Dorothea Tanning

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Dorothea Tanning

Doretha Tanning with Max Ernst Doretha Tanning with Max Ernst

Dorothea Tanning was a leading surrealist painter of the 1930s and also made significant contributions in sculpture, writing and theatrical design. She was born August 25, 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois and passed away in her Manhattan, New York home on January 31, 2012. She lived to be 101 years old.

Dorothea Margaret Tanning was born to middle-class parents in Galesburg, "a place where you sat on the davenport and waited to grow up,'' as she put it in her autobiography, "Between Lives: An Artist and Her World'' (2001). She was known as Dottie Tanning in Galesburg (home also of the poet Carl Sandburg, a friend of her Swedish-born father's) and reclaimed her birth name when she set out for frame and fortune.

In 1936, Ms. Tanning moved to New York and supported herself with illustrating jobs. While in New York she met Max Ernst at a party in 1942. He was also a Surrealist painter. Shortly thereafter he dropped by her studio seeking candidates for an exhibition of art by women of the Surrealist movement that he was organizing for a new gallery. Ernst stayed for a game of chess and eventually they married in a double ceremony in Hollywood.

They moved to France in 1957. During the 1960s and 1970s, Ms. Tanning showed regularly in New York and in cities across Europe. After 30 years of marriage, Max Ernst died in 1976, and Dorothea returned to the United States in the late 1970s.

Much later in life after the age of 80, she gained a different kind of attention when she began to concentrate on writing, producing a novel, an autobiography and poems that appeared in the New Yorker, the Yale Review and the Paris Review. In September 2011, 34 of her poems were published by Graywolf Press in an acclaimed book titled "Coming to That.''

Among her other achievements were ballet designs for the late George Balanchine, choreographer and artistic director for the New York City Ballet; etchings for illustrated books. She also made soft sculpture figures on an old Singer sewing machine.

In 2011, a festival in Galesburg, "Dorothea Tanning: From Galesburg Roots to Worldwide Fame," featured her artwork, a commemorative proclamation by the City of Galesburg and dedication of a plaque outside her childhood home, while a public symposium brought together scholars and family members.

Robin Metz, director of Creative Writing at Knox College, spoke of Tanning as "one of our most innovative and provocative painters, printmakers, sculptors and designers for theatre and ballet," by "Her achievements also transcend visual art -- in her mid-eighties she established an entirely new career in writing, through her poetry, fiction and memoirs." Knox College awarded her an honorary degree in 1988.