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Biography of Salvador Dali and Analysis of His Famous Persistence of Memory

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Salvador Dali was born on May 11, 1904, in Figueres Spain. His full name is Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dali y Domenech. From an early age, he was encouraged to practice his art and eventually went to study at an academy in Madrid. His father, Salvador Dali y Cusi, was a lawyer and notary, which is someone who is authorized to perform certain legal formalities, especially to draw up or certify contracts, deeds, and other documents for use in other jurisdictions. His approach to child-rearing was the complete opposite of his mother, Felipa Domenech Ferres’ method. His father used a strict disciplinary technique while Felipa indulged in his art and premature unconventionality. As a child, he was precocious and intelligent but was prone to fits of anger against his parents and classmates. Due to his ill-temper, he was subjected to acts of cruelty by more authoritative classmates and his father. The elder Salvador would not tolerate his tantrums and would punish him severely. Their relationship deteriorated while he was young intensified by competition for Felipa’s attention and affection. Dali’s older brother, also named Salvador, died of gastroenteritis. Salvador Dali believed that he was the reincarnation of his brother when he was 5 his parents took him to visit his brothers grave, he told his parents about his belief. He also had a younger sister named Ana Maria. At an early stage in his life Salvador began producing sophisticated drawings, both of his parents completely supported his artistic talent. His parents built him his own art studio in their summer home in the coastal village of Cadaques that his family often spent time in.

Upon recognizing his talent, his parents sent him to a drawing school at the Colegio de Hermanos Maristas and the Instituto in Figueres, Spain in 1916. He wasn’t a serious student, he preferred to daydream. He wore irregular clothes and long hair which caused him to stand out as the class eccentric. After his first year of art school, he discovered modern painting in Cadaques while on a family vacation. While there he ran into Ramon Pichot, a local artist that often-visited Paris. The following year his father organized an exhibition of all of Salvador’s charcoal drawings in their family home. He had his first public exhibition at the Municipal Theatre of Figueres in 1919.

Sadly, in 1921 Dali’s mother passed away from breast cancer. In light of the fact that he was 16 at the time, the loss greatly affected him. While Salvador grieved, his father chose to marry his late wife’s sister. The act did not cause the relationship between father and son to mend, but Dali still held respect for his aunt. They fought constantly over different issues throughout their lives until his father passed.

Continuing on, Salvador enrolled at the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid in 1922. He stayed on campus, grew his hair long, wore sideburns and dressed like English Aesthetes in the late 19th century. He was influenced by metaphysics and cubism during this time. In 1923 he was suspended for criticizing teachers and allegedly starting a riot among students over the school’s choice of professors. He was arrested and shortly imprisoned in Gerona the same year for allegedly supporting the Separatist movement even though he was apolitical at the time and remained that way for most of his life. He reappeared at the academy in 1926 but was expelled permanently shortly before final exams for declaring that no member of the faculty was competent enough to examine him. While in school, Dalí began exploring many forms of art including classical painters like Raphael, Bronzino, and Diego Velázquez which is who he got his iconic curled mustache from.

He also tried his hand in avant-garde art movements such as Dada, a post-World War I anti-establishment movement. Although Dali was apolitical and couldn’t strictly follow the movement, the Dada philosophy influenced his work throughout his life. In between the years of 1926 and 1929, Dalí made a few excursions to Paris, where he met with influential painters and intellectuals of the time such as Pablo Picasso, whom he felt profound regard for. During this time, Dalí painted a number of works that demonstrated Picasso’s impact. He also met Joan Miró, the Spanish painter and sculptor who, along with poet Paul Éluard and painter René Magritte, acquainted Dalí with Surrealism. By this time, Dalí was working with styles of Impressionism, Futurism, and Cubism. Dalí’s paintings became associated with three general themes: man’s universe and sensations, sexual symbolism and ideographic imagery. All of this experimentation led to Dalí’s first Surrealistic period in 1929. These oil paintings were small collages of his dream images. His work utilized an old-style system, impacted by Renaissance craftsmen, that he made with odd dreamlike characters that contradicted the ‘unreal dream’ space that he created with strange hallucinatory characters. Even before this period, Dalí was a devoted reader of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. Dalí’s contribution to the Surrealist movement was what he called the ‘paranoiac-critical method,’ a mental exercise of accessing the subconscious to enhance artistic creativity. Dalí would utilize the technique to make a reality from his fantasies and subconscious thoughts, thus mentally changing reality to what he wanted it to be and not necessarily what it was. It became a lifestyle for Dali.

In 1980, Dalí was forced to retire from painting due to a motor disorder that caused a permanent trembling and weakness in his hands. No longer able to hold a paint brush, he’d lost the ability to express himself the way he knew best. More tragedy struck in 1982, when Dalí’s wife and friend, Gala, died. The combination of those two events sent him into a deep depression. He moved to Pubol, in a castle that he had purchased and remodeled for Gala, possibly to hide from the public or, as some hypothesize, to die. In 1984, Dalí was severely burned in a fire. Because of his wounds, he was limited to a wheelchair. Friends, patrons and fellow artists rescued him from the castle and returned him to Figueres, making him comfortable at the Teatro-Museo. In November 1988, Salvador Dalí was admitted into a hospital in Figueres with a failing heart. After a brief recovery, he returned to the Teatro-Museo. On January 23, 1989, in his hometown, Dalí died of heart failure at the age of 84. His funeral was held at the Teatro-Museo, where he was buried in a crypt.

