Dali’s Spectacular Portraiture Continues to Fascinate!
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
I think I know why Salvador Dali’s portrait work is so intriguing: it gives us an opportunity to see the way Dali saw when his vantage point was not through the lens of his paranoiac-critical vision. In other words, his imagination – for the most part – did not play a leading role in the outcome on canvas. Instead, he had to convey a true representation of his subject matter, his sitter.
As a result, we get to see Dali the realist, the disciplined, commissioned conveyor of what anyone would see, and not – for a change – an often bizarre interpretation nuanced by Dali’s inimitable creative twists.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. Because invariably (though not always) Dali added peculiar flashes of his unique iconography that lent an irrepressibly surrealist aura to an otherwise realistic portrait. And that’s an important characteristic of Dali’s portraits: they captured the genuine look of their subjects, frequently with startlingly photographic precision. By the same token, they almost always also featured background oddities and surprises that put an unmistakable Dalinian stamp on them.
What I want to do in today’s blog post is take a look at a selection of Salvador Dali portraits, together with photographs of their subjects. You can decide for yourself how closely Dali came to capturing a good likeness of the man or woman who commissioned him.
Let’s start with his controversial portrait of Ann Woodward, painted in 1953. Apparently Ms. Woodward had some issues with the way her portrait turned out; sued Dali; lost. The lady was an American socialite best known as a murder suspect for the death of her husband, William Woodward, Jr. – a wealthy heir and prominent member of New York society circles – who had planned to divorce her. She was never convicted of the crime.
Two years earlier, in 1951, Dali painted the portrait of Jack Warner of Warner Bros. Studios fame. Dali got to know him when he was living in California during World War II and courted a number of important entertainment luminaries. Dali also painted an arguably more interesting portrait of Mrs. Jack Warner.
In 1954, Dali painted the portrait of Prince Gourielli, husband of the famed cosmetics queen, Helena Rubinstein, whose portrait Dali made nine years earlier.
In 1955, Dali painted Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III – perhaps the most famous portrait of the many Dali created. Various photos were taken of Dali making preliminary sketches of the iconic actor.
Three excellent portraits by Dali emerged in 1958. C.Z. Guest posed for a truly exquisite portrait. Lucy Douglas “C.Z.” Guest was an American stage actress, author, columnist, horsewoman, fashion designer and socialite. Her status as a fashion icon really comes through in this stunning canvas, which fittingly includes horses in the background.
In the same year, Chester Dale – and his beloved dog, Coco – sat for Dali, resulting in a dandy portrayal of the philanthropist and art collector (though it’s doubtful Coco posed for long!). And we can see a clear comparison between the photo here of John Langeloth Loeb, Sr. – American investor and executive who served as president of Loeb, Rhoades & Company – and the painting Salvador Dali did of him.
Here’s the Portrait of Sao Schlumberger of 1965, along with a photo of her in later years posing with the picture. The Portuguese beauty was married to an aristocrat French oil-industry tycoon (and was said to have lots of affairs!).
And there’s the rather strange portrait of Jonathan and Ann Green of 1963. The Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali’s excellent online Catalog Raisonne features this interesting communication from Mr. Green to Mr. Dali:
“This work is a portrait of Jonathan and Ann Green commissioned by Montgomery M. Green, a farmer and patron of the arts. In the letters he sent to the artist, he clearly exposes how painting should be: ‘This portrait might contain an allegorical message contrasting what is good and worthwhile in our American and Western bourgeois Christian world against the evil forces that now confront the whole Christendom.
“There are, of course, numerous ways that this challenge can be symbolized,” the note continues. “For instance, I should think that the lighting of the picture might show beams of sunshine on the Western Christian side with dark thunder clouds overhanging the Eastern atheistic side. […] My suggestion that having Jonathan, the boy, depicted holding a space helmet under his arm occurred to me because he was born at the very dawn of the space age and is facing life in that age. You expressed disapproval of this concept, but I was not entirely clear as to what your objection was. Certainly I am not insisting on this anymore than on any of the suggestions that I have made, but I am setting the matter down here in order to explain to you what prompted the thought.’ (Letter from Montgomery M. Green to Salvador Dalí, April 20, 1962).