‘Portrait of My Dead Brother’ a Dali Show-Stopper in St. Pete!
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
Salvador Dali died in 1903. The first Salvador Dali, that is.
Dali-the-artist’s life was preceded by the tragically brief life of his brother, who died at around age 3 of meningitis. Almost literally nine months later to the day, Dali the future titan of 20th century art was born in the town of Figueras, Spain.
Incredibly, his parents named him Salvador, too!
The significance of this unfortunate twist of fate cannot be underestimated when examining the life and work of Salvador Dali. Dali’s parents were crestfallen when their first child died. Even when their artist son was born, they kept a picture of the first Salvador hanging on a wall, not far from a picture of the crucified Christ.
Dali “number 2” knew instinctively he would have to work very hard to establish his own identity, to make it abundantly clear to all that he was who he was – not somehow a shadow or echo of the “first Salvador.” It must have been an onerous emotional burden for the artist-to-be, and it was an early indication of the exceptional public persona that would characterize Dali’s entire life.
It bears noting, as well, that two other highly significant family matters would play a major role in shaping young Salvador’s life. One was the death of his mother from ovarian cancer when he was just 16 years old – a devastating blow to any adolescent. Then, in another surrealistic twist of fate, Dali’s father would go on to marry his deceased wife’s sister – Dali’s aunt!
And so it was that, in 1963, Salvador Dali painted the large, perfectly square canvas, “Portrait of My Dead Brother” (Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida). Scholars seem to agree that Dali really didn’t know much about what the dead sibling looked like and that, moreover, this male image was simply too old to be a likeness of the ill-fated child.
However, it’s my belief, from having seen a few black & white photos of the “original” Salvador that, in fact, the image Dali depicted in the painting here actually resembles those early snapshots. It’s all, of course, a subjective observation, but I depart from the conventional wisdom here.
Whether plausible or imaginary, the picture is one of Dali’s most popular, and brings together two major influences in Dali’s life, in addition, of course, to the death of his brother. One is Dali’s career-long fascination with all manner of optical effects and illusion. In “Portrait of My Dead Brother,” Dali draws upon what was known as the Benday dot pattern used in the process of half-tone printing of photographs in newspapers and magazines at the time.
From a proper distance, these dots converge to allow us a clear view of the boy’s face; up close, they’re merely circles and dots and even a few cherries!
The other key element in this remarkable painting is the scene at lower left – peasants in a field, clearly inspired, especially because of the presence of the wheelbarrow, by the painting, “The Angelus” by Millet, a work with which Dali was obsessed since his school days. It appears the peasants may be hoisting a body into the wheelbarrow, while forlorn onlookers view the deed.