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Dorothea Tanning /   Dorothea Margaret Tanning

United States 1910 - 2012

Surrealism, Abstract Art

Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Margaret Tanning
United States
June 23, 2017
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Dorothea Margaret Tanning was an American artist who devoted her life to developing her creative craft, becoming a versatile author and a talented painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer and poet along the way. An active artist for nearly 70 years, Tanning began her career as a member of the Surrealism movement, but later moving away from the concepts of this movement to create the raw and prismatic merging of color planes she called Insomnias[1]. Her career, following the conceptual exit from Surrealism, was a turbulent one – her earlier paintings were heavily representational, favoring strong line, shading and linear perspective while her mature paintings, like the aforementioned Insomnias, were displaying overriding preoccupations with luminous color and energy with only the vaguest hints of figures.

Like many women living in Paris and New York at the time, Dorothea Tanning honed her painting skill at home, often resulting in works like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Dorothea Tanning – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943 – Image via

The Times Before Dorothea Tanning Knew Surrealism

Dorothea Tanning was born and raised in Galesburg, Illinois. In 1926, she attended Galesburg public schools and skipped two grades, a decision which led to a lifelong weakness in arithmetics. After attending Knox College for two years, Tanning moved to Chicago in 1930 and then to New York in 1935. There she supported herself as a commercial artist[2] while pursuing her own artistic expressions and style – it was then that she discovered Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal 1936 exhibition titled as Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism. After an eight-year relationship, she was married briefly to the writer Homer Shannon whom she met just before the start of the World War II. Impressed by her creativity and talent in illustrating fashion advertisements, the art director at Macy’s department store introduced her to the gallery owner Julien Levy who immediately offered to show her work. This truly opened the door for young Tanning who quickly became a hot topic within the art scene of the United States.

During her years in New York and Paris, Dorothea Tanning did not only work on her painting skills - she also did a lot of work on sculpted works like Nue couchée
Dorothea Tanning – Nue couchée, 1970 – Image via

A Unique Painter, Sculptor and a Poet

Dorothea Tanning, who was heavily influenced by Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Max Ernst, to whom she was married, turned increasingly to experimental styles as her career progressed, advancing from her initial painterly experimentation to her soft cloth sculptures and installations. However, it should be noted that she never fully abandoned the surrealistic aesthetic despite often venturing far from the movement’s fundamental concepts. Furthermore, despite the often association to his work, Tanning was not an acolyte or imitator of Ernst. Her own vivid, dreamlike images are highly distinctive, although a bit more gothic than surreal. Over the course of the 1950s, Tanning’s painting evolved, becoming less explicit and more suggestive. By the late 1960s, Tanning’s works Dorothea were almost completely abstract, yet always suggestive of the female form[3]. The artistic couple lived in Paris and later Provence until Ernst’s death in 1976, after which Tanning returned to New York. She continued to create studio art in the 1980s, then turned her attention to her writing and poetry in the 1990s and 2000s, working and publishing until the end of her life. Tanning died on January 31, 2012, in her Manhattan home.

Although the first association to the name of Dorothea Tanning is usually Max Ernst, Tanning was a talented artist in her own right and definitely deserves creative emancipation from the work of her husband

Whilst in New York, when Dorothea Tanning would create a new piece, like the Web of Dreams artwork, she would immediately transfer it to the Julien Levy's gallery
Dorothea Tanning – Web of Dreams – Image via

A Navigation Through Her Main Achievements

When the artist Dorothea Tanning died at the age of 101, the US art scene felt a deep earthquake strike like never before. Suddenly, the last of the major female Surrealistic figures was gone and the scene lost what may very well be the most experimental artist of all the women in the 20th-century world of art. Between her talent and the long marriage with the great surrealist Max Ernst, Tanning was an extremely intriguing artist who managed to develop her craft to astonishing heights despite the fact she had to overcome many obstacles during her life – many of which were discussed in her autobiography Birthday (1986).


  1. Howard, R., Stuckey, C., Dorothea Tanning: Insomnias 1954-1965, Kent Gallery, 2005
  2. Greskovic, R., Kleinberg, J., Liebowitz, R., Dorothea Tanning: Early Designs for the Stage, The Drawing Center; First edition, 2010
  3. Tanning, D., Bailly, J. C., Morgan, R. C., Dorothea Tanning, George Braziller; 1st edition, 1995

Featured image: Dorothea Tanning – Photo of the artist – Image via
All images used for illustrative purposes only.

