Lot 46
  • 46

Salvador Dalí

1,500,000 - 2,000,000 GBP
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  • Salvador Dalí
  • signed Gala Salvador Dalí and dated 1943 (lower left)
  • oil on canvas
  • 91.8 by 61.4cm.
  • 36 1/8 by 24 1/8 in.


Countess Mona Bismarck, Paris & New York (acquired from the artist in 1943)
A bequest from the above to the present owner in 1983


New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Dalí: April 14 to May 5, 1943, 1943, no. 3a, illustrated in the catalogue
Boston, The Institute of Modern Art, Four Spaniards: Dalí, Gris, Miró, Picasso, 1946, no. 16
New York, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set, 2002-03


B. H., ‘Done the Dalí Way’, in The Art Digest, New York, 1943, p. 15
H. D., ‘Portraits by Dalí’, in New York Times, New York, 1943, illustrated p. 17
‘Rapport of Fatality’, in Newsweek, Chicago, 1943
Winthrop Sargeant, ' Dalí', in Life Magazine, 24th September 1945, illustrated p. 66
'Mona Williams - a Rich Little Poor Girl’, in Sun Telegraph, Pittsburg, 1949, illustrated in a photograph
‘Mona Williams - The Rich Little Poor Girl’, in Detroit Times, Detroit, 1949, illustrated in a photograph
Robert Descharnes & Gilles Néret, Salvador Dalí. The Paintings, Cologne, 1994, vol. I, no. 815, illustrated in colour p. 360; vol. II, no. 815, catalogued p. 761
James D. Birchfield, Kentucky Countess: Mona Bismarck in Art & Fashion, Lexington, 1997, illustrated in colour as the frontispiece; detail illustrated in colour on the cover

Catalogue Note

Dalí's riveting depiction of the legendary Mona Bismarck (née Strader, 1897-1983) is among the artist's most accomplished portraits. When Dalí painted this work in 1943, Mona was married to Harrison Williams, reputed to be the wealthiest man in America. After their marriage in 1926 she swiftly became known as one of the most glamorous and beautiful women in New York, being named ‘the best-dressed woman in the world’ by the luminaries of fashion. Williams’s vast wealth and elevated position afforded Mona a lavish lifestyle, dividing their time between residences in New York, Palm Beach, Paris and Capri. Harrison Williams died in 1953, and in 1955 Mona married her longtime friend, Count Edward von Bismarck, the grandson of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, whose aestheticism and charm found a perfect partner in Mona. Portrait of Mrs Harrison Williams is an astonishingly sumptuous rendering of her remarkable character. The entire composition is filled with classical allusions and surrealist symbolism, making it one of Dalí's most ambitious pictures to date.

Dalí executed Portrait of Mrs Harrison Williams at the height of his successful years in New York City. After having fled Paris with his wife Gala in 1940, Dalí assumed a central role amid the society of European Surrealists that had coalesced in New York at the outbreak of World War II. The artist later described this transition, 'I needed, in fact, immediately to get away from the blind and tumultuous collective jostlings of history, otherwise the antique and half-divine embryo of my originality would risk suffering injury and dying before birth in the degrading circumstances of a philosophic miscarriage occurring on the very sidewalks of anecdote. No, I am not of those who make children by halves. Ritual first and foremost! Already I am concerning myself with its future, with the sheets and the pillow of its cradle. I had to return to America to make fresh money for Gala, him and myself' (quoted in Robert Descharnes & Gilles Néret, op. cit., vol. I, p. 342).

During this period, the artist 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 bust with the bowed head seen towards the right of Mrs Harrison Williams, which had featured in Le bureaucrate moyen (fig. 1) in 1930, and subsequently in a stage set of 1941. Alongside iconographic elements of his own devising Dalí has included myriad references to monuments from the past such as mythological beasts and baroque horsemen (figs. 4 & 5), an Egyptian sphinx and the martyred St. Sebastian. 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 manipulated consciously to fulfil 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 underpainting. For him, this is infinitely more subtle in its tonalities than the pictures painted before’ (Robert Descharnes, Dalí, l'œuvre et l'homme, Lausanne, 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.

Within this context Dalí produced some highly insightful portraits. These works from the late 1930s and 1940s revolve around a sophisticated play of image and meaning, brilliantly displayed in the present work and others from this period, such as Princess Arthchild Gourielli (Helena Rubinstein) (fig. 2). Dalí's imaginative form of portraiture led him to paint many celebrated individuals including the Marquis George de Cuevas, Lady Louis Mountbatten and Dorothy Spreckles. Dawn Ades writes: 'Dalí increasingly persuaded himself of the imperative to make his paintings as convincing, deceptive and illusionistic as possible. His aim, put crudely, was to give form to the formless and invisible, to dreams, reveries, delusions, desires and fears. His ambition, both in what he was aware of depicting and what remained fortuitous and concealed was to make the world of the imagination "as objectively evident, consistent, durable, as persuasively, cognoscitively, and communicably thick as the exterior world of phenomenal reality." His desire to give substance to the phantoms destined always to remain virtual led to one of the most sustained investigations into the relationship between vision, perception and representation of the century' (D. Ades, 'Dalí's Optical Illusions', in Dalí's Optical Illusions (exhibition catalogue), Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 2000, p. 10).