be the most difficult and psychologically arduous. In 1968 he bought a castle in Pubol for Gala and in 1971 she began staying there for weeks at a time, on her own, forbidding Dalí from visiting without her permission. Her retreats gave Dalí a fear of abandonment and caused him to spiral into depression. Gala inflicted permanent damage on Dalí after it came to light that, in her senility, she had marred his health by dosing him with non-prescribed medication. The physical damage that Gala wrought on Dalí hindered his art-making capacity until his death. After her death in 1982, Dalí experienced a further bout of depression and is believed to have attempted suicide. He also moved into the castle in Pubol, the site of her death.

One of Dalí's the most important achievements during this rough time was the creation of The Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres. Rather than donating a single work to the city, Dalí said, "Where, if not in my own town, should the most extravagant and solid of my work endure, where if not here? The Municipal Theatre, or what remained of it, struck me as very appropriate." In preparation for the museum's opening in 1974 Dalí worked tirelessly to design the building and put together the permanent collection that would serve as his legacy.

On January 23, 1989, Dalí died of heart failure while listening to his favorite record, Tristan and Isolde. He is buried beneath the museum that he built in Figueres. His final resting place is three blocks away from the house that he was born in and across the street from the Sant Pere church where he was baptized and had his first communion.

Gala and Salvador Dali in Port Lligat (c.1930)

Dalí and Man Ray in Paris. Photograph by Carl van Vechten (1934)

Salvador Dalí with his decorated moustache. Photo by Jean Dieuzaide (1953)

Dalí in his studio

Salvador Dalí in his studio painting The Madonna of Port Lligat(1950)

Salvador Dalí building his theater-museum in Figueres (1970)

Salvador Dalí


Dalí epitomized the idea that life is the greatest form of art and he mined his with such relentless passion, purity of mission and diehard commitment to exploring and honing his various interests and crafts that it is impossible to ignore his groundbreaking impact on the art world.

His desire to continually and unapologetically turn the internal to the outside resulted in a body of work that not only evolved the concepts of Surrealism and psychoanalysis on a worldwide visual platform but also modeled permission for people to embrace their selves in all our human glory, warts and all. By showing us visual representations of his dreams and inner world laid bare, through exquisite draftsmanship and master painting techniques, Dalí opened a realm of possibilities for artists looking to inject the personal, the mysterious and the emotional into their work. In post-war New York, these concepts were incorporated and transformed by Abstract Expressionists who used Surrealist techniques of automatism to express the subconscious through art, only now through gesture and color. Dalí's use of wildly juxtaposing found objects to create sculpture helped shake the medium from its more traditional bones, opening the door for great assemblage artists such as Joseph Cornell. Today, we can still see Dalí's influence on artists painting in Surrealist styles, others in the contemporary visionary arts sphere and all over the digital art and illustration spectrums.

Dalí's physical character in the world, eccentric and enigmatic, paved the way for artists to think of themselves as brands. He showed that there was no separation between Dalí the man and Dalí the work. His use of avant-garde filmmaking, provocative public performance and random, strategic interaction brought his work alive in ways that differed from the painting - instead of the viewer merely looking at a beautiful work that evoked great imagination, they would be "poked" in real life by a manifestation of Dalí's imagination designed to unsettle and conjure reaction. This could later be seen in artists like Yoko Ono. Andy Warhol would go on to concoct his own persona, environment and entourage in much the same way as would countless other twentieth century artists. In today's social media landscape, artists are almost expected to be visibly and socially just as interesting as in their art work.

Dalí also spearheaded the idea that art, artist and artistic ability could cross many mediums and become a viable commodity. His exhaustive endeavors into fields ranging from fine art to fashion to jewelry to retail and theater design positioned him as a prolific businessman as well as creator. Unlike mass merchandising, which is often disdained in the art world, Dalí's hand touched such a variety of products and places, that literally anyone in the world could own a piece of him. Today this practice is so common that we find great architects like Frank Gehry designing special rings and necklaces for Tiffany or innovators like John Baldessari lending his images to skateboard decks.

Salvador Dalí in Paris photograph by Anna Riwkin-Brick (1933)

Dalí with Federico García Lorca (1927)

Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dali (11 May 1904 – 23 January 1989) –  Spanish surrealist painter. Dali was an influential surrealist and avant-garde painter. He also experimented with film, sculpture, and photography.

Short bio Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali was one of the most iconic painters of the Twentieth Century, with a range of imaginative, striking and surrealist work. His repertoire was influenced by classical Renaissance masters, but he also enjoyed painting with a new avant-garde approach.

As well as painting, he became involved in film, sculpture and photography.

Dali was born in Catalonia (a region of Spain in 1904) and placed great emphasis on his Arabic lineage (descendant of the Moors). He stated that this Arabic lineage influenced his approach to life and was a factor behind his love of luxury and oriental clothes.

Dali had a habit of doing eccentric things which polarised opinions. His eccentric manner was a reflection of his art and vice versa. The fact that he was always in the limelight made his paintings more famous. He could also display a supreme confidence.

“At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.”

– Salvador Dali

“Each morning when I awake, I experience again a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali.”

– Salvador Dali

Early life of Dali

Dali was brought up by a strict father, close to the French border of Catalonia. However, his artistic side was encouraged by a domestic servant. He later went to drawing school and by the time he was 15, had his first public art exhibition in Figueres.

In 1922, after the death of his mother, he moved to Madrid, where he devoted more time to art. He experimented with Cubism and Dada, two new strands in modern art. He also became well known for his distinctive, eccentric dress sense. His rebellious attitude culminated in 1926 when he was expelled from art school just before his exams. Dali had complained no one in his art school was sufficiently competent to judge him.

A Dali painting

After leaving art school, he travelled to Paris, where he became friendly with Pablo Picasso. Picasso was a significant influence on the young Dali, and some of his early works were inspired by Picasso’s style. But, Dali was never an imitator, he was always seeking to incorporate cutting-edge avant-garde styles into his work. His work became increasingly well known, and reviews were mixed with art critics increasingly polarised by the work of Dali.

The persistence of memory

In 1931, Dali painted one of his most famous works, ‘The Persistence of Memory’. Sometimes called ‘Soft Watches’ or ‘Melting Clocks,’ the work introduced the surrealistic image of a soft, melting pocket watch. It is has become an iconic artwork of the twentieth century – amongst other things it points to the illusion of time.

Salvador Dali wrote on the importance and symbolism of surrealism.

“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.”

When Franco rose to power in 1936, Dali was one of the few Spanish intellectuals to support Franco; this left him a lifelong association with Fascism, which coloured many people’s views of Dali. Fellow artists, who were often of a different political persuasion felt betrayed by Dali’s support for Fascism.

As World War II started in Europe, Dalí and Gala moved to the United States in 1940, where they lived for eight years. In 1942, he published his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. In 1949 he returned to Catalonia living under Franco’s regime.

In the post-war years, Dali continued to be inventive, experimenting with unusual media, such as holography, 4D and bulletist works. Some art contained optical illusions, and his work had an influence on future pop art.

“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”

– Salvador Dali

In the 1960s, he began work on the Dali Theater and museum in his hometown of Figueres. This proved to be an important body of his work.

In 1982, he was awarded the title the Marquis of Pubol by King Juan Carlos of Spain.

Dali died in 1989, at the age of 84, from heart failure. He is buried in the crypt of Teatro Museo in Figueres.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Salvador Dali”, Oxford, Published 26 Dec. 2012. Last updated 8 February 2018.

Secret Life of Salvador Dali

The Persistence of Memory


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