Painter to Poet: Dorothea Tanning


American artist Dorothea Tanning celebrates her 98th birthday today, so in her honor and at the request of reader Peter, we'll take a look at her life and artwork, particularly her 1942 self-portrait, "The Birthday."

1. Many descriptions of "The Birthday" reference the costume-like jacket Dorothea Tanning depicted herself wearing. The jacket was indeed a costume—"some old Shakespearean costume," as Tanning described it. At the time, Tanning "didn't have any money to throw away on frivolities," so she and others shopped at thrift stores and would wear "really old, from another time" clothes.

2. While Tanning is often referred to as the "last living Surrealist" or the "oldest surviving Surrealist," she rejects such descriptions of herself. The Surrealist movement ended in the "˜50s and, according to Tanning, her own work "had moved on so far by the "˜60s that being called a surrealist today makes [her] feel like a fossil!

3. Tanning ventured on her own to New York City at the age of 20, hoping to one day make it to Paris. She finally arrived in Paris "just four weeks before Hitler started his March." As Americans were being told to go home, she traveled to her uncle's house in Stockholm on a train with Hitler Youth and got the last boat out of Gothenburg in September 1939. It was another 10 years before she was able to return to France, at which point she stayed in France for "28 unbelievable years."

4. In 1946, Tanning married Max Ernst in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner. Their crowd also included Peggy Guggenheim (Ernst's third wife; Tanning was his fourth), Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Dylan Thomas, and Truman Capote.

5. Originally, Tanning gained fame for her artwork, but in recent years she has also received acclaim for her writing. Her poetry is often published in The New Yorker, as well as in the New Republic and the Yale Review, and she was also included in The Best American Poetry 2000. She has also written two autobiographies and a novel, as well as designed theater and ballet sets and costumes.

A slightly larger version is available here. Fans should check out her galleries from Bluffton University and Ten Dreams; her poetry in The New Yorker; her autobiography Between Lives; and this video of her artwork. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.