Art: The Prodigious Story of Salvador Dalí, Johannes Vermeer, and the Rhinoceros

Dali with a rhinoDalí and a rhinoceros

Known for painting grossly realistic melting objects and phantasmagoric landscapes, as well as for participating in the Surrealist group and performing attention-grabbing antics, Salvador Dalí may at first seem like a clashing presence against the towering, masterful figure of Johannes Vermeer. However, Dalí saw his work- especially his later output- as a continuance of the values laid down by the Old Masters, and he considered Vermeer to be the ultimate painter, superior even to Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Pablo Picasso. His fixation with the Dutch artist is traceable throughout his career, but The Lacemaker especially had a strong hold on him. According to the artist, he had been fascinated with the painting since the age of nine, when “he was overcome by a ‘lyrical ecstasy’ provoked by pressing his elbow into some dried bread crumbs on the dining room table while looking at a reproduction of The Lacemaker that hung on the wall of his father’s office. He then ‘began to become absolutely obsessed in a truly delirious way by the painting The Lacemaker…’” (quoted in King, “Crazy Movies That Disappear,” 219). Looking past the artist’s tendency to dramatize his own life, Manuel Delgado Morales believes his earliest encounter with the painting may actually have been at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, where he lived as a student along with filmmaker Luis Buñuel and poet Federico García Lorca.

Vermeer_Johannes-The_LacemakerJohannes Vermeer: The Lacemaker, 1669-70. via Essential Vermeer

Its earliest appearance within Dalí’s work is Woman at the Window in Figueres from 1926, which depicts, from behind, a woman with short dark hair sitting at a window making lace. He takes the project so central to Vermeer’s composition yet hidden from view, and reveals it fully. Then, in 1929, the original image itself takes a minor role in his film with Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou. Here, a young woman reading alone within a bedroom casts down her book when she hears a gentleman approaching on the street below, and her page is revealed to be a full reproduction of The Lacemaker, on which the camera lingers for a few seconds.

unchienandalou-ssStill from Un Chien Andalou, 1929. via YouTube

Ever-intrigued by ways of looking and understanding, and incorporating visual trickery to fool and entice the eye in his own paintings, it is no surprise that Dalí would be attracted to the strange enigma of Vermeer’s life and output and to The Lacemaker in particular. However, it was not until after his self-styled rebirth as a “classical” painter that he began to engage with the painting at a deeper level.

In 1941, two years after his expulsion from Surrealism, Dalí vocally announced himself a “classical” painter at his solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, proclaiming in his catalog: “Behold the luck, the grace, the miracle that in this year of spiritual sterility 1941 there can still exist a being such as Dalí, capable of continuing the conquest of the irrational merely by becoming classic and pursuing that research in Divina Proportione interrupted since the Renaissance.” Dalí’s definition of the word “classical” was broad, however, and he drew from a range of sources that included Raphael, Velazquez, the Pre-Raphaelites, Antoni Gaudí, and, of course, Vermeer. Stylistically he did not drastically alter his painting, still incorporating melting or distorted objects, fragmented figures, and sensational symbolism, but he began to draw more blatantly from classical religious subjects and increased his ever-present hyperrealism in response to the period’s dominating trend of abstraction.

dali-gala-lacemakerDalí and his wife Gala with a poster of Vermeer’s The Lacemaker

He embarked on a complicated and ultimately unrealized project in the 1950s that connected his fascination with Vermeer’s The Lacemaker and his own paranoiac-critical method of painting, an approach that involved finding phantom objects or images within a work, supposedly related to the ability of the brain to discover links between things that are not rationally linked. He began in November of 1954 by making an appointment with Louvre conservator Magdeleine Hours to copy The Lacemaker from life in one hour. She arranged for the painting to be taken to a private room and placed on an easel, with another easel and blank canvas across from it for the artist. Dalí had requested a canvas that perfectly matched Vermeer’s, and allegedly in preparation had read through Vermeer’s favorite books and studied seventeenth-century Dutch geography. He was joined by several artists and intellectuals, as well as photographer Robert Descharnes, whom Dalí had enlisted to film the entire process. After the allotted time had passed, Dalí was supposedly surprised to find that, instead of Vermeer’s beloved masterpiece, he had painted a set of converging rhinoceros horns. Inspired, he then paired with Descharnes to make a film that would explore from all angles the psychic relationship between the rhinoceros horn and The Lacemaker.

The next phase of the project took place in April 1955 at the Vincennes Zoo in Paris, as Dalí reasoned that after painting in front of the actual Lacemaker and finding rhinoceros horns, the next logical step would be to paint in front of a live rhinoceros. Settled within a rocky alcove adjacent to the pen of a rhinoceros named François, he continued painting The Lacemaker, again with Descharnes filming (here’s a snippet). His assistants dangled a large reproduction of the Vermeer in front of François, taunting it to charge but it backed down, perhaps intimidated by the wealth of pointed horns hidden within its printed aggressor. Eventually the artist ran through the reproduction himself with a large narwahl tusk. Over the next decade Dalí and Descharnes would continue to work on their film, titled L’Histoire prodigieuse de la Dentelliere et du rhinoceros (“The Prodigious Story of The Lacemaker and the Rhinoceros”), with Dalí wantonly experimenting with performance ideas (some culled from earlier projects) and engaging to varying degrees with The Lacemaker itself. One scene shows the artist whipping nine canvases with a riding crop, while another depicted him working on an abstracted Lacemaker while the Mayor of Cadaques (where filming had moved in 1956), dressed as Adolf Hitler, observed from behind a shrub while sipping tea. Though the film began as a documentary about Dalí’s interaction with Vermeer’s painting, it evolved into a massive, non-narrative, and disjointed project that was never completed.

