Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Yves Tanguy Photo

Yves Tanguy - Biography and Legacy

French Painter

Born: January 5, 1900 - Paris, France
Died: January 15, 1955 - Woodbury, Connecticut
Movements and Styles:

Biography of Yves Tanguy


Tanguy was born into a maritime family. His father was a sea captain and the family lived at the Ministere de la Marine in the Place de La Concorde. The seas, skies and stones of the Finistère coasts in Brittany, where Tanguy spent his summers as a child, appear in his mature work. His early life dealt him some hard blows - his father died in 1908 and his brother died in the First World War. His mother moved to Locronan, Finistère, but Tanguy stayed in Paris to complete his education. As a teenager, Tanguy was lucky enough to make friends with Pierre Matisse (son of Henri Matisse) whose encouragement and support would be crucial to his artistic career, which did not begin immediately. His family expected him to join the Merchant Navy and so he did, working on cargo boats between South America and Africa from 1918-1919. In 1920 he was conscripted into the French Army in Tunis, where he met the poet Jacques Prévert who delighted in Tanguy's eccentricity and strange habits - from chewing his socks to eating live spiders. The latter became a party trick that he would often repeat.

Early Period

After his release from the army disillusioned with convention, Tanguy and Prévert adopted a bohemian lifestyle in Montparnasse. They moved in with the writer Marcel Duhamel at 54 rue du Château, which became an informal gathering spot for artists and writers. This intense but aimless period of his life came to a halt in 1923, when a chance encounter changed his life. While passing by a gallery window in Paris, Tanguy saw de Chirico's, Le Cerveau de L'enfant, and the experience of the picture was so electrifying that he decided to become a painter at once. Other early sources of inspiration for the young Tanguy were Hieronymus Bosch, Lucas Cranach, and Paulo Uccello, Renaissance masters, whose luminous color and perspective he would learn to emulate.

In 1924 he was introduced to André Breton, poet and author of the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), and attended the first Surrealist exhibition in 1925. From then on, Tanguy was a passionate believer, whose startling blue eyes and proto-punk hair made him something of a Surrealist mascot. Breton wrote: "What is Surrealism? It is the appearance of Yves Tanguy, crowned with the big emerald bird of Paradise." Tanguy, in turn, idolized Breton, and called him 'Papa'. Tanguy was among the most loyal members of the Surrealist movement, contributing to manifestos, magazines, and exhibitions. Tanguy's solo exhibition in 1927 was accompanied by a catalogue that praised the artist's skillful distortions as the ultimate Surrealist expression, conveying the overall mistrust of reality that characterized the movement. Taking his cue from psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who urged his patients to begin with their dream, and work outwards, he painted backgrounds and shadows first, before adding his unique bone-like forms. Neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral, Tanguy's creations crawl, arch, sink and fly. Breton called them 'subject-objects' - they are solid and have shadows, yet exist in unreal perspectives with zero gravity. They are both real and unreal - further illustrated by Tanguy's 1931 article Poids et Couleurs (Weights and Colors) where he created hand-shaped subject-objects of pink plush, pearly celluloid, plaster, straw, wax and mercury.

The Surrealist aim was confrontation, and some early reactions to Tanguy's work were violent. In 1930, his early works were exhibited at the Paris screening of Dalí and Buñuels' L'Âge d'Or. The film's sex and violence led to a riot and three of his paintings were slashed to pieces. Despite this adverse reaction, Tanguy continued to love cinema and was inspired, in particular, by its ability to capture motion. He also illustrated Surrealist works of literature, such as Louis Aragon's La Grande Gaîté (1929) and Paul Eluard's "La Vie Immediate" (1932). Loyal to Breton, he signed the second Manifest Surrealiste in 1930, and the collective letter in 1934 expelling Dalí from the group for his pro-Hitler comments.

Middle Period

By the mid-1930s, Tanguy had both fame and money. His reputation grew with exhibitions in Paris, Belgium, England, New York, Tenerife and the Guggenheim Jeune. Yet Tanguy saw both prestige and wealth as unimportant, even objectionable. On drunken nights in Paris, friends saw him roll banknotes into balls and throw them at bemused café patrons. He began a passionate affair with Peggy Guggenheim, once telling her that money confused him and he wished he had not got so much of it all at once. Their affair ended when he met his future wife, the surrealist painter Kay Sage. In 1939 he and Sage moved to America to paint and travel, and married in Reno, Nevada in 1940. Once in America his work still made no concession to reality, but he added vibrant reds and yellows to his chalky greys, inspired by the American landscape. Breton brilliantly summarized this new color palette as: "nasturtium, cock-of-the-rock, poplar leaf, rusty wellchain, cut sodium, slate, jellyfish and cinnamon." Tanguy continued to manipulate scale and perspective, noting that the increased light and space of America gave him a feeling of "more room." Yet he began to fill his work with clusters of subject-objects, no longer widely spaced apart. Their textures changed too, from bone and rock, to cloth, wood, resin, and plastic.

