Salvador Dalí: The Man, The Myth, The Marvel

Art by Kristina Parro; Dalí illustration by OM Nair; Background: Dalí’s Persistence of Memory

Many have heard his name. Most have seen his work: dreamscapes, melting clocks, eroticism, and otherwise shocking scenes. Maybe you’ve even seen a photograph of Salvador Dalí, most recognizable by his stiff, upwards-turned, handlebar mustache. But, how much do you really know about the man himself?’

Obtained from WikiArt

Salvador Dalí is one of the most celebrated artists of all time; an eccentric, artistic genius, and leader, specifically in the field of surrealism.


A refresher: surrealism is an art movement with undertones lying in geometry and modern physics that began in France in the 1920s. It is characterized by dreamscapes and images that make the viewer question reality by delving into the depths of the subconscious.

Sleep, Salvador Dalí (1937)

Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.

Salvador Dalí

Surrealism, and Dalí himself, were extensively studied by the renowned psychologist, Sigmund Freud. After meeting Dalí, Freud wrote, “For until now, I have been inclined to regard the surrealists, who apparently have adopted me as their patron saint, as complete fools. That young Spaniard, Dalí, with his candid fantastical eyes and undeniable technical mastery, has changed my estimate.”

More than Einstein or Watson and Crick, more than Hitler or Lenin, Roosevelt or Kennedy, more than Picasso Eliot or Stravinsky, more than the Beatles or Bob Dylan, Freud’s influence on modern culture has been profound and long-lasting.

psychologist and Freud critic, John Kihlstrom
MOMENT DE TRANSITION, Salvador Dal (1934)

Dalí’s Childhood

Dalí was born in the 1904, on the rocky Mediterranean coast, in Figueroa, Spain. His older brother, also named Salvador, died almost nine months to the day before Dalí was born. Early on, his parents had him convinced that he was the reincarnated version of his brother— who, according to legend, died, almost 9 months to the die before Dalí himself was born.

As a small boy, he fell in love with the ocean. Dalí was particularly fascinated by the rocks on the shore of his sacred childhood summertime haven, in the seaside village of Cadaques. The sun shone bright in the sky and casted shadows on them. Dalí noticed how life-like the rocks looked— almost like human faces. At just five or six-years old, Dalí sat on the beach for hours and sketched the faces on the rocks.

Faces on rocks was a theme seen later in Dalí’s work, as well. This piece is called “Three Faces of Dalí on the Rocks,” painted by Dalí.

As the shadows shifted with the passing of the sun, the faces on the rocks changed form. The tiny Dalí marveled at their metamorphosis. He recorded the changes he saw on his father’s sketch pad, in striking detail. That was Dalí’s first foray into art.

One of Dalí’s first known painted works is called Landscape, which he finished in 1914. In 1916, Dalí attended drawing school in his hometown and studied with Ramon Pichot, a local impressionist painter who later became Dalí’s mentor.

Landscape, Salvador Dalí (1910-1914)

Pablo Picasso

Another of Dalí’s mentors/ inspirations was Pablo Picasso, who he met in 1926. Their meeting was hugely influential to Dalí, as evidenced by themes in his work. Picasso gave Dalí “a model to emulate.” Their relationships evolved into a weird, one-sided, obsessive correspondence, with Dalí sending the artist hundred of letters and postcards.

Photo from Dalí Universe

Around this time Dalí enjoyed freedom of self-expression while experimenting with various avant-grade painting styles, including cubism, futurism, and purism. In 1926, following disciplinary actions at his art school, he was dismissed. By 1928, Dalí was notorious… and he began experiencing international acclaim.

Gala— Dalí’s muse

Dalí married Gala—his muse— in 1929. She often modeled for him, and her likeness is seen multiple times in his work.

Gala and Dalí (from photos by Getty Images)

She was destined to be my Gradiva, the one who moves forward, my victory, my wife.

Salvador Dalí in his book, Secret Life

It was love at first sight for Dalí and Gala, who was 10 years Dalí’s senior. He painted her as Madonna twice, as Leda with the swan, as a nude. She sparked his imagination in an unparalleled manner. Their love story is best characterized as volatile… maybe even surreal. By 1969, Dalí bought Gala a castle, which he could only visit her at with prior written consent.

