The Surrealist, Feminist Paintings of Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington was a British-born Mexican artist who is known for her Surrealist artworks and prose inspired by folklore and alchemy.

Mar 24, 2023By Susanna Andrews, BA Interdisciplinary Arts

leonora carrington surrealist feminist paintings


Leonora Carrington was a Surrealist painter and writer who integrated magic and mysticism into her work. She had a rebellious spirit from the beginning, denouncing the Roman Catholicism that was imposed on her as a child and pursuing art against her parents’ desires. From her love affair with well-renowned Surrealist Max Ernst to her escape to Mexico in order to avoid admission to a sanatorium, her unique path in life shaped her as a person and an artist. Her strong belief in the power of femininity translated through her work, and her persistent nature helped her in a male-dominated industry.


Leonora Carrington’s Background

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Leonora Carrington, via The Times


Leonora Carrington was born in 1917 in Lancashire, England to a wealthy Roman Catholic family. Growing up on the family estate called Crookhey Hall inspired her work throughout her career. Carrington’s Irish mother and nanny exposed her to Celtic mythology, which was a major influence along with her surroundings in nature filled with horses. Leonora rebelled against her family’s culture and their religious beliefs from a young age. After being expelled from two convent schools, she was sent to Florence in order to attend Mrs. Penrose’s Academy of Art in 1927. Her parents opposed her pursuit of art but allowed her to study art at the Chelsea School of Art in London in 1935.


With her father’s connections, the artist was admitted to the Ozenfant Academy of Fine Arts created by French Cubist Amédée Ozenfant. Leonora became deeply interested in Surrealism during her time there. She was also fascinated by Sir Herbert Read’s book called Surrealism.


Carrington attended the International Exhibition of Surrealism in 1936, where she felt comradery with many other privileged artists rebelling against the English aristocracy. This is where she saw the artwork of German Surrealist Max Ernst, who she would later meet at a party and fall in love with. The two artists moved to Saint Martin d’Ardèche in Southern France together. This led to her father’s disownment of her.

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leonora carrington ernst
Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst by Lee Miller


At their home, Carrington and Ernst collaborated on sculptures and paintings, encouraging each other as they developed their Surrealist artistic practice. However, when World War II began, Ernst was arrested for being a hostile alien in France and for creating degenerate art in the eyes of the Nazis. He was able to escape to the United States, but he left with his art sponsor Peggy Guggenheim. Therefore, he left Carrington behind. In the wake of this heartbreaking event, Leonora’s mental health suffered and she was admitted to an asylum after a psychotic break. Her parents wanted to send her to a sanatorium in South Africa, but she escaped to Portugal and headed to the Mexican Embassy.


Living in Mexico

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Leonora Carrington, 1975, via Sotheby’s


Leonora Carrington was able to make an agreement with poet and Mexican ambassador Renato Leduc, who temporarily married her to provide her immunity as a diplomat’s wife. Starting from 1942, she would live in Mexico for most of her life. Because of her existing involvement in the Surrealist movement, Carrington was able to establish herself in a circle of European artists who also sought asylum in Mexico City.


In 1947, Carrington participated in an international exhibition of Surrealism at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York and had her first solo exhibition at the Galeria Clardecor in Mexico two years later. She lived in New York during the 1960s but returned to Mexico, where she was commissioned to paint a mural and create a poster for the Women’s Liberation movement in 1973.


Her passion for mysticism connected her to the Surrealist theater group Poesia en Voz Alta and the Surrealist painter Remedios Varo. The relationships she formed in addition to Buddhist teachings, Mexican folklore, and the philosophy of Carl Jung all contributed to her artistic practice.


In addition to her visual artwork, she wrote many articles and short stories in Mexico, including her novel The Hearing Trumpet (1976). A significant retrospective of her work was held at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in 1960. In her later years, as she split her time between Mexico City and the United States, Carrington created bronze sculptures of humans and animals, along with paintings and drawings.


Female Sexuality: Self-Portrait (1937-8)

leonora carrington self portrait
Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse) by Leonora Carrington, 1937-8


Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse) was created after the estrangement from her family following her love affair with Max Ernst. In this self-portrait, Carrington paints herself in androgynous clothing, sitting in a blue armchair next to a hyena. Behind her on the wall is a white rocking horse, paralleled by a white horse galloping outside the window on the adjacent wall. Her hand is reaching out to the hyena, which is mirrored by the creature’s position. Carrington often included the hyena in order to represent herself, due to its rebellious nature.