Dali's LacemakerSalvador Dalí: The Lacemaker (After Vermeer), 1955. via WikiPaintings

While working on the film, the artist created several reproductions of The Lacemaker, only one of which is a straight copy- indeed, in 1934 he had told collector Robert Lehman that copying it “couldn’t be done” (quoted in King, “Dalí After 1940,” 34). His closest imitation is The Lacemaker (After Vermeer) from 1955, which Lehman eventually purchased, and which presents a fairly realistic, close depiction of the young woman at work, but with a darker, bolder color palette and traces of Dalí’s recognizable melting effects in the fabric and threads. Her expression is more forceful than the original, with a notably furrowed brow and resolutely pursed lips. While he affixed his signature prominently in the upper right-hand corner, perhaps attempting to assert some personal claim or dominance over the perplexing aura of Vermeer’s work, he did retain the small size of the original. This may be in reference to his belief that The Lacemaker’s power kept it as “grandiose” as Michelangelo’s murals in the Sistine Chapel, despite its comparatively minuscule dimensions. This canvas was likely the one on which Dalí had initially painted rhinoceros horns, which may have served as a compositional scheme for the final product.

the-paranoiac-critical-study-of-vermeer-s-lacemaker-1955Salvador Dalí: The Paranoiac-Critical Study of Vermeer’s Lacemaker, 1955. via WikiPaintings

He toyed with increasing distillation of the lacemaker’s form in his “Rhinocerotic” studies of 1955. One is a monochromatic painting composed of sweeping, energetic brushstrokes, vaguely echoing the shapes of Vermeer’s work, with conical points protruding from a central curved shape. Another is a sculptural white bust made of plaster, with a smooth surface. It is made up of a slim egg-like mass representing a bent head, and a wider circular foundation for shoulders. But it is Paranoiac-Critical Study of Vermeer’s Lacemaker, also completed in 1955, that most clearly blends his own artistic theories with his hero’s painting. The lacemaker is shown in her exact pose and position, but fragmented into a number of brown-tinted curved cones all pointed at the figure. Her face is clearly delineated and the red and white threads remain in their place along with the book and knob of her worktable, but all other aspects of the original composition are either broken up into pieces floating in space or obscured by giant rhinoceros horns. This confluence of points aimed at the woman may relate to Dalí’s belief that everything in Vermeer’s original “converged exactly into one needle, in a pin that was not painted, but merely suggested.” For him the painting conveyed a sharpness and an intensity, and ultimately it “possessed one of the most violent forces in the aesthetics domain…” (quoted in Morales, 40).

assumpta-corpuscularia-lapislazulina-1952Salvador Dalí: Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina, 1952. via WikiPaintings

Dalí’s engagement with the rhinoceros horn both as a compositional foundation and as a symbol became as integral to his own artistic outlook as his idolization of Vermeer. The discovery grew out of his interest in nuclear explosions as well as the Llullist logic cubes of thirteenth-century mystic Ramon Llull, who manipulated language to prove Catholic “truths.” Dalí’s 1952 painting Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina shows his wife Gala in the guise of the Virgin Mary, but with her body disintegrating into a collection of three-dimensional shapes: slender rhinoceros horns. These so-called “nicoids”, or angelic particles, manifesting themselves as horns led Dalí to a discovery: Rhinoceros horns, like sunflowers and cauliflowers, are constructed according to logarithmic spirals, with a connection to Divine Geometry. And so his paranoiac link between Johannes Vermeer and the rhinoceros horn took on a spiritual component. For Dalí, The Lacemaker represented a perfection that mirrored that found in nature, and his feeling for Vermeer was at times akin to a devout servant worshiping his god. In obsessively dissecting and recreating this image I believe he attempted to reach such heavenly heights himself.

And just for fun, here’s my favorite (probably?) Dalí painting, The Ghost of Vermeer van Delft Which Can Be Used as a Table. This is the work that got me into this whole weird story of Dalí and Vermeer. Most of this text was taken from a paper I wrote for a seminar in 2013, so it’s a bit more scholarly than my usual nonsense, ahem.

the-ghost-of-vermeer-van-delft-which-can-be-used-as-a-tableSalvador Dalí: The Ghost of Vermeer van Delft Which Can Be Used as a Table, 1934. via WikiPaintings


Dawn Ades, et al. Dalí & Film. Edited by Matthew Gale (Tate Publishing, 2007).

Fleur Cowles. The Case of Salvador Dalí (Little, Brown and Company, 1959).

Salvador Dalí. The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí. Edited and translated by Haim Finkelstein (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Elliot H. King. Dalí: The Late Work. (Yale University Press, 2010).

Manuel Delgado Morales, “Embroiderers of Freedom and Desire in Lorca’s Poetry and Theater.” Lorca, Bunuel, Dalí: Art and Theory. Edited by Manuel Delgado Morales and Alice J. Poust. (Associated University Presses, 2001).

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