The year he met Gala also marks Dalí’s artistic transition into surrealism. In the years that followed, Dalí explored a self-coined “paranoid-critical” method of painting, described by Dalí himself as “irrational knowledge” based on a “delirium of interpretation.”

I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.

Salvador Dalí

In 1931, Dalí painted one of his most well-known pieces— which currently resides in Museum of Modern Art in NYC— called The Persistence of Memory. The painting depicts an irrational, hyper-real dream world: melting clocks, swarming ants, entropy, death, decay, and maybe even Dalí himself.

The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí (1931)

During this time, a period marred by the Spanish Civil War, Dalí became more and more eccentric. He began to have strained relationships with other artists, including the leader of the Surrealist movement, Andre Breton.

Andre Breton became openly critical of Dalí’s growing celebrity. He coined Dalí’s anagrammatic nickname, Avida Dollars. By 1939, Dalí had broken from the Surrealists. When France fell to the Nazis in June of 1940, Dalí and Gala moved to America.

Dalí in America

In 1941, Dalí finished writing his autobiography: The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. This book contained an inter tangled web of fact and fictionalized events from Dalí’s life. The next year, it was published. The bizzare book brought Dalí even more acclaim.

In America, he became associated with the greats: Alfred Hitchcock, Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, Buckminster Fuller, and Standard Oil Heiress Rebekah Harkness, to name a few.

Dalí makes an appearance in my book, Lucky: A Novel (inspired by Taylor Swift’s folklore and the incredible true story of Standard Oil Heiress Rebekah Harkness) because of his friendship with Harkness.

During this time, he expanded his art practice to visual-performance art, jewelry, clothing, furniture, sets for plays and ballets, and even display windows for department stores.

Nuclear Mysticism

Nuclear Mysticism is an artistic style developed by Dalí later in his life after achieving a divine epiphany. He saw a connection between religious/spiritual mysticism and science (particularly physics). Dalí believed that science was proof of God’s existence and God’s existence was proof of the powers of science.

Dalí and the Golden Ratio

Salvador Dalí was taken by mathematics; how number seems to reveal a hidden order in the world.

Dalí became obsessed with the Golden Ratio after meeting author Matila Ghyka at a party. Ghyka wrote a book called The Golden Number: Pythagorean Rites and Rhythms in the Development of Western Civilization. He gave a copy to Dalí who became obsessed with the idea, as did many painters that came before him (such as Leonardo da Vinci).

The Golden Ratio is an irrational number that possesses a variety of interesting properties. It was studied by ancient mathematicians due to its frequent appearance in natural and man made phenomenon. The Golden Ratio has been suggested to reflect nature’s balance between symmetry and asymmetry (chaos and order). It is thought to be the most aesthetic number, or the proportion of perfect beauty.

The Avant-Garden at the Dalí museum

Dalí talked about the Golden Ratio in the above interview with Dick Cavett. There are countless examples of Dalí using the Golden Ratio and concepts related to the Golden Ratio in his art and life.

Dalí’s paintings Surrealistic Flower Girl and Surrealistic King: both contain countless references to Golden Ratio themes/imagery

Dalí the Performance Artist

Dalí was a born performer; a man who needed (and thrived off) an audience. Dalí was captivating; just as talented at self-promotion and money-making as he was at painting. His southwest-European accent was thick, but he had a way with words that threw you off just from pure amazement of its exquisiteness. He spoke in a scrambled language, but it was the tongue of genius.

Dalí wore a diving suit to a lecture at London International Surrealist Exhibition and appeared in the same on the cover of Time Magazine. He walked his pet anteater on a leash down the streets of New York City. He brought a Rolls Royce overflowing with cauliflower to an interview and rambled on about spirals and the golden ratio.

Dalí’s Legacy

Salvador Dalí changed the way the art world worked, through paint, film, design, his intellect, and his public persona.

Each morning, I wake up experiencing an exquisite joy— the joy of being Salvador Dalí.

Salvador Dalí

What do you think Dalí’s legacy is? Let me know in the comments!

If you enjoy learning about Salvador Dalí, check out my conversation about him with Kyle Wood on the Who ARTed Podcast.