Gala Dalí: Salvador Dali’s Mysterious Muse

Gala Dalí was an enigmatic, sensitive woman who was able to spot creative talent. Gala is often portrayed as greedy, dominant, and unscrupulous.

Sep 27, 2023By Diana Oliveira, MA English, BA English Literature
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Elena Diakonova, better known as Gala Dalí (1894-1982), was a figure of great charisma. Gala was a muse of some of the movement’s most important figures including Max Ernst, Paul Éluard, and Salvador Dalí. She developed into a sharp and stern critic and a resolute entrepreneur. Gala has, however, been vilified by many as a dominant and greedy tyrant. Read on to learn how her reputation as an art goddess turned into an idea of a she-wolf.


Gala Dalí: The Rise of a Muse

salvador dali dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before awakening
Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening by Salvador Dalí, 1944, via Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid


A sleeping nude woman is pictured floating in an aquatic scene. A pomegranate, drops of water, two tigers, a bee, and other dream-related entities are all hanging above her as she hovers above a greyish slab. The emphasis on the subconscious, desire, and dreams that characterize the images found in surrealism is present in Dalí’s Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening. It also exemplifies the surrealist’s fixation with the feminine muse.


In addition to being heavily criticized for fracturing and objectifying the female body, which they handled as objects of sexual craving, male surrealist artists also took their inspiration from their actual spouses. They wanted to commemorate the illogicality of intense love, passion, and romance.


Gala Dalí is one of surrealism’s finest muses. She can be seen sleeping in the previously mentioned painting. Gala however has a troubling reputation. She is often undervalued and inaccurately shown. She has been portrayed as a greedy golddigger and a tyrannical dictator. The reality behind Gala’s infamy, however, lies in the genuine contribution that Gala made to the lives of the artists she inspired.


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Gala Dalí (Elena Diakonova), via IMDb

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In September 1984, Elena Ivanovna Diakonova was born in Kazan, Imperial Russia, into a family of Russian academics. Elena attended an academy for young girls in St. Petersburg as part of her early schooling. Her fragile condition, however, made advanced studies impossible.


The French poet Paul Éluard, whom Gala met when both were suffering from tuberculosis in a Swiss private clinic, gave Gala her moniker. The two fell head over heels in love, and she introduced the Frenchman to famous Russian writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Gala, a determined and self-sufficient young lady from the get-go, relocated to Paris in 1916 after becoming engaged to Éluard at the age of 17. There, they began a new life together with their daughter Cécile, who was born in 1918.


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Portrait de Paul Éluard by Man Ray, c. 1933, via MutualArt


His desire to become a well-known poet was only piqued by Éluard’s love for Gala, who supported and pushed this impressionable young man to work towards his goal. From the very start of their marriage, Gala encouraged Éluard to produce several romantic poems that helped him establish a writing career. She was more than just her husband’s muse, she was also his defender and critic. She even penned the introduction to one of his first books in 1914. As one of the founding members of surrealism, Éluard presented his alluring partner to some of the other artists in the movement. Gala quickly established herself as a key subject in the works of Man Ray and Max Ernst, the latter with whom the pair maintained a menage a trois relationship for three years.


Gala: The Face of a Movement

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Gala Éluard by Max Ernst, 1924, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Gala emerged as the surrealist icon in paintings and photography, her deep, black eyes serving as a metaphorical portal into the subconscious. The writings of Freud served as an inspiration for the surrealists, who, as its leader Andre Breton wrote in his Manifesto in 1924, were dedicated to resolving these two apparently incompatible realms of reality and dreams into an ultimate reality.


Gala is shown not as a detached observer but as an acknowledged collaborator in the surrealists’ investigations into internal truths since they relied on actual female models as inspiration. Gala is shown as an active part of the group in Ernst’s intriguing painting Au Rendez-Vous des Amis from 1922. Here, we see fifteen surrealists, together with historical personalities that served as their inspiration.


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Au Rendez-Vous des Amis by Max Ernst, 1922, via Barnum Review


Gala already established herself as a powerful force and crucial influence in the surrealist circle by the 1920s, but she had yet to become acquainted with the individual with whom she would eventually forge her most important artistic partnership. Once again, it was her spouse who introduced her to someone new.  Gala accompanied her husband on a journey to Cadaqués in Catalonia in the summer of 1929 to see a young Spanish painter. That artist was none other than Salvador Dalí.


Gala and Salvador Dalí

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Gala and Salvador Dalí in Cadaqués, 1929, via Pinterest


Gala began an extra conjugal dalliance with Dali after her trip to Spain, something Éluard might have assumed would be a brief fling, given her prior relationship with Max Ernst. But the bond that developed between them wasn’t a breakable one. In his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), Dali stated that Gala was destined to be his Gradiva, victory, and wife. Gala quickly deserted her suddenly affluent and successful husband in favor of the poor artist, trading her posh Parisian apartment for one in a Spanish fishing town. Many people, including Éluard, were undoubtedly shocked by her decision. Gala, however, had a different goal in mind.


