Who Are the 6 Most Famous Surrealist Artists?

These 6 artists are among the most famous Surrealists, each contributing to the radical movement in individually progressive ways.

Jun 1, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
the most famous surrealist artists


Surrealism was a revolutionary European art movement of the early 20th century, which forever altered the way we think about art. Leading artists associated with the Surrealist movement focused on imagery drawn from the inner worlds of dreams and the subconscious mind, revealing a strange and uncanny new visual language that was spontaneous, free, and full of surprises. From autonomous line drawings to freewheeling collages, and haunting places featuring melting clocks and floating fruit, Surrealist artworks are among the most memorable of all time. Below, we celebrate 8 of the most famous Surrealist artists, whose artworks continue to fascinate audiences today.


1. Salvador Dali

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Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dalí, 1937, via Tate, London


The inimitable, flamboyant Spanish artist Salvador Dali is one of the most notable and notorious Surrealist artists. He lived and breathed Surrealism, letting it inform everything from his art to his dress sense (think of that iconic mustache, or the time he wore full diving gear to an exhibition opening), and even his choice of pet (he had a pet ocelot who he would take for walks on the street). Dali’s timeless paintings The Persistence of Memory, 1931, and Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937, invoke the strange, uncanny world of dreams, set in amongst barren deserts and filled with contorted, biomorphic forms.


2. Rene Magritte

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The Lovers by René Magritte, 1928, via MoMA, New York


French painter Rene Magritte was a leading figure of the Surrealist movement, and his paintings are now synonymous with the style. Like Dali, Magritte painted in a meticulous, near-photographic style, conjuring up bizarre worlds where familiar objects and places are concealed, subverted or distorted to create a jarring and unsettling effect. For example, in The Lovers, 1928, he conceals the faces of the two protagonists with fluttering drapes of cloth, barring us from recognizing or identifying with them, and lending them a ghostly, ethereal quality. 


3. Max Ernst

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The Entire City by Max Ernst, 1934, via Tate, London


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German-born, French based artist Max Ernst was another prominent player in the Surrealist movement. Ernst was a serial experimenter, playing with a whole range of freestyle, spontaneous approaches and styles throughout his long and varied career. Ernst became particularly well known for creating chance effects that could become starting points for works of art. These include frottage, taking rubbings from surfaces such as floorboards, straw, textiles, netting and dried paint, and grattage, scratching paint with a sharp blade.


4. Dorothea Tanning

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


American Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning produced eerie, haunting paintings featuring bizarre and unsettling imagery, ranging from grotesquely oversized flowers to peeling wallpaper and endless doors. She called the nightmarish places in her paintings ‘unknown but knowable states’, drawn from her inner, subconscious thoughts. Her ability to subvert ordinary, domestic interiors into dream-like or claustrophobic states of mind encapsulated the feelings of oppression felt by many women during the early to mid-20th century, as they struggled to break free from centuries of misogyny. 


5. Leonora Carrington

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Green Tea by Leonora Carrington, 1942, via Museum of Modern Art, New York


British Surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington painted a fantastical world of magical creatures drawn from folklore and mythology, set in amongst dreamy, atmospheric light. Like many Surrealists, she was fascinated by themes of transformation and how they could convey the rich complexity of human identity in an increasingly mixed-up world. Her paintings reflect these themes with hybrid human-animal creatures with wild hair, long necks and wings. Hyenas were a recurring feature of her art, a symbol of her wild spirit, as were women who seem to have divine, spiritual powers.


6. Joan Miro

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Carnival of Harlequin by Joan Miró, 1924-25, Albright-Knox Art Gallery


Like Ernst, Spanish artist Joan Miro was a Surrealist who toyed with spontaneous mark making and imagery, to produce abstract, child-like drawings and paintings. Throughout his career Miro worked with a distinctive and highly imaginative style featuring black, free-floating shapes and forms set against painterly backdrops, often in dazzlingly vibrant colors.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.