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2017The Beguiling Siren Is Thy CrestMuseum on the Vistula, Warsaw Group
2017Disobedient BodiesThe Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield, West Yorkshire Group
2016Dorothea TanningAlison Jacques Gallery, London Solo
2016Group Show 65 Works Selected by James WellingDavid Zwirner, New York City, NY Group
2016Making & UnmakingCamden Arts Centre, London Group
2015Dorothea Tanning: MurmursMarianne Boesky Gallery, New York City, NY Solo
2015Fields Of Dream: The Surrealist LandscapeDi Donna, New York City, NYGroup
2015Surrealism and MagicBoca Museum of Art, Boca Raton, FL Group
2014Surrealism And MagicHerbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, NY Group
2014That Obscure Object Of DesireLuxembourg & Dayan, New York City, NY Group
2014Le Mur, La collection Antoine de GalbertLa Maison Rouge, Paris Group
2013Unknown But Knowable StatesWendi Norris Gallery, San Francisco, CA Solo
2013Frieze London 2013Alison Jacques Gallery, London Group
2013Late SurrealismThe Menil Collection, Houston, TX Group
2013NevermoreOn Stellar Rays, New York City, NY Group
2012CollagesAlison Jacques Gallery, London Solo
2012The SupersurrealismModerna Museet Malmö, Malmö Group
2012Alice im Wunderland der KunstHamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg Group
2012Summer Show 2012Kent Fine Art LLC, New York City, NY Group
2012Au pays des merveillesMusée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Quebec CityGroup
2011OtherworldlinessMichael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2011Night Scented StockMarianne Boesky Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2011Night Scented Stock, Curated By Todd LevinMarianne Boesky Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2011Abstract Expressionism and its DiscontentsPennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA Group
2011Exhibition of SurrealismGalleria Grafica Tokyo, Tokyo Group
2011Pictures of the BodyPennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA Group
2010Early Designs for the StageThe Drawing Center, New York City, NY Solo
2010PaversSchroeder Romero & Shredder, New York City, NY Group
2010Unconscious Unbound: Surrealism in AmericaMichael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2009Beyond the Esplanade: Paintings, Drawings and Prints from 1940 to 1965Wendi Norris Gallery, San Francisco, CA Solo
2009Echo: Eight San Francisco Artists Respond to Surrealist MasterworksWendi Norris Gallery, San Francisco, CA Group
2009OpeningMuzeum Montanelli MuMo, Prague Group
2009Angels of AnarchyManchester Art Gallery, Manchester Group
2009Bilderträume. Die Sammlung Ulla und Heiner PietzschNeue Nationalgalerie, Berlin Group
2009Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary ArtThe Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Group
2008Painting in the United States: 1943-1949Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA Group
2008Sammlung MarzonaBielefelder Kunstverein, Bielefeld Group
2008Die Hände der KunstMARTa Herford, Herford Group
2008Cosas del SurrealismoMuseo Guggenheim de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo, Bilbao Group
2007Body Beware: 18 American ArtistsMichael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2007Surreal ThingsVictoria & Albert MuseumGroup
2007International & Australian Works on PaperJosef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney, NSW Group
2006Theater of the MindAllentown Art Museum, Allentown, PA Group
2005Dorothea TanningKent Gallery, New York City, NY Solo
2005The Imagery of Chess RevisitedThe Noguchi Museum, New York City, NY Group
2005París y los surrealistasMuseo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, Bilbao Group
2005Invisible Revealed: Surrealist Drawings from the Drukier CollectionThe University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS Group
2004Paula's HomeLentos Kunstmuseum Linz, Linz Group
2004The Invisible Revealed: Surrealist Drawings from the Drukier CollectionThe Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, OH Group
2003Women Artists and Women in ArtHerbert Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles, CA Group
2002Behind the Surrealist Curtain: Sex, Sensuality and SilenceUbu Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2001Surrealism: Desire UnboundTate Modern, London Group
2000Dorothea Tanning: birthday and beyondPhiladelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA Solo
2000Michael Rosenfeld Gallery: The First DecadeMichael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York City, NY Group
1999Dorothea Tanning: Still in the StudioBoston University Art Gallery, Boston, MA Solo
1993Dorothea Tanning: Works 1942-1992Camden Arts Centre, London Solo
1993Dorothea TanningMalmö Konsthall, Malmö Solo
1990Dorothea Tanning: messagesNahan Contemporary, New York City, NY Solo
1988Dorothea TanningKent Gallery, New York City, NY Solo
1987Dorothea Tanning On PaperKent Fine Art LLC, New York City, NY Solo
1987Dorothea TanningKent Gallery, New York City, NY Solo
197910 recent paintings and a biographyGimpel Weitzenhoffer Gallery, New York City, NY Solo