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Portrait of Gala with Two Lamb Chops Balanced on Her Shoulder by Salvador Dalí, 1933, via Dalí Theatre and Museum, Figueras


Gala saw a love interest in Dalí, but she also saw potential in him that needed to be developed. She would act as Salvador Dalí’s primary inspiration. Gala was painted several hundred times by Dalí during the following sixty years. These works seem to be governed by ideas of desire, passion, love, and adoration. In 1932, Gala became Dalí’s wife.


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My Wife, Naked, Looking at her own Body by Salvador Dalí, 1945, via Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation


Dalí once said: I polished Gala to make her shine, to make her as happy as possible, I took care of her better than myself, because without her it was all over. Never shying away from the significance of his wife in his life and art, Dalí began signing several of his works with the name Gala Salvador Dalí. Dalí emphasized Gala’s involvement in his creative production through their shared signature. By including her in his signature, Dalí publicly acknowledged their collaborative effort, contrary to many other painters across history who neglected to acknowledge the involvement of their own spouses in the creation process of their art.


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Salvador and Gala Dalí Working in ‘Dream of Venus’, 1939, via MinnieMuse


There is no better example of the Gala-Dalí partnership than a collection of monochrome images showing the pair constructing a pavilion, which they called the Dream of Venus. The structure was made for the sole purpose of exhibiting it at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. These images show Gala’s creative contribution to the creation of this fantastic surrealist spectacle, which she made in collaboration with a group of builders. Models dressed as lobsters, mermaids, and pianos populated the venue, transforming it into a breathtaking fantasy.


Gala also served as Dalí’s agent, promoting his work internationally and making deals with corporate galleries. She became such a self-assured entrepreneur that even Giorgio de Chirico asked her to be his agent. Gala’s drive and commitment to the Gala-Dalí brand can be seen in how she handled everything, even in a patriarchal setting.


Was Gala Too Influential for Acceptance?

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Gala Dalí for Vogue by Horst P. Horst, 1941, via Pixfan


Gala’s increasing influence wasn’t overlooked. Andre Breton, the founder of surrealism, started to see her as a competition because of her connections and influence. Gala was rumored to occasionally be challenging to work with. Rumors also started to spread that she made Dalí sign hundreds of blank pages on which forgers could make false Dalí paintings, which she could then sell for enormous sums of money. Her behavior began to be regarded as despicable.


There were other rumors as well. Many people thought Dalí didn’t have sex with his wife but rather enjoyed watching her have sex with other artists while he was present. These stories, of course, were supposed to make Gala seem bad. It is a bit difficult to tell where the truth begins and the gossip starts, given the fact that Gala’s presence and proactiveness were causing quite a stir amongst the patriarchs of surrealism.


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Galarina by Salvador Dalí, 1945, via Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation


After her marriage to Dalí, Gala became quite influential which caused even more controversy. Art historians like John Richardson were quick to describe her as a horrible wife and a devilish autocrat. Others have criticized her for having attributes that were admired in men, perpetuating a narrative that only shows that these insults were an undeniable testament to misogyny.


Gala Dalí: Immortalized by Love

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Gala and Salvador Dalí, circa 1933, via Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation


Dalí’s devotion to Gala was equal to Gala’s dedication to Dalí and their combined enterprise. Dalí’s loving depictions of his protagonist make this clear. In addition to paying her back by memorializing her in his works of art, Dalí also bought her a gothic castle in 1969. As a final monument to his muse, Dalí actively took part in the reconstruction and renovation of the abandoned castle.


Gala moved into the castle in the 1970s. Dalí met her there only after receiving handwritten invitations. He was devastated when she passed away in 1982. In order to celebrate her again in an original work of art, he chose to bury her inside the castle in a mausoleum shaped like a chessboard.


Gala should be viewed in the same light as Dalí when it comes to the great voices of surrealism. She shared and shaped the lives of many artists of the movement by serving as a powerful romantic heroine. Most importantly, she made a life-long commitment to Dalí, serving as his advocate, agent, creative collaborator, and muse. In exchange, unlike so many artists and male narratives throughout history, he publicly recognized her influence. The castle that he bought for her, which was truly fit for a queen, is the best example of how grateful Dalí was to Gala and how deeply he loved her.

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By Diana OliveiraMA English, BA English LiteratureDiana Alexandra Oliveira speaks Portuguese and English fluently and has extensive knowledge of Spanish and French history. She has won several short-story competitions and has essays published internationally. History, literature, and music are her greatest passions in life.