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Ultimate Surrealist Salvador Dali’s work spans painting, sculpture, and performance, blurring the boundaries between art and life, reality and dream. Working across painting, sculpture, film, photography and even fiction and poetry, Dali was known for both his artwork and his raucous public persona. A controversial figure both during and after his lifetime, Dali is a name synonymous with the bizarre and the dramatic in art history.


Dali was born in the town of Figueres, just outside of Barcelona in 1904. He began drawing lessons aged 10 and was encouraged to pursue art by both his parents, his father even organised an exhibition of Dali’s charcoal drawings at the family home in 1917, followed by a larger show the next year at the Municipal Theatre in Figueres.

He received his formal education at the Colegio de Hermanos Maristas and at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando from 1922. Here, his eccentric behaviour and fashion sense ensured his notoriety, perhaps more so than the work he was producing, and he was expelled in 1926 for insulting one of his professors. Moving to Paris after this dismissal marked the beginnings of Dali’s real commercial success. Hugely inspired by Cubism and the work of Picasso and Yves Tanguy, Dali exhibited 23 paintings and 7 drawings, both Cubist and ‘Objective’ in style at the Galeries Dalmau in 1927 - to a largely positive critical response.

First Works

While his art school paintings were already garnering Dali recognition, particularly due to their impressive realism, his exposure to Surrealism in the later 1920s saw him create some of his first, more notorious, works. He created two films with fellow artist Luis Brunuel in 1929: Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. Both were immediately controversial due to their irrationality, overt sexuality, lack of clear narrative (a product of the Freudian method of ‘Free Association,’ that the artists were using) and politicisation - skyrocketing Dali to artistic infamy.

Furthermore, the paintings that Dali produced during this period from 1927 saw him refine his dreamlike painterly style and recognisable motifs. The barren desert backdrop, the study of sexual symbolism, the subconscious and the strange began to permeate his paintings, with Dali describing one of his major works from this year, Honey is Sweeter than Blood, as being 'equidistant between Cubism and Surrealism.'


One of the most famous of Dali’s signature enigmatic, dreamlike surrealist paintings is his 1931 work: The Persistence of Memory, at which point he was fully engulfed in Surrealist ideology. This famous work depicts various clocks and watches melting across the surfaces of an eerily empty desert backdrop. While coherent meaning is almost impossible to prescribe to this work, the suggestion of a morphing of time is clear here. The fleshy creature draped across the centre of the painting is based on Dali’s own profile yet disfigured to the point where it appears monstrous. A crucial element of this work is the undermining of solidity, where physical objects are made limp by the artist’s vision. It is currently held in the New York MoMA.

Most Famous Works

Alongside The Persistence of Memory, Dali’s later surreal painting Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951) is also one to note. Considered one of the greatest religious paintings of the 20th century, this work came to Dali through what he called a ‘Cosmic Dream.’ It depicts a crucified Christ (though without any nails or blood) in a darkened sky, looking down onto a body of water. The perspective is utterly striking and the extreme angles of the cross show Dali still incorporating the surreal into his more overtly religious works.


The surrounding Catalan mountains provided inspiration for Dali from a young age, remaining a consistent motif across his oeuvre. While he was studying at art school, he also admired the work of classical painters such as Velazquez, who inspired his now-signature curled moustache.

It was Dali’s exposure to the writings of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in the late 1920s however, particularly those concerning the erotic or sexual significance of the subconscious, that really shaped his artistic output. This, coupled with his joining of the Paris Surrealist group, who as artists and writers sought to express the true ‘reality’ of the subconscious over reason, led to Dali’s signature creations.

During his later career and his creation of the ‘Nuclear Mysticism’ style, it was the influence of Classicism, science, mysticism and his renewed Catholic faith that guided Dali’s work.

Style & Technique

To create the content of his Surrealist works, Dali invented his own ‘Paranoiac-Critical Method’ in the 1930s, as a means of truly allowing his subconscious mind and intuition to guide his creations. Inspired by Andre Breton’s theory of Automatism, Dali would descend into deep, self-induced paranoid states to then paint what he had seen and experienced with fantastic attention to detail. This lends itself to the artist’s own description of his works as 'hand painted dream photographs.'

