National Museum of Women in the Arts
Dorothea Tanning
August 25 1910 - present
Photograph of Dorothea Tanning, 1948, by Robert Bruce Inverarity. 14 x 11 inches (36 x 28 cm). Robert Bruce Inverarity papers, 1926-1998. Archives of American Art, Washington, DC, USA.
Place of Birth:
Phonetic Spelling:
dohr-eh-THEE-ah TAN-ing
Minority status:
White non-Hispanic
Work Type/Media:
Drawings and prints, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles and clothing
Artistic Role(s):
Aquatinter, Commercial Artist, Costume Designer, Designer, Painter, Printmaker, Sculptor, Set Designer
Dada, Surrealism
Artist's Biography:
Dorothea Tanning is an American woman artist unto herself. Overflowing with spirited opinions and ambition, she displays an eccentric artistic soul that has endured for over six decades and earned her a name in the ranks of O’Keeffe, Bourgeois, Nevelson, and Kahlo.

Considered a child prodigy, Tanning had a voracious appetite for reading and drawing. She moved from her small Illinois hometown first to Chicago, then New Orleans, and finally New York in 1935. Fascinated by the possibilities presented in the 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism at The Museum of Modern Art, Tanning began painting highly representational fantasy worlds. Her typical early subject, the 'girl-child,' was either nude or half-dressed, alone or erotically entangled in groups, and placed in barren landscapes or Victorian interiors. These works, notably the self-portrait Birthday, 1942, caught the attention of art critics, including prominent New York art dealer Julien Levy, and marked her entry into the Surrealist world.

In preparation for Peggy Guggenheim’s highly important Exhibition by 31 Women, 1943, Tanning met Dadaist icon Max Ernst and quickly became part of the band of Dada and Surrealist émigrés in New York. Tanning and Ernst wed in 1946; theirs was a long harmonious marriage, for nine years in Arizona, then in Paris for almost thirty more. During this time Tanning exhibited her paintings widely in France and abroad, while experimenting with prints, costume and set design, and fabric sculpture—twisted figures and partial body parts made from textiles. As her career developed, her works became more painterly and the figures and settings more generalized. Her series of large, semi-abstract compositions of amorphous shapes focused on prismatic light and energy. Tanning was devastated by Ernst’s death in 1976 and returned to New York in 1980.

Tanning tolerates nothing of the lexicon of feminism; not since her 20s has she endured the label 'woman artist' or now 'the widow of Max Ernst'. She shakes this off, including the continuing Surrealist label, or being called the sole Surrealist surviving into the twenty-first century. Always a self-determining artist, usually with private studio space, Tanning points out with fervor that she has progressed beyond Surrealist painting for fifty years. She has turned to writing during the latter part of her life due to frail health and has written two autobiographies, a novel, and several highly acclaimed poems. Her poem “No Palms” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2000.

Other Occupation(s):
Author, Poet, Writer
Place(s) of Residence:
New York
Place(s) of Activity:
Related Visual Artists:
wife of Max Ernst friend of Marcel Duchamp friend of Man Ray friend of Joseph Cornell friend of George Balanchine
Fellowships, grants and awards:
Sculpture commission, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France (1977)
Earliest exhibition:
Julien Levy Gallery, New York, NY, USA (1941)
Artist retrospective(s):
Centre National d'Art Contemporain, Paris, France (1974) Casino Communal, Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium (1967)