Salvador Dali's Lincoln in Dalivision: Analysis & Meaning

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many portraits of Lincoln, but none are quite like that of Salvador Dali. In this lesson, we'll explore this unique lithograph and see what Dali intended by it.

Dalí's Lincoln

There has been no shortage of artists who have been inspired to create some sort of memorial or homage to Abraham Lincoln, one of America's most popular presidents. Most of these show Lincoln in a grand and resolute pose, rooted to the American republic he fought to defend. And then there's Dalí's interpretation.

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was a Spanish painter most remembered for his bizarre scenes of melting clocks and his characteristic mustache. In 1976, however, he created a lithograph (a print) known as Lincoln in Dalivision, which depicted a barely recognizable portrait of Abraham Lincoln, overset by a nude female observing the sea. Care to explain, Salvador?


Lincoln in Dalivision was a lithograph based on a painting that Dalí completed earlier in the same year entitled, Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at a Distance of 20 meters is transformed into the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko). How's that for a mouthful? Dalí's dry sense of humor often emerged in his use of overbearing titles.

Gala Contemplating...

The painting depicts a nude female standing at window in a wall, looking outwards towards the sea as the sun sets. However, as the viewer steps back from the painting, the colored blocks of the wall become recognizable as the face of Abraham Lincoln. Go ahead - try it. Search for a larger scale image of this painting, center it on your screen, and physically walk backwards from it. As you get further away, the woman disappears, and only the impression of Lincoln remains.


Okay, so what is going on here? Why would Dalí paint this, and was this a tribute to Lincoln or a mockery of him? Let's start by analyzing the visual phenomenon occurring here. Dalí belonged to an artistic movement known as Surrealism. The surrealists were obsessed with the human subconscious, particularly in terms of memory and perception. Both are at work here.

In 1973, American researcher Leon Harmon published an article in Scientific American entitled, ''The Recognition of Faces.'' Harmon was the first person to scientifically describe the ability of the human mind to perceive faces where they did not necessarily exist. To demonstrate this, he created a 16 x 16 composition of grey squares which the viewer is able to recognize as Abraham Lincoln. Dalí was fascinated with this concept, and conducted a series of his own experiments on the phenomenon of human perception.

The Harmon article used a low-resolution image similar to this one to show how human perception works

So, Lincoln in Dalivision was an exploration of the subconscious and the ability of the mind to perceive things that aren't there. There's also a strong scientific element to this - Dalí calculated that a distance of twenty meters was the optimal space in which to see Lincoln in the painting.

Dalí and Memory

But why Abraham Lincoln? For that, we need to look at Dalí's ideas about memory, as well as his experiences in the United States. Dalí was a Spanish artist, driven from his home country by the fascist rebellion of General Francisco Franco, known as the Spanish Civil War. He fled to the United States and felt that he had been welcomed warmly.

Although Spain would always be his homeland, Dalí found a second home in New York and fell in love with the American people. Fleeing an authoritarian regime, Dalí especially appreciated the American devotion to democracy and liberty, and he felt that no one better personified these ideals than Abraham Lincoln. Dalí deeply admired the 16th American president, whose fight in the American Civil War echoed Dalí's own fears for his native Spain in its civil war.

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