Salvador Dalí – Galatea of the Spheres (1952)

When Salvador Dalí fell in love with Gala she was married to the French poet Paul Éluard, while the Spaniard was on the brink of gaining recognition for his visionary talent. It was three years before Dalí would paint his memorable work, The Persistence of Memory. Perhaps Gala had an innate ability to spot undetected talent, for she had become a constant presence within the Surrealists’ group and, for a few years, indulged in a ménage à trois with Max Ernst and Éluard. Her sexual liberty had become legendary, as she befriended so many of the Surrealists, and her affairs continued even after she married Dalí in 1935. Her new husband didn’t seem to mind them.

Many of Dalí’s peers had blamed Gala for the Spaniard’s loss of artistry and his focus on commercial art during the last part of his career. As his agent, Gala was in charge of the finances and she assumed that role very seriously. While her greediness may have contributed to Dalí’s decline, some are quick to forget that she was there for him when he was still unknown and that she was an integral part of his meteoric rise to fame.

Dalí worshipped Gala – she was his muse and the love of his life. He painted her frequently, often in religious contexts, like Virgin Mary in The Madonna of Port Lligat. Galatea of the Spheres is one of the many portraits Dalí did of his wife, in this instance depicting her head and shoulders as fragmented into spheres that seem to float in space.

Salvador Dali - Galatea of the Spheres
Salvador Dalí – Galatea of the Spheres (1952), oil on canvas

The fragmentation indicates Dalí’s fascination at the time with nuclear physics and the revelation that matter was made up of atoms. He explored these concepts (usually coupled with religion) in many of his paintings, declaring those years his nuclear mysticism period. In his Anti-Matter Manifesto, Dalí explained this new approach to art:

“In the Surrealist period, I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world and the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud. Today, the exterior world and that of physics has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr. Heisenberg.”

While the spheres that make up Gala’s head reference the atom as the smallest constituent unit of matter, amassed as a microcosm, the three-dimensional suspension of the spheres also reminds me of a galaxy of planets (a macrocosm).  It is a touching portrait of Gala, bearing the grace and serenity of a Renaissance Madonna. By blending fundamental physics with the affection Dalí held for her, the painting suggests that she infused the physical reality around her with love or that love is as much of a building block as the atom.

Now, you may be wondering why the title says Galatea and not Gala. Dalí called her by many affectionate names and, in this instance, he is referencing the Greek legend of Pygmalion, the Cypriot sculptor who fell in love with the statue he carved out of ivory, which he named Galatea. With Aphrodite’s blessing, the statue came to life when Pygmalion kissed her lips and the two of them then married. By calling her Galatea, Dalí was recognizing Gala’s beauty and perfection, attributes one would find in a flawless, Greek statue, while also alluding to the interrelatedness of love and creation as the foundation of their relationship.

9 thoughts on “Salvador Dalí – Galatea of the Spheres (1952)

    1. You’re very welcome. I feel uncomfortable looking too closely into the artists’ lives, so let’s hope this doesn’t turn into a tabloid. But Gala must have been a very fascinating woman.

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  1. An amazing show of skill, and yet, something seems to be lacking in much of Dali. Or perhaps there’s a bit too much cheese on the pizza. He’s best when his work most reflects the dark subconscious. He invented his own sort of Daliesque universe, which is an astounding achievement. If it weren’t for Dali, we wouldn’t have melting watches and other iconography in our collective visual repertoire. But sometimes he goes overboard with his showiness and the skill outdistances the content resulting in a shallow display of virtuosity, as if he were playing to an audience he thought was less aware than himself.

    Dali was completely disparaged in my art education, which favored the “radically” conceptual and presumed revolutionary political. He’s definitely worth looking at again now that I’ve jettisoned my programming.

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    1. I like that you’re keeping an open mind, Eric. I’m not sure how the skill outdistances the content in this instance, where he had a clear vision about physics and atoms and shows Gala as a Madonna. Cheesy, sure, but he loved her. He gets a pass from me.

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      1. He gets a pass from me too, for raw skill alone. I don’t get any emotion or feeling from the depiction, however. I could just not be registering it, if it’s there. Not everyone can sync with every painting. So, it could be my flat spot, or it could be his.

        And not every artist can cover all the basis. In fact, I rather think none can. Each has different strengths. Dali’s was exceptional technical ability and imagination, which is a powerful combo. The warm human element, for me, isn’t there.

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        1. Yes, it’s rather difficult to cover all the basis. For some reason, I really like paintings that are lacking in warmth and “human” quality. Such as Tamara de Lempicka’s. I don’t know why that is, or maybe I don’t want to know.

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          1. ” I really like paintings that are lacking in warmth and “human” quality.” That made me laugh. We are all keyed differently, and art is like music — If we all had the same tastes 90% of musicians would be out of work, and we’d all just listen to the same 10%. I don’t like Matisse, but I hear others love him.

            But, in the lacking warmth department, I think Seurat is a good example. His works are quite charming and light because of his focus on formal elements. I’d take Van Gogh over Seurat any day, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world without “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. Among other things it’s simply iconic.

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  2. I find Dalí absolutely fascinating. One of the most memorable memories I have was when my parents took me to his museum in Spain when I was about 12. His attention do detail and painting skills impressed me already back then.

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    1. He had the most vivid imagination, no wonder it appealed to you as a child. As adults we’re more quickly to dismiss him, because of his later commercial and gimmicky art. It doesn’t matter how much his Surrealist work was and will be reproduced, it will never lose its significance and visual impact.

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