Dali’s Lincoln


Salvador Dali’s Painting “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20 meters is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko)” is an atypical painting of Lincoln made by Dali in 1976 with oil and collage on canvas [3]. Instead of portraying Lincoln in a realistic portrait setting as Nathan Greene and George Peter Alexander Healy do, Dali’s painting is abstract and not solely focused on the former president. The painting represents how Lincoln, an already significant figure in American memory, also plays a role in other global memories, such as that of Spanish painter Salvador Dali. Dali’s unique perspective of Lincoln also shows how memory is processual and how Lincoln can be transformed and used in many different ways. Though this painting was made for the American Bicentennial, it is not a painting used for the official memory of Lincoln and displayed in the White House, but rather one used in a more vernacular setting and displayed in museums [3].

Dali was a surrealist painter of the 20th century. A lot of his inspiration for his paintings came from his wife Gala, as it did for “Gala Contemplating.” Though he was Spanish by birth, Dali spent a lot of his time in New York where he experienced various components of American memory. “Gala Contemplating” is one of his most famous and well-known pieces of artwork [1].

Original 16 x 16 block image rendering of Lincoln by Harmon. This was the inspiration behind Dali's painting [4].

Original 16 x 16 block image rendering of Lincoln by Harmon. This was the inspiration behind Dali’s painting [4].

Dali was an avid reader of the journal Scientific American, which is where the inspiration behind this painting came from. The block idea to make the painting was inspired by Leon D. Harmon’s article in the magazine titled “The Recognition of Faces.” Harmon discovered that the human eye can detect what an image is with as little as a 16 x 16 block image rendering of a photo. He discovered this originally through the portrait of Lincoln in the five dollar bill, which Dali also incorporated into a block of his portrait [2]. Dali, however, believed the pixelation could be less and set out to create a 121 pixel painting rather than the 256 pixel painting Harmon said was the minimum possible [3]. The painting by Dali is essentially two pictures in one, with Lincoln’s component being made of “low spatial frequencies” while Gala’s component is made of “high spatial frequencies” [2]. This basically means that its easiest to see Lincoln’s face when looking at the painting when you’re standing far away from it (around 20 meters), and its easiest to see the portion with Gala when up close to the painting. The colors Dali used in the high spatial frequency portion of Gala, the sunset, and the ocean–when far away–match the skin tone of Lincoln and make the viewer’s brain “fill in” the rest of the painting to match the well known portrait of Lincoln, as shown here [2].


Blurred image of Dali’s painting that emphasizes the low frequency areas of Lincoln [5].

Though it may seem random that Dali decided to combine a portrait of Lincoln with a painting of his naked wife, the two actually go together well in Dali’s mind. Dali left Spain during the bloody Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s and escaped to America. This war reminded him a lot of the American Civil War and Lincoln’s role during it. Dali had a lot of respect for the United States for keeping him safe during his country’s war and believed Lincoln “embodied all the qualities [he] admired about America” [1]. Gala was Dali’s wife and muse and, like Lincoln, was someone Dali admired and looked up to. Though the association may seem random to others and some may even say it is disrespectful to include a naked woman by one of the U.S.’s most well-known presidents, Dali painted this image with respect and reverence [1]. Like many citizens of the United States, Dali raised Lincoln to an apotheosis status. He revered this leader of the U.S. so much that he held him on the same level as his muse. Gala was actually considered by others to be “greedy, vain, and overbearing,” which shows how even people held to an apotheosis status, like Gala and Lincoln to Dali, may not be perfect. Dali’s painting is an outlet into his memory and shows how he perceives things.

Dali’s painting also shows how Lincoln’s memory is usable–it can be molded to fit many different purposes. In Dali’s case, Lincoln’s portrait wasn’t being used as a sign of patriotism or for equality, but rather for artistic expression. Dali incorporated Lincoln into his optical illusion because he felt like he was symbolic of America. In fact, Dali was trying to express the concept of mortality through his painting, which is shown through his use of Lincoln who was assassinated, Christ who was crucified, and the dedication to fellow artist Mark Rothko who committed suicide [3]. “Gala Contemplating” shows how Lincoln doesn’t always have to be depicted in a formal setting or pose to still be regarded as an iconic president.

Dali’s “Gala Contemplating” is clearly a nontraditional portrait of Lincoln. Instead of the usual portrait of Lincoln looking contemplative or noble, such as in Greene and Healy’s representations, Dali’s Lincoln becomes a part of the art. Dali shows how memory is processual and how the public’s perception of Lincoln goes through many stages. Just because all former depictions of Lincoln have been formal doesn’t mean that can’t change. Dali clearly blended his surrealist techniques with his respect for the former president in his painting with the long title of “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20 meters is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko).”

Works Cited

  1. Bennett, Lennie. “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln.” Tampa Bay Times. Tampa Bay Times, 14 Aug. 2005. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
  2. Martinez-Conde, Susana. “Dali Masterpieces Were Inspired by Scientific American.”Scientific American Global RSS. Scientific American, 17 June 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
  3. “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea.” The Dali Museum. Salvador Dali Museum, Inc., 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
  4. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/files/2014/06/Lincoln.jpg
  5. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/files/2014/06/Dali_Lincoln.jpg

One thought on “Dali’s Lincoln

  1. Catie Reed

    3) Provide a thoughtful comment on the post. For example, what did you find interesting? What did you learn? What connections (if any) can you draw between your post and the post of your classmate? Do you have any questions for your classmate/poster based on what you have read?

    I like the way that you show how global Lincoln’s memory is, as well as how Dali’s painting is different from other artists’ interpretations of the same topic. Your links are good, though your link for “to match the well-known portrait of Lincoln, as shown here [2].” seems to just show a thumbnail sized picture of ‘Gala Contemplating’. If this is your intention, you might want to be a little clearer.

    The discussion of the respect shown in the painting is well explained, because it is definitely an unorthodox way to shown a president, especially one who is so respected. Your explanation of Gala being his muse, and thus how Dali elevated Lincoln to the level of his muse, gives an interesting global viewpoint.

    The only problem I can find is the mention in your conclusion of this post about how Dali’s painting shows how processual the memory is. While it is different, the concept of processual isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the paper. While it is true, and the concept is referred to, something shouldn’t first be listed explicitly in the conclusion.

    My post involved a statue created by Borglum. Half of the statue was carved using the death mask and paintings to give an accurate image, but the other half was based more on an interpretation of Lincoln’s character. Even though it wasn’t exact, Robert Lincoln said it was the best portrait of his father he had ever seen. This idea of an images power transcending its accuracy is seen here and shows how it’s true regardless of how accurate it is.

    Your citations are good and everything looks nice.

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