Salvador Dalí's Visual Story of Tristan and Iseult

November 23, 2020

During the medieval age, one of the most popular literary genres was chivalric romance, a type of fantastic prose centered on the heroic figure of a chivalric knight. Based on the combination of legends, fairy tales, and history, these fascinating narratives emphasized themes of courtly love.

One of the most popular chivalric romances of the period is Tristan and Iseult. The story of the adulterous love between the Cornish knight and the Irish princess varied in interpretation since the 12th century, while the overall plot remained the same. Namely, after the great warrior Tristan was injured in battle, Iseult finds him and heals him. The princess is already engaged to his uncle, King Marc, and the knight is obliged to bring her back to Cornwall. During their voyage, the two drink a love potion by accident and hopelessly fall in love. Their relationship is soon followed by passion, betrayal, guilt, deceit, and tragedy.

Tristan and Iseult by Salvador Dalí

Tristan and Iseult inspired various artists, but the 20th-century figure who had a special interest in this romance was the iconic Surrealist Salvador Dalí. In 1944, the artist produced a large-scale painting featuring the two characters. However, twenty-five years later, he released a series of prints that was far more elaborate, as it featured different details of the whole story. The electrifying illustrations are executed in drypoint and infused with Dalí’s unique surrealist aesthetic; the artist was especially transfixed by the presence of the love potion that produces sensations similar to a surrealist state of mind, and the person exposed to it losses control over their actions.

Out of a total of twenty-one, we selected ten Dalí Tristan and Iseult prints that you can add to your art collection today, coming to you straight from our Marketplace alongside their story.

Featured image: Salvador Dali - Tristan and Iseult, 1970. Print. Etching on paper, 45 x 32 cm. All images courtesy of Samhart Gallery.

Tristan and the Dragon

Dalí's Tristan and the Dragon print depicts the scene of the fatal encounter. Namely, Tristan receives a task: to find King Marc a blonde-haired wife. During the journey, he faces a diabolical dragon who wounds him and Iseult heals him.

The dragon is presented in a three-dimensional fashion unlike many human figures on other prints from the series, and the knight’s dread is enforced by the dragon’s tail which spreads lively into the service.

Tristan Wounded

Tristan Wounded depicts the scene right after the dragon fight: Tristan lies lifeless and helpless on the ground. Dalí portrays him in a close-up to underline the dramatic situation as he fights for his life.

The Arrival of Iseult

The story carries on: Iseult heals Tristan and they return to Cornwall where the princess is supposed to marry King Marc. As aforemention, during their journey, the two drink a love potion by accident and immediately fall in love. Their miniature figures in Dalí's The Arrival of Iseult are juxtaposed against a gigantic boat that they had to use to get back to Cornwall. Their return marks the climax of the story as Iseult and Tristan become exposed to heartbreak and betrayal as their affair evolves.

Frocin, The Bad Dwarf

This print depicts Frocin The Bad Dwarf who unveiled the secret affair and exposed Tristan and Iseult in their lie. Dalí portrayed Frocin as a monstrous ghoul with a hunched back, to underline his evil agenda.

Under the Parasol Pine

Under the Parasol Pine captures Tristan’s and Iseult’s secret encounter under a tree. The lovers are almost caught by King Marc but they manage to convince him nothing happened. Dalí depicted a tender moment between Tristan and Iseult in a dreamy forest where their love is complemented by trees, flowers, and a waterfall.

The Lovers Condemned

As the title suggests, Lovers Condemned depicts the lovers upon their discovery as they are punished by King Marc with permanent separation. Between them stands a broken heart that marks the hardship of their situation, the sorrow, and abandonment that the lovers now had to experience.

Brother Ogrin, the Hermit

After being condemned Tristan and Iseult hide in the woods. There, they meet Brother Ogrin who reminds them of their sins and persuades them to repent until he realizes they have been subjected to the love potion. Dalí depicts Ogrin as another menacing creature holding a cross, while a skull stands on the ground underlines the pair's tragic fate.

The Cavaliers of King Arthur

Another story that was popular at the same time was the myth of King Arthur’s Court and Round Table. Dalí makes a connection between them by placing Iseult in front of the Cavaliers of King Arthur. The princess asks the King to clear her name and protect her innocence to King Marc so that the lovers could be spared.

Mad Tristan

In Dalí's Mad Tristan, Tristan makes the last attempt to see Iseult. The brave knight disguises himself as a fool and sneaks into King Marc’s castle. Dalí accentuates the quirky disguise of the lively joker’s hat and makes sure Tristan’s identity remains uncovered; only his eyes lurk as the line between Tristan’s cunningness and madness seems to fade away.

Tristan’s Testament

The last Dalí print brings us the conclusion of a tragic love story. Tristan's Testament sees Tristan dying in sorrow before Iseult arrives; shaken by the scene, she dies in his arms. The artist presents the narrative in a dramatic fashion by depicting their lifeless bodies, and Iseult’s hand spreads as she is taking her last breath.

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Neuchatel, Switzerland