Salvador Dalì’s The Persistence of Memory is the eccentric Spanish painter’s most recognizable artwork. You have probably committed its melting clocks to memory—but you may not know all that went into its making.
1. The Persistence of Memory was created with Salvador Dalì’s “paranoiac-critical method.”
Around the time of the painting’s 1931 creation, Dalì perfected his “paranoiac-critical method.” The artist would attempt to enter a meditative state of self-induced psychotic hallucinations so that he could make what he called “hand-painted dream photographs.”
“I am the first to be surprised and often terrified by the images I see appear upon my canvas,” Dalì wrote, referring to his unusual routine. “I register without choice and with all possible exactitude the dictates of my subconscious, my dreams.”
2. The painting’s landscape comes from Dalì’s childhood.
Dalì's native Catalonia had a major influence on his works. His family’s summer house in the shade of Mount Pani (also known as Mount Panelo) inspired him to integrate its likeness into his paintings again and again, like in View of Cadaqués with Shadow of Mount Pani. In The Persistence of Memory, the shadow in the painting is thought to belong to Mount Pani, while Cape Creus and its craggy coast lie in the background.
3. Einstein’s theories may have influenced Dalì ...
The Persistence of Memory has sparked considerable academic debate as scholars interpret the painting. Some critics believe the melting watches in the piece are a response to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. In her book Dalì and Surrealism, critic Dawn Ades writes, “the soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time.”
4. ... But Dalì’s explanation for The Persistence of Memory’s visuals was cheesier.
Dalì declared that his true muse for the deformed clocks was a wheel of cheese—Camembert, to be exact: “Be persuaded that Salvador Dalì’s famous limp watches are nothing but the tender, extravagant and solitary paranoiac-critical Camembert of time and space,” he said.
As Tim McNeese writes in Salvador Dalì, the artist had already painted the background of The Persistence of Memory when he ate “some excellent Camembert cheese, which had turned soft and gooey.” The cheese kept coming to mind even as he put his brushes away, and, according to McNeese, “Just as he was preparing for bed, an image came to him. In the same way he kept envisioning the drippy cheese, Dalì saw images of melting timepieces. The vision inspired him, and he took up his paints again, even though the hour was late.” Before long, he had his melting clocks.
5. The insects in the painting represent one of the artist’s fears.
Dalì was incredibly frightened of insects, which he often featured in his work—and The Persistence of Memory is no exception: The artist has ants swarming one of the time pieces. This fear of his apparently dated back to a childhood incident in which he wanted to keep a bat that his cousin had shot through the wing. The young Dalì put the bat in a bucket in the family’s wash house; when he returned the next morning, he found the creature “still half-alive, bristling with frenzied ants, its tortured face exposing tiny teeth like an old woman’s,” he wrote in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalì.
6. The Persistence of Memory may be a self-portrait.
The floppy profile at the painting’s center might be meant to represent Dalì himself, as the artist was fond of self-portraits. Previously painted self-portraits include Self-Portrait in the Studio, Cubist Self-Portrait, Self-Portrait with “L’Humanité” and Self-Portrait (Figueres).
7. The painting is smaller than you might expect.
The Persistence of Memory is one of Dalì’s philosophical triumphs, but the actual oil-on-canvas painting measures only 9.5 inches by 13 inches.
8. The Persistence of Memory made the 28-year-old artist famous.
Dalì began painting when he was 6 years old. As a young man, he flirted with fame, working with Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel on his groundbreaking shorts Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. But Dalì’s big break didn’t come until he created his signature surrealist work. The press and the public went wild for him when The Persistence of Memory was shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City in 1932.
9. The painting stayed in New York thanks to an anonymous donor.
10. The Persistence of Memory has a sequel (sort of).
In 1954, Dalì revisited the composition of The Persistence of Memory for a new work, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory. Alternately known as The Chromosome of a Highly-coloured Fish's Eye Starting the Harmonious Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, the oil-on-canvas piece is believed to represent Dalì’s prior work being broken down to its atomic elements.
11. Between painting these two works, Dalì’s obsessions shifted.
Though the subjects of The Persistence of Memory and The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory are the same, their differences illustrated the shifts that took place between periods of Dalì's career. The first painting was created in the midst of his Freudian phase, when Dalì was fascinated by the dream analysis pioneered by Sigmund Freud. By the 1950s, when The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory was painted, Dalì’s dark muse had become the science of the atomic age.
“In the surrealist period, I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world—the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud,” Dalì explained. “I succeeded in doing it. Today the exterior world—that of physics—has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is [theoretical physicist] Dr. Heisenberg.”
Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was not a fan of the surrealists, whom he felt were too conscious of the art they were making and didn’t understand his theories. Dalì was the exception. When the two met in 1938, Dalì was giddily sketching a portrait of his 82-year-old idol when Freud whispered, “That boy looks like a fanatic.” The comment delighted Dalì, as did Freud’s suggestion that his The Metamorphosis of Narcissus would be of value to the study of psychoanalysis. Freud later said, “I have been inclined to regard the surrealists as complete fools, but that young Spaniard with his candid, fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery, has changed my estimate.”
12. Dalì used his melting clocks in even more artworks.
13. The Persistence of Memory has aliases.
The masterpiece is also known as Soft Watches, Droopy Watches, The Persistence of Time, and Melting Clocks.
14. The painting has become ingrained in pop culture.
The Persistence of Memory has been referenced on television in The Simpsons, Futurama, Hey Arnold, Doctor Who, and Sesame Street. Likewise, it’s been alluded to in the animated movie Looney Tunes: Back in Action, in the comic strip The Far Side, and in videogames like EarthBound and Crash Bandicoot 2: N-Tranced. It was even parodied to mock the NFL’s DeflateGate scandal.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.