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Top 10 Famous Surrealist Paintings

Surrealism is an art movement that emerged in the aftermath of World War I and which continued to flourish well into the 1950s.

Surrealist artists developed a technique that allowed the unconscious mind to produce the painting. This resulted in paintings with an illogical subject matter.

André Breton (1896-1966), a French writer and poet, wrote the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. In it, he explained that the aim was to bring dreams to reality which creates some sort of super-reality.

Just like many art movements of the 19th and 20th centuries it emerged in Paris and gradually spread all across the world.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most famous Surrealist paintings ever created so you can learn all about this fascinating modern art movement.

1. The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dalí

  • Date created: 1931
  • Dimensions: 24 × 33 centimeters (9.5 × 13 inches)
  • Location: MoMA, New York City, United States

The Persistence of Memory is a painting by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), a Spanish artist and one of the leading figures of the Surrealism art movement. It’s arguably the best-recognized Surrealist painting ever produced as it has been featured in a wide variety of media.

The painting isn’t much bigger than a sheet of paper but the melting clocks are elements that you surely have seen before somewhere. These are the illogical elements that define the Surrealist movement. The painting has been part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1934.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali / Wiki Commons

2. Guernica – Pablo Picasso

  • Date created: 1937
  • Dimensions: 349.3 × 776.6 centimeters (137.4 × 305.5 inches)
  • Location: Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain

Guernica is a painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), arguably one of the most famous artists in history. This is considered to be one of his best-known works and one of the most powerful anti-war paintings ever produced. It intertwines elements of his Cubist period with Surrealist images.

Picasso painted this immense work of art shortly after the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. This devastating event happened on April 26, 1937, as they helped the Spanish nationalists. The painting is the artist’s interpretation of this horrible act.

Guernica Pablo Picasso
Guernica by Pablo Picasso /Wiki Commons

3. The Treachery of Images – René Magritte

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The Treachery of Images is a painting by Belgian artist René Magritte (1898-1967), one of the most famous Surrealist painters in history. He produced some of the most iconic paintings of the 20th century and this one can be included in this list.

The painting depicts a pipe with the text written below it “Ceci n’est pas une Pipe.” This translates to “This is not a pipe.” The painting’s title is a reference to the fact that the image is merely a representation of a pipe rather than a real one.

Famous Surrealist paintings The Treachery of Images by René Magritte
The Treachery of Images by René Magritte / Wiki Commons

4. The Two Fridas – Frida Kahlo

  • Date created: 1939
  • Dimensions: 173.5 × 173 centimeters (68.3 × 68 inches)
  • Location: Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico

The Two Fridas is a painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). She painted plenty of self-portraits during his career and this one is a double self-portrait. It’s one of her most intriguing paintings (and that means something).

On the left, she is wearing a white Victorian-era dress, while on the right, she is wearing a traditional native Tehuana dress. The meaning behind the painting is likely her dual heritage. Her father was German and her mother was Mexican.

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo
The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo / Wiki Commons

5. Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee – Salvador Dalí

  • Date created: 1944
  • Dimensions: 51 × 40.5 centimeters (20 × 15.9 inches)
  • Location: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee is another painting by Salvador Dalí. It’s the short title of a painting officially known as “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening.” The woman in the painting is believed to be the artist’s wife Gala Dalí (1894-1982).

Dalí described his paintings as “hand-painted dream photographs” and this is arguably one of the most representative works of this definition. The pomegranate, yelloweye rockfish, and tigers are accompanied by a long-legged elephant that is believed to have been inspired by Elephant and Obelisk, a sculpture by Bernini located in Rome.

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee by Salvador Dalí
Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee by Salvador Dalí / Wiki Commons

6. The Lovers – René Magritte

  • Date created: 1928
  • Dimensions: 54 x 73.4 centimeters (21.37 x 28.87 inches)
  • Location: MoMA, New York City, United States

The Lovers is one of the most peculiar paintings by René Magritte. It depicts two lovers who are kissing each other while a barrier of fabric prevents close contact. Just like many other paintings by the artist, it represents isolation and frustration.

Some art historians have suggested that the painting might have been related to trauma during the artist’s youth. His mother committed suicide by drowning and he saw her nightgown being wrapped around her face as they fished her body out of the water. The recurring theme of fabric wrapped around the figure’s head might confirm this theory.

The Lovers by Rene Magritte
The Lovers by René Magritte / Wiki Commons

7. Mama, Papa is Wounded! – Yves Tanguy

  • Date created: 1927
  • Dimensions: 92.1 × 73 centimeters (36.3 × 29 inches)
  • Location: MoMA, New York City, United States

Mama, Papa is Wounded! is one of the most famous paintings by French artist Yves Tanguy (1900-1955). The title of the painting often reveals the subject matter of the painting but like many other Surrealist paintings, this isn’t the case with this work.

We can see a lot of unrelated items scattered across a gloomy landscape. The light doesn’t appear to be of this world and the dark cloud to the right only adds to the mystery. Whatever troubled Tanguy while he painted this work, it was something that must have had serious consequences on his life.

Mama, Papa is Wounded by Yves Tanguy
Mama, Papa is Wounded! by Yves Tanguy / Wiki Commons

8. The Harlequin’s Carnival – Joan Miró

  • Date created: 1924-1925
  • Dimensions: 66 × 90.5 centimeters (26 × 35.62 inches)
  • Location: Buffalo AKG Art Gallery, Buffalo, United States

The Harlequin’s Carnival is one of the most famous paintings by Joan Miró (1893-1983), a Spanish artist who developed a unique style that also features elements used by Cubist artists and Expressionist artists. Of all the Surrealist paintings he produced, this one is the closest to the essence of the movement.

Harlequin is the name of a figure that appears in an Italian comedy titled “Commedia dell’Arte.” He is distinctively recognizable by wearing a checkered costume. The carnival in the title is a reference to the Mardi Gras carnival celebration.

The Harlequin's Carnival by Joan Miró
The Harlequin’s Carnival by Joan Miró / Wiki Commons

9. The Son of Man – René Magritte

  • Date created: 1964
  • Dimensions: 116 × 89 centimeters (45.67 × 35 inches)
  • Location: Private collection

The Son of Man is another world-famous painting by René Magritte. It was completed during the final decade of his life and depicts a man who wears a hat with an apple in front of his face. Although we can’t see the man’s face, it’s supposed to be a self-portrait by Magritte.

Upon closer inspection, we can see some peculiarities with this work. The man’s eyes are peeking above the apple in front of his face, his left elbow is bent backward. Two other paintings by the artist closely resemble his work and are titled “Man in Bower Hat” and “The Great War,” both completed in 1964.

The Son of Man by René Magritte
The Son of Man by René Magritte / Wiki Commons

10. The Elephant Celebes – Max Ernst

  • Date created: 1921
  • Dimensions: 125.4 × 107.9 centimeters (49.4 × 42.5 inches)
  • Location: Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom

The Elephant Celebes is a painting by German artist Max Ernst (1891-1976), a Dada artist who became one of the pioneers of the Surrealism art movement. It’s considered to be one of the first true Surrealist paintings ever created, 3 years before the Surrealist Manifesto was written.

The early Surrealists were heavily influenced by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), an Italian artist who had founded the “Scuola Metafisica” art movement shortly before World War I broke out. The central figure in this work is a huge mechanical elephant and it incorporates the collage-like style of the Dada movement.

The Elephant Celebes by Max Ernst
The Elephant Celebes by Max Ernst / Wiki Commons