Life & Times

Dali had an older brother, also called Salvador, who had died 9 months before his birth due to gastroenteritis. Dali’s mother insisted that the artist was a reincarnation of his brother and this is an idea that persisted throughout his childhood and artistic career. Dali recounted that '[we] resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections,' and imagery of his mythologized sibling appeared in works such as Portrait of My Dead Brother (1963).

Dali married his wife and long-term muse Gala in 1934, and while he had enjoyed success during his stint in the Surrealist movement in the 1920s, Dali was expelled from the group that same year due to his apolitical stance regarding the rise of fascist leader Francisco Franco in Spain. He lived in France throughout the Francoist regime and moved to the United States during the Second World War. Here he spent lots of time creating theatre sets and costumes as well as performing self promotional stunts. He moved back to Spain in 1948 and remained there until his death from heart failure in 1989. The iconic Teatre-Museo Dali was established in his hometown of Figueres, during the 60s in his honour, and it now houses the largest collection of Dali works from across his career.

On the Market

The artist met Surrealist poet Paul Eluard in 1929 while working on his film Andalusian Dog, and Eluard was immediately taken with Dali’s surrealist and artistic vision. The pair became close and Dali’s subsequent Portrait of Paul Eluard, (1929) has since become his most expensive painting to date - selling for $22.5 million at Sothebys in 2011.

Portrait de Paul Eluard by Salvador Dalí

image © Sotheby's / Portrait de Paul Eluard © Salvador Dalí 1929

1. £13.5M for Salvador Dali's Portrait De Paul Eluard

Sold for nearly £13.5 million at Sotheby’s London on 10th February 2011, Portrait De Paul Eluard is the most expensive Dali painting ever sold.

Dali met Surrealist poet Eluard in 1929 while staying in Paris. It was the year in which Dali truly immersed himself with French Surrealism and the movement itself - this same year he worked on the now iconic film Un Chien Andalou. His relationship with Eluard was hugely influential, not least because Dali ended up marrying Eluard’s then-wife Gala. Indeed, this portrait visually unites Dali’s real life experience with the subconscious, psychological and imaginative. It is the pinnacle of surrealist portraiture.

Printemps Necrophilique by Salvador Dalí

image © Sotheby's / Printemps Necrophilique © Salvador Dalí 1936

2. £10.1M for Salvador Dali's Printemps Necrophilique

One of Dali’s more overtly unsettling works, Printemps Necrophilique is a later example of the artist’s merging of dream, memory and subconscious. Two figures, a seated man and a flower headed woman occupy a hallucinatory, sparse desert landscape. Potentially reminiscent of his Catalonian youth, and definitely an example of his newly matured Surrealist painterly style, this work sold for just over £10 million at Sotheby’s New York on May 2nd 2012.

Couple Aux Tête Pleines De Nuages by Salvador Dalí

image © Bonham's / Couple Aux Tête Pleines De Nuages © Salvador Dalí 1936

3. £8.2M for Salvador Dali's Couple With Their Heads Full Of Clouds

Inspired by the compositions of painter Jean Francoise Millet, there is a real sense of intimacy to Couple With Their Heads Full Of Clouds, achieved through the contours of the frames themselves depicting Dali and his wife Gala.The paintings themselves then lean in towards each other, completing a desert scene occupied by two white-clothed tables. Of course, the ‘heads’ of the image are filled with clouds and an expanse of blue sky.

This diptych sold for nearly £8.2 million at Bonhams London on October 15th 2020, and originally was given by the artist to Paul Eluard as a wedding present. An interesting exchange when one considers Gala was originally wed to Eluard, but then again, the surrealist’s never did concern themselves with conventional interactions did they?

L'Angelus by Salvador Dalí

image © Sotheby's / L'Angelus © Salvador Dalí 1935