This piece depicts the contrast between captivity and liberation. She felt restricted as a youth and desired freedom, which is illustrated in the rocking horse’s gaze out the window, dreaming of a future where it could run free. In addition to liberation from the control of her parents, she strived for sexual liberation as a strong independent woman. Traditionally in Surrealist artworks, women are stereotyped to exist for the sole purpose of serving as the object of men’s desire. Instead of expressing female sexuality from the perspective of a man, Carrington took power back and painted it as she experienced it. She didn’t integrate this theme to please male viewers, but to portray a personal account of her femininity.


The dreamlike quality that questioned reality in her paintings matched her questioning of the norms in the context of her wealthy upbringing. In this case, the absurdity of the situation she’s painted illuminates her counter-cultural beliefs on female sexuality and the power of embracing independence.


Self-identity and Transformation: The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg)

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The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg) by Leonora Carrington, 1947 via Daily Art Magazine


Carrington painted The Giantess five years after becoming a Mexican resident. The main figure is a giant woman who stands in a field of wheat with the sea behind her. Her golden hair is also made of wheat and her face resembles the moon. She wears a white cloak and a red dress with outlines of bird-headed people drawn on the front. The human figures below reflect early colonial renditions of the Irish people. The piece as a whole aligns with an Irish folk aesthetic.


In her hands, she holds an egg as geese fly around her and emerge from her cape. The egg is a recurring motif in Carrington’s work, which is the physical representation of her own experiences as well as the past and future history of the Universe. In addition to her own symbolic definition, the egg universally embodies new life. The way the figure cradles the egg with care shows her protective nature over her identity and the love she has for her evolving self in relation to the universe’s guidance. The egg is reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s work which served as an inspiration for the Surrealist movement.


The three women faintly drawn between the Giantess’ feet represent a small detail that is believed to be highly significant. The appearance of three women together appears often in Carrington’s work. One interpretation of this repetition is the depiction of her and her Surrealist artist friends, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. Triple deity goddesses are also characteristic of Celtic Mythology, which she was heavily influenced by. The combination of the cluster of women plus the Giantess illustrates the strength and power of the divine feminine.


Mysticism and Alchemy: The House Opposite (1945)

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The House Opposite by Leonora Carrington, 1945


Carrington translated her study of alchemy into her artworks. The House Opposite shows a scene filled with fantastical beings practicing mysticism. In the bottom right corner, three figures stir a cauldron, referring to the alchemical process of melting metals down to gold. Traditional alchemists believed that this procedure could create the Philosopher’s Stone, which gifted eternal life to those who drank it. To prevent others from partaking if they achieved this goal, alchemists used allegorical language to express their theories. Similarly, Carrington created a depiction of alchemy with surreal imagery that is open to interpretation.


In the center, the female figure sits at what appears to be a kitchen table and uses it as her laboratory to concoct an enigmatic creation. Several feminine beings surrounding her are in motion toward the table, bringing ingredients for her ritual. Beyond depicting the practice of alchemy, this scene reflects the concept of a woman’s domestic duties and the ceremonial action of filling that role. Carrington found spiritual meaning throughout every arena of her life, most of all in the feminine energy within her and the women around her.


Her belief in occultism and esotericism is manifested in this piece as well. The ritualistic nature of Catholicism always intrigued her, yet she found the misogyny that defined the religion upsetting. Through occultism and learning about ancient cultures that praised goddesses, she honored the spirituality of women and infused her work with the power of liberation. By replacing male characters in Surrealist art with the presence of strong women, she reclaimed true femininity that had been thwarted by a male-dominated society.


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Down Below by Leonora Carrington, 1941


Carrington helped establish Surrealism in the years after World War II, while her personal letters and writings helped define Surrealist theory. In 2013, her works were showcased in the retrospective exhibition called The Celtic Surrealist at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Her visual and written expressions of feminism have inspired many women artists, such as Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith. Her lifelong rebellious spirit and courage are characteristics that designate her as one of the most influential women Surrealist artists in history.

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By Susanna AndrewsBA Interdisciplinary ArtsSusanna is an artist passionate about generating concepts for creative writing pieces and short films. During this process, she loves to research topics related to art history and philosophy to inform her ideas. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts and lives in Southern California.