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Dorothea Tanning - Biography and Legacy

American Painter, Sculptor, Writer, and Poet

Movements and Styles: Surrealism, Installation Art, Proto-Feminist Artists, Modern Sculpture

Born: August 25, 1910 - Galesburg, Illinois

Died: January 31, 2012 - New York, New York

Dorothea Tanning Timeline

"Women artists. There is no such thing - or person. It's just as much a contradiction in terms as 'man artist' or 'elephant artist.' You may be a woman and you may be an artist; but the one is a given and the other is you."

Dorothea Tanning Signature
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Biography of Dorothea Tanning

Childhood, Education, and Early Period

Dorothea Tanning was born the second of three daughters to a working-class family originally from Sweden who had settled and made their home in Galesburg, Illinois. Her father had aspirations of becoming a cowboy in the American West, whilst her mother was a fantasist who insisted on dressing their daughters in taffeta and silk. The children were raised in an area that ascribed to strict Lutheran values making their parents at once devoutly religious but also big dreamers. Tanning expressed a love of art from an early age and would find her own peace reading the likes of Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Anderson. Having completed initial schooling, she then worked at the local public library before enrolling at Knox College, the closest liberal arts facility. Although the college did not offer art classes, alongside contributing illustrations to the school newspaper, Tanning always painted and drew in her spare time.

In 1930, following only two years at Knox College Tanning moved to Chicago, where she stayed with friends that she had made while working at the Galesburg Public Library. She worked as a hostess in a restaurant, and enrolled in night classes at the Chicago Art Institute where she attended classes for three weeks. Aside from this brief time, Tanning was a self-taught artist, who learnt independently by visiting museums and galleries. She secured her first exhibition in a bookshop gallery in New Orleans in 1934 and showed a series of watercolors. A few months later, in the spring of 1935, she moved to New York where she managed to support herself as a commercial artist and first encountered Dada and Surrealism.

Mature Period

Dorothea Tanning in her studio (1955). Photography by Lee Miller
Dorothea Tanning in her studio (1955). Photography by Lee Miller

The 1936 "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism" show at the Museum of Modern Art sparked Tanning's lifelong interest in Surrealism. It was not until 1942, however, as an exhibitor in Peggy Guggenheim's "31 Women" show did she actually meet participants in the movement. Between 1936 and 1940, Tanning traveled widely. She first went to California and then spent much time in Europe in the years just before the beginning of World War II.

When she returned to New York in 1940, Tanning went back to commercial work, and created a series of advertisements for Macy's department store. This proved to be a fruitful venture, as she was introduced to Julien Levy of the Julien Levy Gallery, who took immediate interest in her work. Shortly thereafter, the city experienced an influx of refugees fleeing Europe because of the war. This brought over many influential artists, including notable Surrealists like André Masson, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst. Tanning became friends with most of these artists, and then the lover and wife of Max Ernst. Tanning and Ernst met in the build up to the 31 Women show at Peggy Guggenheim' gallery, Ernst's wife at the time. The new couple married in 1946, in a double wedding with photographer Man Ray and Juliet Browner. Guggenheim expressed her sadness in the loss of Ernst to Tanning and painfully recalled of the important exhibition, famously said: "I should have had 30 women."

Later Period

Despite her successful solo show at Julien Levy Gallery in 1944, Tanning and Ernst moved away from the city to Sedona, Arizona in 1946. Here they built a house and hosted many visits from creative friends, including photographer Lee Miller who made a memorable photograph of the couple whereby the scale has been altered and giant Ernst clings to the miniature Tanning's hair. In 1949 Tanning and Ernst relocated to Paris and later Provence but continued to spend time at their house in Sedona throughout the 1950s. It was during this time that Tanning's work underwent a notable stylistic shift. Whilst previously her paintings had been populated by dreamlike figurative landscapes, her brushwork became almost entirely abstract. Insightfully, she said of the change, "my canvases literally splintered... I broke the mirror, as you might say." For the remaining decades of her life, her journey into abstraction continued, as well as her experiments and development in sculpture, writing, and poetry.

Tanning returned to New York from France in 1980, four years after Max Ernst died. She then spent the remainder of her life traveling between Los Angeles, New York, and France. Her last recorded painting was part of a series of flowers that she completed in 1998, but she continued to write, focusing mainly on poetry until she died at home in New York in 2012, age 101. The previous year, her 100th birthday was celebrated with numerous exhibitions around the world, including Dorothea Tanning - Early Designs for the Stage at the Drawing Center in New York, NY and Dorothea Tanning - 100 Years: A Tribute at the Galerie Bel'Art, Stockholm, Sweden.

The Legacy of Dorothea Tanning

Tanning's entire oeuvre - from painting to poetry - has had a profound influence on subsequent generations of artists. Her continued exploration of the female form has led to her association with the Feminist movement. Along with other female Surrealists, Tanning provided a necessary active role model for younger women also trying to break free of restrictive views of womanhood to become independent artists. Notably, her experiments in sculpture look forward to the career of Louise Bourgeois and later to that of Sarah Lucas, revealing the same intense interest in base psychic forces. Her earlier paintings, in which children confront the viewer scantily clad with unsettling knowledge, establish a definite and interesting link to the photographs of Sally Mann.

Tanning's poetry and writing have added an additional layer and contributed to a deeper understanding of her work, and her illustrations, most notably the costume designs for some of George Balanchine's ballets, have had a lasting impact on theater costume design. Much to the artist's dismay, her artistic legacy is sometimes overshadowed by her marriage to Max Ernst. When portrayed together, so iconic looking as a couple, interest is roused on the subject of 'artists in love', but Tanning, specifically, while perhaps implausibly, stated that she and Ernst "never, never talked art."

Most Important Art

Dorothea Tanning Famous Art

Birthday (1942)

Birthday is a seminal work for Dorothea Tanning; it is the work that saw her noticed by the likes of Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim, it placed her strong individual character firmly on the artistic stage, and introduced motifs that would recur throughout her career. She paints herself in the foreground of a room that recedes to become an infinite passageway of many open doors. Her costume combines nature and culture as her skirt grows with seaweed-like foliage whilst the blouse from which her breasts peak out recalls aristocracy, made of silk and lace. Next to her feet is an animal familiar that has been identified by art historian, Whitney Chadwick, as a winged lemur. Lemurs have long since been associated with the night and with the spirit world. As a symbol of the unconscious released through dream, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Valentine Hugo have all also depicted the magical lemur.

Indeed, this self-portrait by Tanning has much in common with Carrington's Self-Portrait (c.1938). The two paintings fuse together fantasy and reality as the lone artist is portrayed in only creaturely company. Both images present otherworldly framing devices; the door in the case of Tanning and the window in the case of Carrington, and ultimately both herald the significance of a woman's creative and visionary powers. The organic growth that entwines to make Tanning's skirt bears reference to her portrait of the same year, Arizona Landscape, as well as to an earlier portrait of another woman, Deirdre (1940), whose hair is replaced by leaves. Robert Motherwell photographed Tanning herself wearing a crown of leaves in 1945. Like that of her skirt in Birthday, this tentacle/antennae-like feature at once suggests connection to higher realms but also hauntingly recalls a crown of thorns, therefore uniting the pains and joys of life.
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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
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First published on 25 Sep 2017. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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