Dalí Painted what he Saw, Not just what he Dreamed!

By Paul Chimera

Salvador Dalí Historian


Everyone has their “thing” when it comes to Salvador Dalí. Some love how mind-bending his paintings were. Not to mention his drawings, prints, and three-dimensional objects.


Others are fascinated by his scientific and mathematical mind. Many couldn’t get enough of his eccentricities, especially when they went public in what was invariably headline-making fashion.


Of the many “things” that make Dalí irresistible to me is how you can discover certain elements in his pictures that were NOT the products of his fertile imagination, but actual things he saw in his daily life. Things that became important details within his surrealist – and sometimes not so surrealist – paintings.


Like any artist, surrealist Dalí was a keen observer of his surroundings, and I find it interesting to look at some of what he saw converted into oil on canvas.


A great example is how Dalí was inspired when he traveled in Italy and was taken by the deep perspective of the proscenium of the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, created by architect Andrea Palladio. Witnessing this architectural work gave rise to Dalí’s Palladio’s Corridor of Dramatic Surprise of 1938 and, a year earlier, Palladio’s Thalia Corridor.


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Another Italian architectural wonder – the intricate and awe-inspiring interior of the Pantheon in Rome – informed Dalí’s remarkable painting, Raphaelesque Head Exploding.


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And the Bernini sculpture in Rome’s Piazza della Minerva square moved Dalí to create his famous elephants sporting skyscraper-tall spider legs and carrying impossible obelisks or other objects on their backs.


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The Church of Santa Maria in Cadaques was a great landmark for inspiration, resulting in a host of early canvases by Dalí in his pre-surrealist days.


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Speaking of Cadaques, that region, including Cape Creus and Port Lligat, was home to unending inspiration for Dalí in the peculiar and distinctive rock formations of a largely craggy coastline. Most important is the rock at Cullero, which inspired Dalí’s Great Masturbator head that appeared not only in his The Great Masturbator painting of 1929, but in many other works of his surrealist period.


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Another popular natural fixture in Dalí’s Spanish homeland are cypress trees, which appear in numerous Dalí canvases. One in particular, My Cousin Carolinetta on the Beach at Rosas, was obviously inspired by an actual cypress tree growing within a boat, as you can see in the delightful photo here.


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Cypress trees dominated the haunting painting, The Isle of the Dead, by the German artist Arnold Bocklin. This work inspired many artists, including Salvador Dalí. Another artist’s work that inspired Dalí to borrow a friendly element from it, was Ayne Bru’s Martyrdom of St. Cucufa. The resting dog in the early painting showed up in two of Dalí’s: Myself at the Age of Six When I Believed I Was a Girl Lifting the Skin of the Water to See a Dog Sleeping in the Shade of the Sea…, and Dalí, Nude, in Contemplation of Five Regular Bodies (not its complete title).


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Another artist whose specific work moved Dalí to paint a particular work was Pablo Picasso. His famed Guernica canvas inspired Dalí to paint Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone. Notice the light bulb and anguished horse in the Dalí quoted from the Picasso – both works making a statement about the horrors of war.


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And then there is a disparate array of objects Dalí saw in his everyday life that figured into his paintings. We’re talking such things as …


A CHESS PAWN, seen in Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love:




A COKE BOTTLE, appearing (years before Pop art was in vogue) in Poetry of America:




CAULIFLOWER, prominently seen in Nature Morte Vivante:




BREAD, beautifully captured in two versions of Basket of Bread:


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WATERMELON, in Feather Equilibrium:




A FREIGHT TRAIN CAR, featured in The Perpignan Railway Station:




FLIES, flitting about in The Hallucinogenic Toreador:




CORK, hanging by a string in The Madonna of Port Lligat:




A SUNFLOWER, beautifully depicted in The Virgin of Guadalupe:


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SAILING BOATS, found in such precise works as The Weaning of Furniture Nutrition:




The list could go on and on. I love seeing such objects becoming a part of a Salvador Dalí painting. He was so much more than just a painter of melting clocks!


(Images used under Fair Use provisions for journalistic purposes only)