By Jessica McBirney
Salvador Dalí (1904 – 1989) was a famous Spanish artist who specialized in surrealist paintings. Surrealism is a
cultural movement that began in the early 1920s. Surrealists produce unnerving, illogical artwork and writing
that encourages the unconscious to express itself. In this informational text, Jessica McBirney discusses the life
and success of Dalí, one of the most famous surrealist painters.
As you read, take notes on the characteristics of Salvador Dali’s art and personality.
Salvador Dalí was a famous surrealist painter in the
early 20th century. His paintings used unexpected,
sometimes nonsensical images to show people that
there was more to the human mind than simple
realism. Famous for his impressively long mustache,
Dalí impressed the world with his creativity, unique
style, and thought-provoking imagery.
Salvador Dalí was born in Figueres, Spain in 1904. At
an early age, he expressed some of the eccentricities1
and emotional outbursts that would later make him
famous. Because of his unusual personality, Dalí had
a difficult relationship with his parents; his mother
was very affectionate and indulgent towards his
passions and outbursts, but his father was extremely
strict and often acted cruelly towards his son.
Even so, both his parents recognized artistic talent in their young son. He spent hours drawing detailed
pictures. They decided to build Dalí a small art studio next to their summer house on the coast of Spain, and
when he was twelve they sent him to art school.
Dalí was not a serious student while attending art school, although his drawing continued to improve. He
enjoyed standing out from his peers, so he grew his hair long and intentionally wore the strangest clothes he
could find. After his first year at art school, Dalí discovered a love for painting. Later, his father arranged a
- Eccentricity (noun) an unusual or strange behavior
private show of some of Dalí’s work, and by 1919 the young artist opened his first public exhibition in Figueres,
Two years later Dalí’s mother died of breast cancer, and the tragedy devastated him. He had been close with his
mother and counted on her for emotional support. After her death, the problems between Dalí and his father
increased and would remain this way for the rest of his life.
In 1922, Dalí decided to move to Madrid, the capital city of Spain, to attend the arts academy, Academia de San
Fernando. Living in the student housing on campus, he expressed his flair for the unusual more than ever
before. He grew sideburns and wore dramatic coats and stockings. This love for the strange and unusual bled
into his artwork; he experimented with many styles of art, including Cubism2
and Dada, a countercultural art
movement that said wars were caused by peoples’ reliance on logic, reason, and money.
Dalí butted heads with the school administration a few times, which earned him a suspension and a brief time
in jail. Finally, just before he could graduate in 1926, Dalí was permanently expelled for claiming the school did
not have any professors qualified enough to give him final grades.
Not discouraged, Dalí traveled back and forth to Paris, France several times in the next few years. He met with
famous artists such as Pablo Picasso. When Dalí met painter Joan Miró in 1929, he was introduced to the style
of painting he would use for the rest of his career: Surrealism.
Surrealism was already a movement in the international art community that believed art should unleash the
creative power of each person’s mind. The people behind the movement believed that images should not be
restricted to what we see in the real world. Dalí used surrealist painting to record many of the events and
images he saw in dreams, especially when those images did not “make sense.” For example, his most famous
painting, The Persistence of Memory, shows clocks melting on a soft, beach landscape and being eaten by ants.
Dalí, unlike some other surrealist artists, liked to use painting to show others the unusual reality inside his
Dalí found his home in the surrealist community in Paris. As he continued painting he also partnered with some
filmmakers to create art for several movies. Dalí’s artwork appeared in a long dream sequence in “Spellbound,”
a movie by the famous Hollywood director, Alfred Hitchcock.
As he grew more famous for his artwork (rich clients around Paris frequently purchased his paintings), he was
equally well known for his eccentric personality. He grew an extremely long mustache that became iconic3
him. He walked around town wearing a cape and carrying a walking stick. He attended events in outlandish4
costumes –he once gave an important lecture while wearing a wetsuit and walking two Russian wolfhounds.
- Cubism is a style of art that abandons traditional understandings of space and uses geometric shapes to
stand in for other objects.
- Iconic (adjective) widely recognized or well-established
- Outlandish (adjective) looking or sounding bizarre
“Salvador Dalí” by Jessica McBirney. Copyright © 2017 by CommonLit, Inc. This text is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Unless otherwise noted, this content is licensed under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
Later Career and Museum
For reasons that still remain disputed, Dalí was officially kicked out of the surrealist group in 1934. The fight
may have happened because of his overwhelming personality, differing political views, or personal tensions. He
and his wife, Gala, moved to the United States for several years, where Dalí transitioned from surrealism to
classical art. The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art held a special exhibition of his work.
After he moved back to Europe in 1948 he spent the next 15 years working on 19 large canvasses that
combined classical attention to detail with surrealist images and subject matter. He focused on historical and
religious themes. After he finished those he began rebuilding the old Municipal Theater of Figueres, the place of
Dalí’s first-ever art show in Spain. He transformed it into a personal museum; the architecture and artwork
inside captured his surrealist tendencies5
and themes. The museum houses a broad range of Dalí’s work, from
his earliest paintings to later pieces he made just for the museum.
Dalí’s career came to an end when he began suffering from a disease that limited his hand movements. After
his wife, Gala, died, he became very depressed, and later he died of heart failure in 1989.
Dalí was one of the most influential surrealist painters in history. He saw himself as a purer surrealist than most
of the other artists in the movement in Paris, and countless modern artists have said Dalí is a big inspiration for
them. His incredible talent and his unique, eccentric personality are some of the most well-remembered details
in art history.
- Tendency (noun) a quality that makes someone likely to think or behave in a particular way
Dali’s Art Works
Galatea of the Spheres
The Persistence of Memory
Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to share
your original ideas in a class discussion.
- Salvador Dalí gained fame in part for what made him different. How can being eccentric be both a
positive and a negative quality? Can you think of any other artists or celebrities who are known for
being eccentric? Cite examples from the text, your own experience, and other literature, art, or
history in your answer.
- According to the text, Salvador Dalí “enjoyed standing out.” Why do you think people make the
decision to stand out from the crowd? Why do some people feel the need to be just like everyone
else? What challenges do both types of people face?