Dorothea Margaret Tanning was born on 25 August 1910, in Galesburg, Illinois. She grew up in Illinois, studying at the Knox College, before deciding to quit her studies to become an artist; she moved to Chicago in 1930 and then New York in 1935. Tanning worked as a commercial artist in New York, designing for advertisements and magazines, but attended exhibitions, not least Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936, which made a major impression on the young artist. In 1941, Tanning was introduced to Julien Levy by the art director of Macy’s, for whom Tanning had been working on the fashion pages. Levy would give Tanning solo exhibitions at his New York gallery in 1944 and 1948, and introduced Tanning to the circle of émigre Surrealists in the city.
Tanning met Max Ernst in 1942 and the two would end up marrying in 1946. In 1947, they moved to Sedona, Arizona, before relocating to France in 1949. They divided their time between Paris and Touraine, returning to Sedona and New York intermittently throughout the 1950s. In 1964, they moved to Seillens, in Provence, where Tanning would remain until Ernst’s death in 1976. Tanning would return to New York, eventually settling there in 1980, where she would remain until her death.
Tanning’s early works were precise figurative compositions with a dream-like quality, with subjects inspired by Gothic and Romantic novels; erotic subjects, enigmatic symbols, disquieting settings and unusual juxtapositions are all common characteristics of her work from the 1940s. Her work became increasingly fragmented and prismatic over the 1950s, becoming almost abstract by the 1960s with hints of the female form within dusky, billowing compositions. Between 1969 and 1973, she explored soft sculpture and fabric, before returning to painting. Tanning was also an active printmaker whilst living in France, working in the atelier of Georges Visat from 1955. She had her first solo exhibition in Paris at Galerie Furstenberg (1954) and was the subject of a major retrospective at the Centre National d’Art Contemporain (1974). She was the subject of retrospectives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2018), and Tate Modern, London (2019). Tanning continue to paint, draw, and write poetry until her death on 31 January 2012, in New York.
Tanning’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Tate Collection, London.