Love Story

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst – A Surreal Love Story

Magda Michalska 28 September 2023 min Read

They fell in love while playing chess and stayed together for the rest of their lives. Read about the relationship between the famous German Surrealist Max Ernst and the up-and-coming American painter Dorothea Tanning, who would eventually become a Surrealist icon just like her partner. ​​

Birthday, Divorce, Marriage

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning first met at a party in 1942. Tanning was introduced to a Surrealist circle, among them Ernst, by the art dealer Julien Levy. Later Ernst visited her studio as he was seeking new artists for an exhibition called 31 Women, organized by his wife Peggy Guggenheim at her Art of This Century gallery in New York. He was drawn to this self-portrait by Tanning, for which he supposedly came up with the eventual title:

Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, 1942, Philadelphia Museum of Art. ©The Estate of Dorothea Tanning Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, 1942, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA. ©The Estate of Dorothea Tanning.

Not only did Dorothea Tanning show at this exhibition, which featured only female artists, she also conquered Ernst’s heart. He moved in with her soon after their meeting in Tanning’s studio. Peggy Guggenheim, who married Ernst a year earlier in 1941, recalled she always regretted organizing this show as it somehow catalyzed Tanning’s and Ernst’s love. But it was too late: Ernst divorced Guggenheim in 1946 and left her to live with Tanning in Sedona, Arizona.

Artist Colony in Arizona

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943, Tate Modern, London, UK. Dorothea tanning Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943, Tate Modern, London, UK.

It’s about confrontation. Everyone believes he/she is his/her drama. While they don’t always have giant sunflowers (most aggressive of flowers) to contend with, there are always stairways, hallways, even very private theatres where the suffocations and the finalities are being played out, the blood red carpet or cruel yellows, the attacker, the delighted victim….

Dorothea Tanning, Letter to Jennifer Mundy, 1999

This is how Dorothea Tanning described this Surrealist painting whose title is deceitfully called a “little serenade” exactly as Mozart’s piece. Tanning’s marriage with Ernst was about confrontation too; her work was often overshadowed by his fame, and life with Ernst was not an easy one. The couple spent several years in Sedona, where they started an artists’ colony and hosted European artists and intellectuals such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Miller, Roland Penrose, and Yves Tanguy. Tanning and Ernst married in 1946 in Hollywood at a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner. Later they had to emigrate to France because Ernst was refused American citizenship. Yet, despite their ups and downs, they stayed together until his death in 1976.

Solitary work

Dorothea Tanning Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, A Very Happy Picture, 1947, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France.

After Ernst’s passing, Tanning decided to return home and to face a solitary life. The artist threw herself into the world of words. She still painted, and even sculpted, but her main focus was literature, writing poetry and novels. Dorothea Tanning died at her home in New York City on January 31, 2012.  She was 101 years old and had just published her second collection of poems, Coming to That.

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, ca. 1946, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., USA.

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