Meandering Through Dali’s 1943 Madonna

Spending two hours in one room in a museum gives you plenty of time to see the art that you usually pass by. When you’re in a museum that you often go to, don’t you gravitate toward your favorites or the works that you know something about?  On a recent evening, I was stationed in a gallery at the Chazen Museum of Art while parents of incoming college students meandered through.  While being friendly and answering questions, I had time to meander a little bit through the gallery on my own, and I noticed a Salvador Dali painting, tucked in a niche, that I’d never noticed before.

Salvador Dali, The Madonna, 1943, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin

It’s rather small, only 20 x 11 inches, so just 6 inches larger than piece of legal sized paper.  And it’s quite striking.  And lovely. The Madonna stands towering over man and mountain while babies with Matisse-like shadows swirl around her.  The baby that she holds, barely, doesn’t really have a face, and although I find this to be kind of disturbing,  it’s really no more disturbing, when you think about it,  than out-of-proportion Medieval and Renaissance babies that look like muscular little adults or whose heads appear misshapen.  (Seraphim (which often appear as baby heads with wings) can creep me out, too, although that’s a different thing entirely.)

Other Dali Madonnas overtly refer to Renaissance Madonnas (and are overtly Dali).  For example:


Salvador Dali, The Madonna of the Port Lligat, 1949, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI

and this:


Salvador Dali, The Maximum Speed of Raphael’s Madonna, 1954.

clearly refer to paintings like this Renaissance Madonna and Child:

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), Sistine Madonna, 1513-14, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

The Chazen Madonna (if I may call it so) also nods to Renaissance paintings like this:

Nardo di Cione, Standing Madonna with Child,1350-1360, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

See what I mean? A Madonna standing, holding her baby (slightly less creepy than Dali’s), wearing blue robes, with a red garment underneath, taking up most of the field of the painting.  You can see similarities to the Sistine Madonna, too. This is a clearly a standardized representation of the Madonna that Dali is playing with.  Michelangelo has modified it as well in the Doni Tondo.  Even if you didn’t know, you might guess that this is the Madonna based on her blue and red (pink) clothing and the grouping that she’s with:

Michelangelo di Buonarroti, Doni Tondo, c. 1507, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Michelangelo’s Madonna is much more muscular than Dali’s, but the way the light highlights folds and skin and muscles brought this painting to mind almost immediately when I was looking at the Dali Madonna in the Chazen.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to decide if Dali’s Madonna  is more reminiscent of Renaissance, Mannerist, or even Baroque paintings, and I’m finally chuckling at myself because really, what does it matter?  I love Dali’s elongated Madonna, the babies flying in the wind, the almost frenetic movement of her clothing, and the mysteries (at least I haven’t been able to find the answers): Why is there a red ribbon around her arm?  Why doesn’t Jesus have a face?  What’s the deal with the little man next to her feet?  Is he part of a Biblical scene?

I admit that I’m not the biggest Dali fan, but the Chazen Madonna makes me re-think that.  And so does the painting below, which I’ll leave you with:

Salvador Dali, Madonna, 1958, Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the Met’s description: Here, he paints two different simultaneous subjects with a profusion of gray and pink dots: a Madonna and Child based on Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, after 1513), and a large ear, whose ridged interior surface is defined by the presence of these two figures. Each motif is designed to come into focus at a different distance. At close range, the painting looks completely abstract; from about six feet away, it reveals the Madonna and Child; and from fifty feet, it is what the artist called “the ear of an angel.” To the left of the main images is a trompe-l’oeil detail of a red cherry suspended on a string from a torn and folded piece of paper; its shadow is cast onto another piece of paper bearing the signature of the artist.


4 thoughts on “Meandering Through Dali’s 1943 Madonna

  1. I love the Metropolitan Museum Madonna which I will check out next time I am there. This is such an enlightening post. Everytime I look at a Dali painting I think “God how I wish I could have gotten inside his head?” Some artist should paint that.

    Great post!

    • Thanks, Sedef! I’m so jealous that you’re so close to the Met. I may have to figure out how to make a pilgrimage at some point. And that would be interesting — what was in Dali’s head?

  2. I’m not much of a Dali fan (maybe it’s the creepy mustache or the weirdness/fraud stuff at the end of his life) but this post shows me that his artistry was much deeper than i’d thought. Once again, you’ve opened my eyes…I’d better be careful in case any more art gets stuck in there.

    • Hi Trudy – Me neither, really, but I love this painting — it makes me want to take another look at him. And I don’t think you can ever have too much art stuck in your eye — always room for more:)

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