Salvador Dalí Biography–Origins of the Surrealist Master

Richard P. van Pelt, Ph.D.  •  January 29, 2020

Everyone recognizes Salvador Dalí’s most famous paintings, such as his 1931 masterpiece, Persistence of Memory, with his signature melting clocks. Most are also familiar with his elephant paintings, with their extremely long legs, and his burning giraffes. Yet most people mistakenly identity Dalí as the father of Surrealism.

Salvador Dalí was born on May 11, 1904, the son of a prestigious notary in the small town of Figueras in north-eastern Spain—the same locale where he died 85 years later. His talent as an artist showed at an early age and Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí y Domenech received his first drawing lessons when he was ten years old, though at age six, he completed his first oil painting, a landscape work in his village. Dalí began to study art at the Royal Academy of Art in Madrid. He was expelled twice and never took the final examinations. His opinion was that he was more qualified than those who would have examined him.

At age nine, he travelled the short distance from his home to the village of Vilavertran and painted a small (roughly 8” x 6”) landscape. A year later, he completed a portrait, entitled, Head of Athene and then, remarkably, an interior Dutch scene. He was enchanted by the Flemish painters of the Dutch Golden Age (when Flanders was still part of the Dutch Republic.) In 1918, he painted a portrait of Lucia, an elderly woman hired by the family as a nanny to Salvador and his sister, Ana-Maria. At age 14, his mastery of impressionism demonstrated both a deft touch and a remarkable attention to detail.

Imaginations and Objects of the Future: Cybernetic Lobster Telephone, 1975
Color lithograph with etching on Arches paper

Dalí and Surrealism

As Dalí entered his 20s, a new social movement began in Europe, led by writer André Breton. Whereas Pablo Picasso’s now-established Cubism was a re-interpretation of reality, surrealism was a rejection of it. Surrealism celebrated the irrational by de-coupling linkages between subjects and their component parts. The concept was to free the imagination, and was largely predicated on the works of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.

The rejection of the rational had strong overtones in the social and political areas. Proponents rejected societal structure and customs in their pursuit of freedom.

Conquest of Cosmos II: Saturnian Giraffe, 1974. DALÍ, Salvador, 1904-1989.

Conquest of Cosmos II: Saturnian Giraffe, 1974
Color lithograph with engraving and embossing on BFK Rives paper

This led to many surrealists aligning themselves with communism or even anarchy. Not surprisingly, this led to a fractured movement, with numerous splits and schisms. Breton himself was a friend of, and collaborator with, Leon Trotsky, the Marxist leader of 1917’s Russian Revolution. Breton defined Surrealism as, “Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.”

This was precisely the foundation that young Dalí could use to build his artistic persona. The foundation of his upcoming greatness began to be evidenced as his skill coalesced around his personal style. Dalí was never hampered by humility. “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.”

Toward the building of his career, Dalí went to Paris in 1928, where he met fellow Spanish painters Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. He established himself as the principal figure of a group of surrealist artists grouped around Andre Breton, who was something like the theoretical “schoolmaster” of surrealism. Years later, Breton turned away from Dalí accusing him of supporting fascism, excessive self-presentation and financial greediness.

Branches of Surrealism

There were two main branches of Surrealism: figurative and abstract. Figurative Surrealism refers to the depiction of either the human body or an animal—all the while specifically making no effort at rationality. Perhaps more accurately, effort was made at being irrational or perhaps more accurately, anti-rational. Thus, when Dalí used elephants in his paintings, they only obliquely looked like the real animal. They would be shown with spindly, multi-jointed, stilt-like legs. While his giraffes looked more like natural animals, they would be shown with their entire spines in flames.

Salvador DALÍ (1904-1989) Éléphant Spatial, 1981 Bronze with green and black patina, brass and plexiglass Signed and numbered '275/350' for sale

Éléphant Spatial, 1981
Bronze with green and black patina, brass and plexiglas

Abstract Surrealism is not dependent on specific natural forms. Instead, artists depict subjects derived from unconscious energy. This is a crucial point in understanding the distinction between Abstract art and Abstract Surrealistic art. The primary difference is that Abstract art’s subjects are not derived from the unconscious mind. They are not based on Freud or Psychotherapy. Instead, they deal with the beauty of colors and shapes and the interactions between the elements of the subject.

Dalí’s Persistence of Memory falls into the Abstract Surrealism sphere, with its numerous depictions that clearly stem from his unconscious energy. Thus, while he wasn’t a founder of Surrealism, it is the Dalí name that is most associated with Surrealism.

Salvador Dalí,Le Sommeil, circa 1955, Collage of photographic elements with gouache on a photographic base, Unframed

Le Sommeil, circa 1955
Collage of photographic elements with gouache on a photographic base