Family Portrait

Dorothea Tanning-Family Portrait 1954
Dorothea Tanning-Family Portrait 1954

Dorothea Tanning remarked on her childhood in Galesburg, Illinois that nothing happened but the wallpaper, however everything, even wallpaper, is grist to the true artists mill and she succeeded during her long and incredibly productive life to create memorable works set in conventional domestic spaces filled with mystery, confrontation and revelation.

Family Portrait was painted in Sedona, Arizona, where Tanning lived with her husband Max Ernst for part of every year until they moved to France permanently in 1957 . The painting is dominated by the huge father (or husband) figure wearing sinister mirrored round glasses in the background. The size of each figure seems entirely dependent on their status within the family group. The perky daughter (or wife) with her large and expressive eyes sits level at the table with its crisp linen and strange dishes, dwarfing the housekeeper who is little bigger  than the small dog on its hindquarters begging for its dinner. The muted colours add to the ominous and oppressive atmosphere. Family Portrait is a suburban Gothic drama of hidden tensions and Wonderland-like changes in scale that lingers unnervingly in the memory.

19 thoughts on “Family Portrait

    1. She was the last of the original Surrealists. She died in 2012 at the age of 101, she switched to sculpture in the 1970’s and then writing, her first and only novel was published at the age of 94. Two autobiographies and her last published volume of poetry was published when she was 100. Glad you enjoyed.


  1. Tanning is wonderful. How interesting that the father, despite his size also seems to be blending into the wall. Lots to contemplate in this one. Look forward to more on this exceptional artist.

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  2. I failed to notice the dishes on the table when in The Tate this month; on observing their detail now, one dish has a definate labial nature.
    Could the family dinner be an ‘all consuming’ concept here?
    Spoiler alert: I have not read ‘Chasm’ yet, so be careful with your reply.

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  3. Fascinating
    Surely the older lady is the wife, aged by use and diminished by time. The perky daughter has status for now: her potential value will be realised in barter, or the value she has brought in from her husband’s status. This is patriarchy in all its muted colours, with even the pudenda served at the table. The dog had the best of this I think.

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