On June 26, 2017, a judge in a Madrid court requested that Dalí’s body be unearthed to settle a paternity case. A 61-year-old Spanish lady named María Pilar Abel Martínez guaranteed that her mom had an affair with the artist while she was working as a housekeeper for his neighbors in Port Lligat, a town in northeastern Spain.

The judge requested the Dali’s body to be unearthed in light of a ‘lack of other biological or personal remains’ lack of other biological or personal remains’ to compare with Martinez’s DNA. The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, which oversees Dalí’s estate, bid the decision, however, the exhumation proceeded the following month. In September, results from the DNA tests revealed that Dalí was not father.

That October, the artist was back in the news with the announcement of a show at the Dalí exhibition hall in Saint Petersburg, Florida, to commend his friendship and collaboration with Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. The two were known for the joint creation of a ‘lobster dress’ worn by American socialite Wallis Simpson, who later wedded English King Edward VIII.

The Persistence of Memory, is an oil painting made by Salvador Dali himself. While making it Dali’s artistic practice was guided by the peculiar “paranoiac-critical method.” This being one of his earlier Surrealist works, Dali was influenced by Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, which he combined with a Catalan background. This painting was one of the first Dali executed using his ‘paranoid-critical’ approach in which he depicts his own psychological conflicts and phobias. The painting contains a self-portrait over which is draped a ‘soft watch’. For Dali, these ‘soft watches’ represent what he called the ‘camembert of time’, suggesting that the concept of time had lost all meaning in the unconscious world. The ants crawling over the pocket watch suggest decoy, an absurd notion given that the watch is metallic. These ‘paranoid-critical’ images reflect Dali’s reading and absorption of Freud’s theories of the unconscious and its access to the latent desires and paranoia of the human mind, such as the unconscious fear of death alluded to in this painting. Despite its memorable subject matter and significant impact on the art world, the painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’ is only slightly larger than a sheet of notebook paper, or approximately 9.5 x 13 inches. Many art historians emphasize that the central figure in the painting is a self-portrait of Dali. However, the figure, which has human characteristics such as eyelashes as well as a free-form shape signifies metamorphosis, as do the clocks that are morphing from solid to liquid. Metamorphosis is a key concept in the Surrealist movement, reflecting the transformative power of dreams. “The Persistence of Memory’ alludes to the influence of scientific advances during Dali’s lifetime. The stark yet dreamlike scenery reflects a Freudian emphasis on the dream landscape while the melted watches may refer to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, in which the scientist references the distortion of space and time. The pocket watches are not the only references to time in the painting. The sand refers to the sands of time and sand in the hourglass. The ants have hourglass-shaped bodies. The shadow that looms over the scene suggests the passing of the sun overhead, and the distant ocean may suggest timelessness or eternity. The painting, which Dali completed in 1931, has made its home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for more than 80 years, having been donated in 1934 by an anonymous patron. Three of the clocks in the painting may symbolize the past, present and future, which are all subjective and open to interpretation, while the fourth clock, which lies face-down and undistorted, may symbolize objective time. The egg that lays on the distant shore is symbolic of life, which, like memory, has the potential to persist despite the breakdown or distortion of time. The egg also epitomizes the artist’s obsession with the juxtaposition of hard and soft during his Surrealist period. The insects in ‘The Persistence of Memory,’ a fly on one clock face and the ants on the face-down clock, variously signify death, disintegration and/or a parasitic relationship with time. Dali’s painting combines three art genres: the still life, the landscape, and the self-portrait. A somewhat similar self-portrait appears in an earlier Dali work entitled The Great Masturbator. However, in ‘The Persistence of Time,’ the figure appears to be either dead or sleeping. The denuded, broken branch in the painting, which art experts identify as an olive tree in the context of other Dali artworks, represents the demise of ancient wisdom as well as the death of peace, reflecting the political climate between the two World Wars as well as the unrest leading to the Spanish Civil War in Dali’s native country.

While Dalí completed The Persistence of Memory at just 28 years old, he continued to revisit the painting’s popular melting clock motif for decades. This prevailing theme is apparent in several painted, printed, and sculpted pieces from later in the artist’s career. Including The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory in 1954 and the incorporation of melting clocks in Time Suite, a series of prints created in 1976. In addition to painting, Dalí is also known for his surreal sculptures. Throughout his career, he designed several sculpted works inspired by his melting clocks.

Since 1934, The Persistence of Memory has been housed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Fittingly, the curious painting has a perplexing provenance, as it was gifted to the museum by an anonymous donor. Thanks to this mysterious donation, The Persistence of Memory has been a highlight of the museum’s holdings for over 80 years—and will undoubtedly remain in the collection for generations to come.


  • Dalí, Salvador. “Salvador Dalí. The Persistence of Memory. 1931: MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art,
  • “Salvador Dalí.”, A&E Networks Television, 9 July 2019,
  • “Salvador Dalí: MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art,
  • Shovava. “Exploring Salvador Dalí’s Strange and Surreal ‘Persistence of Memory’.” My Modern Met, 10 July 2019,

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