Tanning, Dorothea (1910—)

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Tanning, Dorothea (1910—)

American Surrealist painter, graphic artist and sculptor. Name variations: Dorothea Tanning Ernst. Born in 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois; attended Knox College and the Art Institute of Chicago; married Max Ernst (an artist), in 1946 (died 1976).

Selected works:

Children's Games (1942); Hotel du Pavot (1942); Birthday (1942); Self-Portrait (1944); Maternity (1946); Guardian Angels (1946); Max in a Blue Boat (1946); Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1946); The Great Room (1950–52); Interior with Sudden Joy (1951); Family Portrait (1954). Given a retrospective exhibition, Centre National d'Art Contemporain, France (1974).

Dorothea Tanning was born in 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois, where she grew up. One of three daughters of Swedish parents, Tanning decided at age seven that she wanted to be an artist. According to American Women Artists, she was bored by school and retreated to the fantasy worlds of the children's classics in the public library. An insatiable reader, she particularly studied the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, and Sir John Tenniel. As she grew older, she found imaginative relief from Midwestern mores in books like Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Gustave Flaubert's Salammbó, as well as the gothic novels of Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe .

For two years, Tanning attended Knox College and then chose to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. After two weeks, she decided that she could learn more outside the classroom, so in 1936 she moved to New York. While there, she cultivated a bohemian lifestyle—reading everything from William Faulkner to the Bhagavad Gita, working odd jobs (including performing as an extra at the Metropolitan Opera), studying Hindu dance and philosophy, and painting. That first year in New York, she also attended the "Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, an experience that greatly influenced her. In 1939, she moved to Paris in search of the surrealist art community; however, the impending turmoil of World War II soon caused her to return to New York. Supporting herself as a draftswoman for advertising jobs, Tanning discovered that surrealism had become a vital movement in New York.

Tanning quickly became part of the surrealist circle of artists, a group that included among its members André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, André Masson, Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage , Matta, Patrick Waldberg, and Max Ernst. Tanning also appeared in the surrealist film Dreams That Money Can Buy (1944–46), directed by Hans Richter. As well, she exhibited her work at the Julian Levy Gallery and created scenery and costume designs for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet. In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim (at the time married to Ernst) included Tanning in the exhibition "31 Women" at Art of This Century. Ernst, who was impressed with both Tanning and her work, divorced Guggenheim in 1946, and married Tanning in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Browner . That same year, the couple moved to Sedona, Arizona, the effects of which can be seen in the imagery of Tanning's paintings from that period. In 1952, the couple established permanent residency in France.

Meticulous in its realistic detail, Tanning's work also possesses a disturbing dreamlike quality often centered around the isolation of women or children. As noted in American Women Artists, Tanning has indicated that "she creates each of her paintings in a kind of ecstatic convulsion in which she gives herself up to chaos, dreams, and the liberating world of the imagination." After the early 1950s, her style became more diffuse and abstract, and in the late 1960s she began to work with soft sculptures.

Although she suffered early in her career from the perception that she was merely an extension of her more famous husband, Tanning is highly acclaimed throughout Europe where she was given a retrospective exhibition at the Centre National d'Art Contemporain in France in 1974. She also began to earn recognition in the United States as well, and her work generated much critical comment in New York when she returned to live there after Ernst's death in 1976. Her creations are held by numerous collections, including the Tate Gallery in London, the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, the Menil Collection in Houston, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At age 90, Tanning enjoyed her first one-woman exhibition in America when the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented "Dorothea Tanning: Birthday and Beyond" from November 2000 until January 2001.


Harrap's Illustrated Dictionary of Art and Artists. Kent, Eng.: Harrap's Reference, 1990.

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists from Early Indian Times to the Present. Avon, 1982.

Karina L. Kerr , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan