Salvador Dali: Biography, Trivia, And Facts About The Famous Surrealist Painter

By Jacob Shelton

Dalí in 1939. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The 20th century was very nearly the century of Salvador Dalí. From 1904 to 1989, he lived a life of surreal opulence, but he put up such a facade around himself that breaking down that barrier is nearly impossible. Even so, we're going to do our best to explain the person behind the mustache.

Hello, Dalí

When Salvador Dalí was born on May 11, 1904, in the Catalonian town of Figueres, he was the second child named Salvador in his family. Nine months earlier, Dalí's mother gave birth to a boy also named Salvador who died of gastroenteritis. The young Dalí was first introduced to art by his mother, who amused the boy by molding figures from wax candles. Without her, Dalí has said, he never would have become the fascinating creature he grew to be. He once recalled to his biographer:

Every morning, when he woke up, his mother would look lovingly into his eyes and recite the traditional formula: 'Cor que vols? Cor que destiges' (‘Sweetheart, what do you want? Sweetheart, what do you desire?’)

The Dalí family in 1910: from the upper left, aunt Maria Teresa, mother, father, Salvador Dalí, aunt Caterina (later became second wife of father), sister Anna Maria and grandmother Anna. (Josep Pichot/Wikimedia Commons)

Dalí Mama

Dalí was only 14 when he got his first exhibit—shown by his father at the family home. The collection of charcoal drawings was well received, but before the young artist could take a victory lap, he lost his mother to uterine cancer on February 6, 1921. He was crushed, later writing:

This was the greatest blow I had experienced in my life. I worshiped her ... I swore to myself that I would snatch my mother from death and destiny with the swords of light that someday would savagely gleam around my glorious name!

Curiously, despite his insurmountable grief, the disrespect of his mother's image was the subject of one of his most subversive works of art. Nine years after her death, Dalí created an outline of Christ in ink before writing, "Sometimes I spit on the portrait of my mother for the fun of it" inside the outline.

Gala Asomada a la Ventana ("Gala leaning out the window"), sculpture by Dalí in Marbella. (Manuel González Olaechea/Wikimedia Commons)

Dalí Gala

Already an accomplished surveyor of the weird, Dalí became ensconced with the Surrealists after moving to Paris in 1929 to work on the production of Luis Buñuel's An Andalusian Dog, a short film based on a script the two had written together. The film is ... really something: There are scenes of priests pulling dead donkeys through the street, horrified women, and Dalí's ever-present ants. The controversial avant-garde film earned him entry into the art world of the city of lights.

The same summer that he and Buñuel shot their shocking film, Dalí met the Russian-born Helena Diakanoff Devulina, known as Gala to Dalí, at his family's vacation home in the fishing village of Cadaqués. He didn't make a great impression, with fake pearls around his neck and a pompadour so thick with oil that flies kept getting stuck in his hair, but nevertheless, their mutual attraction grew over the course of a year before they finally consummated their relationship with a "fanaticism" that Dalí compared to that which he put into his work. He later said:

I would polish Gala to make her shine, make her the happiest possible, caring for her more than myself, because without her, it would all end. 

The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13" (24.1 x 33 cm). (Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/Artists Rights Society/Wikimedia Commons)

Dalí And Freud

In the 1930s, Dalí really came into his own as an artist. He painted his most representative and important work, The Persistence Of Memory—that's the one with all the melting clocks and a fly with a human shadow—in 1931. He never came out and spoke about the meaning behind his work, but his use of unusual geometry and dripping shapes carry maddening sexual connotations, and the ants that he included in many pieces tell a story of decay that's hard to ignore.

If all of that seems a bit Freudian, that's because it is. Dalí was obsessed with Freud and his technique of plumbing the depths of the subconscious to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless. Dalí spent years trying to meet his hero, but when they finally came face to face in 1938, he feared he'd disappointed the legendary psychoanalyst. Ol' Siggy never shifted his poker face as Dalí sketched him and left without ceremony, but the next day, he wrote to a friend about his low estimation of surrealists. "That young Spaniard, however," he continued, "with his candid and fanatical eyes, and his undeniable technical mastery, has made me reconsider my opinion."

A still from Spellbound. (United Artists/Wikimedia Commons)

Hitchcock And Dalí

During World War II, Dalí set up shop in New York City, where he developed the larger-than-life public persona that he maintained through the rest of his career. His motives were largely financial, capitalizing on himself as a spectacle, but that was also just who he was. As he was fond of saying, "Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí?"

His newfound celebrity netted him plenty of offers, and he took them all. He designed clothes, made jewelry, filmed airline commercials with baseball legends, and even produced a dream sequence for Hitchcock's Spellbound. The master of suspense soon learned that working with Dalí was more than he had bargained for:

I wanted to convey the dream with great visual sharpness and clarity–sharper than film itself. I wanted Dali because of the architectural sharpness of his work. Chirico has the same quality, you know, the long shadows, the infinity of distance and the converging lines of perspective. But Dali had some strange ideas. He wanted a statue to crack like a shell falling apart, with ants crawling all over it. And underneath, there would be Ingrid Bergman, covered by ants! It just wasn’t possible.

Dalí's crypt at the Dalí Theatre-Museum. (Michael Lazarev/Wikimedia Commons)

The Death Of Dalí

Dalí returned to Figueres in 1974, when he was 70 years old, to open the Dalí Theatre-Museum. His own private Dalíwood, filled with works created throughout his life, is less of a museum and more of an experience that still welcomes more than a million visitors each year. As joyous an occasion as this should have been, Dalí was in a deep depression. His beloved Gala frequently retreated to a castle he'd purchased for her in the town of Púbol where he was only allowed to visit by written invitation, and without her, he was a mess.

When she died in 1982, he fell apart completely. He moved briefly into the castle in Púbol, where he was doted on by nurses around the clock, and then into an extension of his museum in Figueres. He barely ate, spoke, or—even more alarmingly—drew. On January 23, 1989, he passed away at the age of 84 and was buried in the Dalí Theatre-Museum, once again turning himself into art.

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.