In 1942 Tanguy's painting Time and Again was featured in Matisse's famous Artists en Exil exhibition. Other artists invited to contribute were Roberto Matta, Ossip Zadkine, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Fernand Leger, Andre Breton, Piet Mondrian, Andre Masson, Amédée Ozenfant, Jacques Lipchitz, Pavel Tchelitchew, Kurt Seligmann, and Eugene Berman, all of whom had fled World War II. His iconic reputation continued to grow with 1943-1945 exhibitions at Pierre Matisse's gallery and a joint exhibition with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of the Century (1944). He and Sage settled in Woodbury, Connecticut, painting each day and reviewing each other's work. His compositions show the influence of Sage's larger, geometric forms. He had advanced from pure automatism and now sketched his compositions first. Tension grew in his relationship with 'Papa' Breton, who tended to excommunicate Surrealists (Max Ernst, for example) with whom he was unhappy, resented Tanguy's fame and insufficiently unconscious way of working. He ultimately denounced Tanguy as 'bourgeois', and demanded that Pierre Matisse break with him. Tanguy was furious, and the mutual enmity lasted for years.

Later Work

Now an American citizen, Tanguy traveled widely in the American West and regularly visited the Arizona home of his fellow surrealists-in-exile, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. The awesome scale of the red rocks, the brilliance of the blinding sun, and the drama of Ernst's giant cement and metal sculptures inspired Tanguy. The environment of the Southwest and the reality of machine-age America are reflected in the mechanical, angular, metallic forms characteristic of his work during this period. In 1953 he visited Europe for the first time since his 1939 departure. He held exhibitions in Rome at the Galleria de l'Obelisco, in Milan at the Puis del Naviglio, and in Paris at the Galerie Renou & Poyet. Before returning to America he visited his sister and his beloved Brittany coasts.

In 1954 the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut held a joint exhibition of Tanguy and Sage's work. Despite their interconnected working practices they craved artistic independence and insisted that their work be shown in separate galleries. Tanguy offered few insights into his process, declining to discuss his ideology and technical methods. He characterized himself as "very much alone in my work, I am almost jealous of it." Friends such as Breton and Hans Richter characterized Tanguy as a loner toward the end of his life, but he still enjoyed Surrealist games. Shortly before his death, he starred in Richter's art movie 8x8. Part Lewis Carrol, part Freud, the film uses chess (where pieces can become other pieces) as a metaphor for transformation. Duchamp played the White King, Jaqueline Matisse the White Queen, and Tanguy the Black Knight. Tanguy died suddenly on 15 January 1955 after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. The months leading up to his death, however, were especially prolific. His robust final canvases are often seen as the culmination of his life's obsessions, elevating his fantastic projections to a new level, and gathering the subjects, objects, colors and themes of his life into powerful statements, such as Multiplication of the Arcs (1954) and Imaginary Numbers (1954). His ashes were scattered in Brittany. In September 1955, the first major retrospective of Tanguy's work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Legacy of Yves Tanguy

In its entirety, Tanguy's career forms a bridge between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Tanguy's early works anticipated much of later Surrealism - perhaps most visibly in the compositions of Salvador Dalí. His pioneering work with automatism (unconscious painting) was also admired by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and other American artists who shared his fascination with the unconscious, and emulated the gestural freedom of his atmospheric backgrounds. Julien Levy noted that: "space for Dalí became terrible, for Tanguy it became both intimate and eternal, consoling and inevitable". However, Dalí once told Tanguy's niece Agnes: "I pinched everything from your Uncle Yves." His influence has been noted in sculptures of Hans Arp, David Hare, and Isamu Noguchi as well as the work of Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, and Esteban Francés. In 1963 Pierre Matisse and Kay Sage published Yves Tanguy, A Summary of His Work before commencing the Yves Tanguy Catalogue Raisonné.

Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

"Yves Tanguy Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein
Available from:
First published on 07 Dec 2015. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]