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Dorothea Tanning, painter, sculptor, and poet noted for Surrealist style, 101

A work titled “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’’ (1943) featured surreal elements typical of the paintings of Dorothea Tanning.dorothea tanning collection and archives/EPA

NEW YORK - Dorothea Tanning, a leading Surrealist painter of the 1930s whose path had led her from the small town of Galesburg, Ill., to a whirlwind life in the international art world, died Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 101.

Her death was confirmed by Mimi Johnson, a niece.

Married for 30 years to Surrealist painter and sculptor Max Ernst, Ms. Tanning became well known in her own right for her vivid renderings of dream imagery. Much later in life, after she had reached 80, she gained a different kind of attention when she began to concentrate on writing, producing a novel, an autobiography, and poems that appeared in the New Yorker, the Yale Review, and the Paris Review.


As a Surrealist artist, Ms. Tanning mined her unconscious, producing disturbing images such as “Maternity’’ (1946), showing a troubled mother, her long gown ripped to rags at the belly, holding a fretful baby. At her feet lies a poodle with a child’s face.

Like other Surrealist painters, she was meticulous in her attention to details and in building up surfaces with carefully muted brushstrokes.


But in the mid-1950s she broke from the mirrorlike precision of narrative Surrealism to for what she called “prism’’ paintings, later renamed “Insomnias.’’ These are enigmatic canvases in which bodies and body parts, barely discernible visages, and biomorphic forms float in dream spaces generated by fractured planes and diaphanous scrims.

Her versatility extended to sculpture. In 1969 she experimented with soft figures that she made on an old Singer sewing machine. She used a group of them in “Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202’’ (1970-1973), in which figures breached papered walls of a simulated hotel room, an early example of the now widespread practice of installation art.

Among her other achievements were ballet designs for the late George Balanchine, choreographer and artistic director for the New York City Ballet; etchings for illustrated books; and the design of a house for herself and Ernst in the south of France.


Dorothea Margaret Tanning was born to middle-class parents in Galesburg, “a place where you sat on the davenport and waited to grow up,’’ as she put it in her autobiography, “Between Lives: An Artist and Her World’’ (2001).

She reached adulthood endowed with good looks and ambition, but to the chagrin of her parents, who feared she would become “bohemian,’’ she aspired to a life in art. And she made one, leaving art school in Chicago to study informally on her own by roaming the Art Institute there.

Known as Dottie Tanning in Galesburg (home also of the poet Carl Sandburg, a friend of her Swedish-born father’s), she reclaimed her birth name, Dorothea, and began meeting interesting and important people.

In 1936, Ms. Tanning moved to New York, where she supported herself with illustrating jobs. Bowled over by the now legendary show “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism,’’ mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in 1936-37, she realized that she had found her future. In 1939 she struck out for Paris, armed with letters of introduction to several prominent artists, among them Ernst, only to find that most had fled the country, which was on the brink of war. Almost all the Surrealists decamped to the United States.

Back in New York she finally met Ernst, at a party in 1942. Shortly thereafter he dropped by her studio seeking candidates for an exhibition of art by women of the Surrealist movement that he was organizing for Peggy Guggenheim’s new gallery, “Art of This Century.’’ Ms. Tanning’s not-quite-finished self-portrait with bare breasts, “Birthday,’’ happened to be on her easel. Ernst stayed for a game of chess, and within a week he had moved into her apartment.


She not only won a place in the show - which included work by Louise Nevelson and Gypsy Rose Lee - but in 1946 she also became Ernst’s wife, replacing Peggy Guggenheim. They were married in a double ceremony in Hollywood with the painter, photographer, and filmmaker Man Ray and his companion, Juliet Browner.

Ms. Tanning’s first solo show was in 1944 at the Surrealist-oriented Julien Levy Gallery in New York. By then she and Ernst were in and out of Sedona, the desert hamlet in Arizona where they had built a rough-hewn three-room house.

In Sedona, at a time before it became a popular destination, they confronted lizards, scorpions, and snakes and basked in the town’s “landscape of wild fantasy,’’ as she wrote in her autobiography. They also played hosts to visitors who included Balanchine, French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, French artist Marcel Duchamp, Russian Surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew, and Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas.

They moved to France in 1957 when McCarthy-era legislation denied citizenship to Ernst, who was German, because he had been abroad for more than a year. They divided their time between Paris and Huismes, a town in the Loire Valley. They later moved to Seillans, a hilltop village in Provence.


During the 1960s and 1970s, Ms. Tanning showed regularly at the Alexandre Iolas Gallery in New York and in cities across Europe. Her current dealer is the Kent Gallery in New York.

Ernst died in 1976, and she returned to the United States in the late 1970s. Last September, 34 of her poems were published by Graywolf Press in an acclaimed book titled “Coming to That.’’

In addition to Johnson, she leaves two other nieces and a nephew.

Asked in 2002 by Salon to sum up the impact of her work, Ms. Tanning replied modestly, “I’d be satisfied with having suggested that there is more than meets the eye.’’