Birthday

Dorothea Tanning, American, 1910 - 2012

Date:
1942

Medium:
Oil on canvas

Dimensions:
40 1/4 x 25 1/2 inches (102.2 x 64.8 cm)

Copyright:
© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Curatorial Department:
Modern and Contemporary Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:
1999-50-1

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with funds contributed by C. K. Williams, II, 1999

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Label:
In Birthday, Dorothea Tanning filters the dreams and desires of the Surrealist vision through a self-portrait. Yet although the likeness of the face is astonishing, the artist does more to create a character than to reveal one who already exists. The woman's exotic garb, the furry creature, and the infinite recession of doors point toward adventures that lie just off the canvas.

Additional information:
  • PublicationGifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Self-portraiture might seem to be a paradoxical enterprise for a Surrealist artist, whose vocabulary and vision had more to do with dreams and desires than actual reality. Dorothea Tanning's exquisitely powerful Birthday resolves this paradox. Although the painting presents an astonishing likeness of the artist, the portrayal does far more to create a character than to reveal a preexisting one. An exotically dressed, unsmiling young woman stands on a steeply tilted floor and grasps a white porcelain doorknob. She is precisely set in space, but it is more fantasy than reality, with its shimmering mother-of-pearl light, infinite recession of doors, and extraordinary perspective. The woman's ruffled purple brocade jacket, opened to reveal her bare chest, tops a skirt of long, green tendrils, which, upon scrutiny, assume the form of human bodies. She is attended by a fantastic furry creature with wings and a long tail, ready to accompany her on the adventures that lie beyond the doors.

    According to Tanning, Birthday was titled by the Surrealist émigré artist Max Ernst, who found it on her easel while scouting for gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim's upcoming exhibition of art made by women. Captivated by the model as well as by the painting, Ernst would become Tanning's husband and lifelong admirer of her work. The two were married in Los Angeles in 1946, at the home of the art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg, in a double wedding with Juliet Browner and Man Ray. Tanning and Ernst also were close friends of Alexina (Teeny) and Marcel Duchamp. Birthday comes home, in a sense, as it joins the Surrealist treasures in a museum collection so richly flavored by Tanning's artistic circle. Ann Temkin, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary (2002), p. 132.

  • PublicationMasterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art

    Dorothea Tanning's Birthday is an announcement, a self-portrait hailing the arrival of an artist who emerged into the public eye with a fully formulated vision and an exquisitely flawless technique. Then thirty-two years old, Tanning was working as a freelance illustrator for Manhattan department stores while pursuing her own erotically charged, dreamlike paintings in her Greenwich Village apartment, after her imagination had been stimulated by the 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. According to Tanning, Birthday was titled by her future husband, the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, who encountered it on her easel while scouting for works for gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim's upcoming exhibition of thirty-one women artists. Although the painting presents an astonishing likeness of the artist, the portrayal does far more to create a character than to reveal a preexisting one. The woman's ruffled purple brocade jacket, opened to reveal her bare chest, tops a skirt of long green tendrils, which, upon scrutiny, assume the form of writhing human bodies. She is attended by a familiar, a fantastic furry creature with wings and a long tail, ready to accompany her on the adventures that lie beyond the infinitely receding doors. Michael R. Taylor, from Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art (2007), p. 216.