Dalí’s highly imaginative form of portraiture led him to paint many celebrated individuals including the Marquis George de Cuevas, Lady Louis Mountbatten, Helena Rubinstein and Mona von Bismarck. The subject of the present work has been recorded as a certain Isadora Ducas, however, another possible attribution is thought to be Dorothy Ducas (1905-1987) whose likeness can be seen in a 1934 photograph in which she appears with her friend Eleanor Roosevelt. Dorothy Ducas was a reporter for The New York Evening Post and The New York Herald Tribune and the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship. She was with the International News Service when she published a celebrated profile on Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to expand what first ladies—and women in general—could achieve on the public stage. The mutual admiration between the two pioneering women blossomed into a friendship that lasted decades.
The present painting is endowed with the idiosyncratic iconography and pristine draughtsmanship that defined the artist’s finest works of the 1930s. The hour is dusk and a crisp half-light permeates the air. The contours of the landscape are in sharp focus, while deep shadows spread across the open plain adding to an overall atmosphere of mystery. Seated in the foreground behind a stone step with her back to a steeply receding and crumbling wall over which we can just make out the tips of two Cyprus trees, Madame Ducas is a paragon of concentration and composure; she dwarfs a lone figure, barely visible in the distance. In the tradition of Vermeer and van Eyck, Dalí likely used a magnifying glass in order to render the minute details of the distant landscape. In the present work, we can recognize the distinctive tower and rock formation of Empordà, the landscape of Dalí’s youth.
The years 1934-35 proved critical for Dalí in terms of his practice and his ascent to mass critical and popular recognition. Over the course of these two years, he had six one-man shows in London, New York, Barcelona and Paris and in November 1934 he made his first trip to the United States. Funding the trip with a most unusual loan from Pablo Picasso, Dalí was warmly received in New York and accepted speaking engagements at the Museum of Modern Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum. Reporters from TIME magazine in New York described their meeting with the charismatic artist, after having been "ushered into his hotel suite which had been prepared as a visual object lesson. In the center of the room was a small table. On the table was a red plush Catalan liberty cap and a rocking chair. Balanced on the seat of the chair was a yellow shaded table lamp. There were also two six-foot loaves of French bread on the mantelpiece and a banner with a strange device: a white skull, a key, a leaf, a woman’s slipper and the letters DALI" (in TIME Magazine, no. 22, November 26, 1934). It was likely that the artist met Madame Ducas in early 1935, during this trip to New York, and it is even possible that she attended the costume ball that Caresse Crosby and Joella Levy threw on January 18, 1935 in honor of Dalí and Gala as a send-off before their return to France.
During this period, Dalí was championing his "paranoiac-critical method," his term for the controlled use of freely associated imagery and subjects derived from self-induced hallucinations. These fantastical apparitions often took the form of reoccurring motifs in his work, such as the Cyprus trees and the amorphous rock formations of Empordà seen here. There is a distinction to be drawn between this method and the Automatism of many of his fellow Surrealists. Whereas Automatism relies on unreflecting response to stimuli and chance occurrence, Dalí's approach to the irrational was consciously manipulated to fulfill a pre-established conception of a subject. In addition to his renewed intellectual aspirations Dalí was "claiming to have discovered for the first time in his life the real way to paint; in other words, with over- and under-painting. For him, this is infinitely more subtle in its tonalities than the pictures painted before" (Robert Descharnes, Salvador Dalí: The Work, The Man, New York, 1984, p. 142). This discovery of the finer techniques of painting gives the present work its striking luminosity and the precision of a Renaissance masterpiece. This period was the zenith of Dalí's technical virtuosity, when the fruits of his prodigious subconscious could be represented with pristine detail.
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