7 Famous Surrealist Artists Who Achieved Greatness

Surrealism was one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century. Here are 7 Surrealist artists that you need to know.

Oct 23, 2023By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History

surrealist artists who achieved greatness


The highly influential Surrealist movement emerged in the 1920s in Paris. It developed out of Dada and was influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories about the unconscious mind. From Salvador Dalí’s realistically depicted dreamlike scenes to abstractions seen in Joan Miró’s paintings, the movement encompassed more than just one style. Artists of the movement achieved greatness in different ways. Despite the fact that it was a male-dominated movement, female artists like Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington also gained recognition as notable Surrealist artists.


1. The Best-Known Surrealist Artist: Salvador Dali

surrealist artists salvador dalí persistence memory
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, 1931, via MoMA, New York


Salvador Dalí was born in 1904. He studied art in Madrid and Barcelona. At the end of the 1920s, he came into contact with the writings of Sigmund Freud concerning sexuality and subconscious images. During that time, he also became an official member of the Surrealist group. Dalí used a method called paranoiac critical to conjure up imagery from his subconscious. In his paintings, things often seem distorted in a dreamlike and sometimes eerie atmosphere while being combined with realistic depictions. Dalí himself called them hand-painted dream photographs.


Dalí’s paintings and persona made him the most famous representative of the Surrealist movement. The artist’s work with the melting watches called The Persistence of Memory is probably one of the best-known works of Surrealism. Dalí also made two Surrealist movies in collaboration with the Spanish director Luis Buñuel called An Andalusian Dog and The Golden Age. Dalí marketed himself as an eccentric individual and was involved in self-publicity stunts. For example, he once wore a diving suit when giving a lecture at the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. This was supposed to be a metaphor for diving deep into the human mind.


2. Max Ernst

max ernst men shall know nothing
Men Shall Know Nothing of This by Max Ernst, 1923, via Tate, London


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Max Ernst, born in 1891 in Brühl, near Cologne, studied philosophy and psychology at the University of Bonn before leaving in 1911 in order to pursue a career as an artist. After serving in the First World War, he led the Dada movement in Cologne together with Jean Arp. In a 1920 exhibition that he organized and that took place in the conservatory of a restaurant, people had to come in through a public lavatory. Once they were inside, the visitors received axes so that they could destroy the exhibited works. A young girl with white clothes stood at the end of the gallery reciting provocative poems.


Two years after Max Ernst moved to Paris in 1922, he became a member of the Surrealist movement. He also made Surrealist works like Celebes before becoming a member. It’s possible that his painting Men Shall Know Nothing of This was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s study of Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. Ernst gave the work to André Breton, a French writer and co-founder of the Surrealist movement. Even though Ernst left the Surrealist group in 1938, his work continued to be influenced by the ideas of the movement.


3. René Magritte

surrealist artists rené magritte false mirror
The False Mirror by René Magritte, 1929, via MoMA, New York


The Belgian artist René Magritte was born in 1898. When Magritte was around 14 years old, his mother drowned herself in the river Sambre. He was, therefore, raised by his grandmother. After attending the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts, Magritte worked as a designer for a factory that made wallpapers. He was influenced by Giorgio de Chirico’s art, namely the painting The Song of Love. At first, he made works in a Cubist-Futurist style, but in 1925 he transitioned to Surrealism.


He moved to a suburb of Paris in 1927 with his wife and became friends with the members of the Surrealist movement like André Breton and Paul Éluard. The artist and his wife eventually moved back to Brussels, where Magritte participated in the Surrealist movement of Belgium.


Often associated with his use of the bowler hat, clouds, and green apples, Magritte is known for depictions that turn the ordinary and familiar into something strange and uncanny. The False Mirror from 1929 depicts an eye with clouds instead of an iris. Magritte wasn’t the only Surrealist who was captivated by eyes. Their interest stemmed from the eye’s role as a bridge between the internal subjective self and the outer reality.


4. Joan Miró

surrealist artists joan miró hunter
The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) by Joan Miró, 1923-1924, MoMA, New York


Joan Miró was born in 1893 in Barcelona. His parents wanted him to study at a commercial college, which he did. After that, he worked in an office as a clerk, but he had a mental breakdown, so his parents subsequently allowed him to go to an art school in Barcelona.


Miró’s art depicts both elements of abstract art and Surrealism. He signed the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and was admired for his depiction of the unconscious by the other Surrealists. Miró was, however, never an official member of the movement.


His painting The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) is one example of Miró’s combination of figurative and abstract elements. It includes references to his family’s farm in Spain and shows a hunter with a rabbit he killed. According to Miró, his work process was characterized by a first stage which he called free and unconscious, and a second stage, which he described as carefully calculated.


5. Frida Kahlo

frida kahlo family tree
My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) by Frida Kahlo, 1936, via MoMA, New York


Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Coyoacán, Mexico City. Her father was a photographer and Kahlo would often help him with his work. Initially, Kahlo wanted to study medicine and in 1922 she started going to the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. She was injured in a bus accident in 1925 which caused her to experience a lot of pain and medical problems during her whole life. While she was recovering, Frida started to make paintings. She also studied the works of the Old Masters and was influenced by Mexican folk art.


André Breton described Kahlo as a Surrealist and organized her first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938. Her work was also part of the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City in 1940. Even though Kahlo’s work is often associated with Surrealism, she herself said that she never painted dreams, but her own reality. Her often autobiographical works discuss themes like identity and pain.


6. Leonora Carrington

leonora carrington daughter minotaur
And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur by Leonora Carrington, 1953, via MoMA, New York


Leonora Carrington was born in 1917 in Clayton Green, England, into a wealthy Roman Catholic family. She had a rebellious nature and was expelled from two convent schools. After being expelled, she was sent to boarding school in Florence when she was 14 years old. She later studied art at Amédée Ozenfant’s academy in London. When she was 19, Carrington visited the first International Surrealist Exhibition in London and was especially interested in the work Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale by Max Ernst, whom she met in 1937. They began a relationship and Carrington moved to Paris in order to live with him. She met André Breton and Salvador Dalí when there and participated in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in 1938. During that time, she made some of her first Surrealist pieces, like her famous work Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse).


Leonora Carrington was interested in themes such as the occult, mythology, and witchcraft and used imagery associated with alchemy and sorcery in her work. The artist was introduced to Celtic mythology and Irish folklore through her mother and her nanny who were both Irish. Her work And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur was inspired by a book titled The White Goddess by Robert Graves. She died in Mexico City in 2011.


7. American Surrealist Artist Dorothea Tanning

dorothea tanning kleine nachtmusik
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Dorothea Tanning, 1943, via Tate, London


Dorothea Tanning was born in 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois. She started working as a library assistant at the Galesburg Public Library when she was 16 years old. She then studied at Knox College and later moved to Chicago. There, she also studied art but dropped out after only three weeks.


Tanning worked as a freelance illustrator after moving to New York in 1935. She went to the 1936/1937 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, which made a strong impression on her. The artist married Max Ernst in 1946. Together, Ernst and Tanning built a house close to Sedona, Arizona, but they moved to France after a few years there.


Tanning had been to Sedona for the first time in 1943 which was the same year she created one of her most famous paintings called Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. According to Tanning, the couple often talked about Mozart during this trip and the title references Mozart’s piece that goes by the same name. The artist described the sunflower in the painting as a symbol of all the things that youth has to face and to deal with.

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By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.