Dalí’s Technique Self-Described as ‘Hand-Painted Color Photography’

By Paul Chimera

Salvador Dalí Historian

 

Salvador Dalí specialist and friend Elliott King, Ph.D., again finds himself mentioned here, due to his recent sojourn to the land of the rising son. He has shared a little about the wealth of great Dalí paintings he finally got to see in person while visiting Japan.

 

One little-known work is the controversial but wonderful portrait Dalí painted of Ann Woodward in 1953, a woman dubiously famed as an American socialite best known as a murder suspect for the death of her husband, who’d planned to divorce her. She was never convicted of the crime.

 

A smaller crime, of sorts, is that Ms. Woodward didn’t particularly care for Dalí’s portrayal of her, but subsequently lost out when Dalí successfully sued her for non-payment of the commission.

 

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But this is something of a digression from what I wish to focus on today: the photographic realism of Dalí’s technique.

 

The Woodward portrait inspires my thinking about the truly remarkable technical skill Salvador Dalí possessed. You can clearly see in the photo of the Woodward portrait Elliott is examining how bright, precise and, well, photographic the work is. It looks like “hand-painted color photography.” Which is precisely how Dalí defined his technique.

 

Here, in no particular order, are just a few of the works of Salvador Dalí that illustrate pretty conclusively that he wasn’t kidding when he likened his technique to color photography. He knew such an exacting treatment of his subjects was the only path to making the unreal seem real.

 

Consider White Calm of 1936. While it reminds some of a postcard, the point is that post cards are usually photographs of something – and this scene was painted painstakingly enough to emulate a color photo. Its title couldn’t be more fitting.

 

White Calm: a photo-postcard?

White Calm: a photo-postcard?

 

Another painting of the same year that exudes extraordinary photographic realism is Geodesic Portrait of Gala. This painting has always intrigued me.

 

Hand-painted color photography

Hand-painted color photography

 

Perhaps it’s because Dalí chose not to show her face, which was unusual. Or it might just be the superb handling of the jacket she favored – a handling that is indeed photographic in its realistic treatment. So photographic that, at times, I used to wonder: is it a painting or a photograph?

 

In Sun Table, also of 1936, the floor tiles, the table, the glasses, the silhouetted figure of the boy – it all tested our perception, making us wonder if what we’re seeing is a painting or a photo.

 

Is it a painting or a photograph?

Is it a painting or a photograph?

 

What better way to depict a dreamscape, or other imagery mined from our subconscious, than to do so with razor-sharp realism? This is why Alfred Hitchcock said he selected Dalí to create the dream sequence in Spellbound; dreams are usually vivid and sharp, Hitchcock reasoned, not murky.

 

There’s nothing murky about the 1935 oil, The Angelus of Gala. The more we contemplate this perfectly painted work, the more it appears we’re looking at an actual photograph of Gala from behind, don’t you think?

 

Photo-realism ahead of its time

Photo-realism ahead of its time.

 

Original Sin (1941) has always intrigued and puzzled me. It’s so different from most anything else Salvador Dalí painted.

 

As real as a photograph.

As real as a photograph.

 

But its depiction of a pair of old, battered shoes, and a jeweled snake encircling a wonderful likeness of a woman’s ankle, approaches the exactness of an actual photograph. It’s Dalí’s technical mastery at an astounding level of precision.

 

Here are a host of other great Dalí pictures that further exemplify his “hand-painted color photography” definition of his technique:

 

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Portrait of Gala with Rhinocerotic Symptoms (above) truly looks like a collage, as if Dalí painted a Nuclear-Mystical version of Gala’s neck and upper body and then placed a cut-out photograph of her onto the canvas. Not the case, of course; it’s all the result of Dalí’s photographic painting technique.

 

This detail of Santiago El Grande is surely one of the most realistic depictions ever of a horse's head.

This detail of Santiago El Grande is surely one of the most realistic depictions ever of a horse’s head. The human portrait is similarly lifelike.

 

 

The sheer veil especially makes this oil portrait of Madame Ortiz de Linares almost look like a color photograph of the lady.

The sheer veil especially makes this oil portrait of Madame Ortiz de Linares look like a (“hand-painted”)color photograph of the lady.

 

 

Everything in the monumental Corpus Hypercubus is painted with exquisite, breathtaking photographic precision.

Everything in the monumental Corpus Hypercubus is painted with exquisite, breathtaking photographic precision.

 

 

Anyone who has seen the iconic Sacrament of the Last Supper in America's capital knows that the photographic precision in this work practically knocks viewers off their feet.

Anyone who has seen the iconic Sacrament of the Last Supper in America’s capital knows that the photographic precision in this work practically knocks viewers off their feet.

 

 

The cobalt blue water in the left corner of Dalí's amazing Tuna Fishing masterwork bends our perception of what is painted and what is photographed; this is all the careful handiwork of the Maestro.

The cobalt-blue water in the left corner of Dalí’s amazing Tuna Fishing masterwork bends our perception of what is painted and what is photographed; this is all the careful handiwork of the Maestro.

 

 

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The above images of Gala all capture various aspects of her likeness and form with the accuracy and believability of a camera lens.

 

 

Dalí from the Back Painting Gala from the Back Eternalized by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected in Six Real Mirrors was a stroke of painterly genius from Dalí in 1973. It doesn't get much more photographic-like than this.

Dalí from the Back Painting Gala from the Back Eternalized by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected in Six Real Mirrors was a stroke of painterly genius from Dalí in 1973. It doesn’t get much more photographic-like than this.

 

 

Among the many superbly photographic-like portraits Dalí painted is this one of Count Theo Rossi di Montelera (Duke of Urbino) -- looking as much like a photograph as a photograph of him might look like!

Among the many superbly photographic-like portraits Dalí painted is this one of Count Theo Rossi di Montelera (Duke of Urbino) — looking as much like a photograph as a photograph of him might look like!

 

 

Nature Morte Vivante -- the most photographic of all Dalí paintings?

Nature Morte Vivante — the most photographic of all Dalí paintings?

 

In my view, Dalí’s remarkable Nature Morte Vivante of 1957 is his most photographic-like painting. I enjoyed closely examining this oil on canvas when I was publicity director of the original Dalí Museum of Beachwood, Ohio. From the bottle and water, to the leaf and knife, to the tablecloth and cauliflower, this masterful work — in the permanent collection of The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida — is a preeminent example of how Dalí’s stunning technique was able to make the unreal seem real.

Hand-painted color photography indeed.

 

 

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