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Yves Tanguy French surrealist painter

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Yves Tanguy French surrealist painter

Yves Tanguy: Surrealism’s Visionary Dreamer


Yves Tanguy, a French surrealist painter born on January 5, 1900, in Paris, emerged as one of the key figures in the Surrealist movement. Known for his enigmatic and dreamlike paintings, Tanguy’s work transcends traditional artistic boundaries, inviting viewers into a realm of fantastical landscapes and mysterious forms. This article explores the life, artistic evolution, and enduring impact of Yves Tanguy.

Yves Tanguy French surrealist painter
Yves Tanguy French surrealist painter

Early Life and Influences

Yves Tanguy’s early life was marked by an inherent interest in art and a passion for literature. Initially, he pursued a career as a merchant mariner, but his life took a decisive turn after a chance encounter with a painting by Giorgio de Chirico. This encounter ignited Tanguy’s artistic aspirations, prompting him to fully dedicate himself to painting.

Surrealism and the Parisian Scene

Tanguy’s entry into the art world coincided with the rise of Surrealism, a movement characterized by its exploration of the unconscious mind, dream imagery, and automatism. Influenced by Surrealist pioneer André Breton, Tanguy quickly aligned himself with the Parisian avant-garde, becoming a prominent member of the Surrealist group.

Distinctive Style and Automatism

Tanguy’s paintings are renowned for their distinctive style, marked by fantastical, biomorphic forms, and vast, eerie landscapes. His technique often involved automatism, a process that allowed the unconscious mind to guide the creation of the artwork. Tanguy would let his imagination run wild, allowing images to emerge spontaneously, creating dreamlike and otherworldly compositions.

Yves Tanguy French surrealist painter
Yves Tanguy French surrealist painter

Landscapes of the Unconscious

A hallmark of Tanguy’s work is the surreal landscapes that populate his canvases. These landscapes are simultaneously alien and familiar, evoking a sense of both wonder and unease. Tanguy’s mastery lies in his ability to imbue his creations with a sense of depth and atmosphere, transporting viewers to a realm that exists beyond the confines of reality.

Influence of Science and Nature

Tanguy’s fascination with science, particularly geology and biology, is evident in his paintings. The organic forms and geological structures that populate his works suggest a deep engagement with the mysteries of the natural world. This fusion of scientific inquiry with artistic expression adds layers of complexity to Tanguy’s dreamscapes.

Collaborations and Relationships

Tanguy’s involvement in the Surrealist movement led to collaborations with other prominent artists of the time, including Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. His friendship with fellow Surrealist André Breton was particularly significant, as they shared a mutual passion for exploring the realms of the subconscious and the fantastical.

Yves Tanguy French surrealist painter
Yves Tanguy French surrealist painter

Migration to the United States

As World War II unfolded, Tanguy, along with his wife, American Surrealist painter Kay Sage, fled Europe and settled in the United States. This migration marked a new phase in Tanguy’s life and art. His work continued to evolve, influenced by the American landscape and the changing dynamics of the art scene in the United States.

Later Works and Legacy

Tanguy’s later works exhibit a shift in tone, with a greater emphasis on color and a somewhat brighter palette. Despite this evolution, the dreamlike quality and mysterious allure remained central to his artistic vision. Tragically, Yves Tanguy’s life was cut short when he died by suicide in 1955.

The legacy of Yves Tanguy endures through the impact of his surrealist masterpieces. His contributions to the Surrealist movement, his exploration of the subconscious, and his ability to translate dreams into visual poetry continue to influence artists and captivate audiences. Tanguy’s paintings invite viewers to embark on a journey into the recesses of the mind, where reality and fantasy converge in a timeless dance of imagination and artistic brilliance.


Tanguy, the son of a retired navy captain, was born January 5, 1900, at the Ministry of Naval Affairs on Place de la Concorde in Paris, France. His parents were both of Breton origin. After his father’s death in 1908, his mother moved back to her native Locronan, Finistère, and he ended up spending much of his youth living with various relatives.

In 1918, Tanguy briefly joined the merchant navy before being drafted into the Army, where he befriended Jacques Prévert. At the end of his military service in 1922, he returned to Paris, where he worked various odd jobs. He stumbled upon a painting by Giorgio de Chirico and was so deeply impressed he resolved to become a painter himself in spite of his complete lack of formal training.

Tanguy had a habit of being completely absorbed by the current painting he was working on. This way of creating artwork may have been due to his very small studio which only had enough room for one wet piece.

Through his friend Prévert, in around 1924 Tanguy was introduced into the circle of surrealist artists around André Breton. Tanguy quickly began to develop his own unique painting style, giving his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1927, and marrying his first wife Jeannette Ducrocq (1896–1977) later that same year. During this busy time of his life, Breton gave Tanguy a contract to paint 12 pieces a year. With his fixed income, he painted less and ended up creating only eight works of art for Breton.

In December 1930, at an early screening of Buñuel and Dalí’s L’Age d’Or, right-wing activists went to the lobby of the cinema where the film was being screened, and destroyed art works by Dalí, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Tanguy, and others.

Throughout the 1930s, Tanguy adopted the bohemian lifestyle of the struggling artist with gusto, leading eventually to the failure of his first marriage. He had an intense affair with Peggy Guggenheim in 1938 when he went to London with his wife Jeannette Ducrocq to hang his first retrospective exhibition in Britain at her gallery Guggenheim Jeune. The exhibition was a great success and Guggenheim wrote in her autobiography that “Tanguy found himself rich for the first time in his life”. She purchased his pictures Toilette de L’Air and The Sun in Its Jewel Case (Le Soleil dans son écrin) for her collection. Tanguy also painted Peggy two beautiful earrings. The affair continued in both London and Paris and only finished when Tanguy met a fellow Surrealist artist who would become his second wife.

In 1938, after seeing the work of fellow artist Kay Sage, Tanguy began a relationship which led to his second marriage. With the outbreak of World War II, Sage moved back to her native New York, and Tanguy, judged unfit for military service, followed her. He would spend the rest of his life in the United States. Sage and Tanguy were married in Reno, Nevada on August 17, 1940. Their marriage proved durable but tense. Both drank heavily, and Tanguy assaulted Sage verbally and sometimes physically, pushing her and sometimes even threatening her with a knife privately and at social gatherings. Sage, according to friends’ accounts, made no response to her husband’s aggression. Toward the end of the war, the couple moved to Woodbury, Connecticut, converting an old farmhouse into an artists’ studio. They spent the rest of their lives there. In 1948, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

In January 1955, Tanguy suffered a fatal stroke at Woodbury. His body was cremated and his ashes preserved until Sage’s death in 1963. Later, his ashes were scattered by his friend Pierre Matisse on the beach at Douarnenez in his beloved Brittany, together with those of his wife.

Style and legacy
Tanguy’s paintings have a unique, immediately recognizable style of nonrepresentational surrealism. They show vast, abstract landscapes, mostly in a tightly limited palette of colors, only occasionally showing flashes of contrasting color accents. Typically, these alien landscapes are populated with various abstract shapes, sometimes angular and sharp as shards of glass, sometimes with an intriguingly organic look to them, like giant amoebae suddenly turned to stone.

According to Nathalia Brodskaïa, Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927) is one of Tanguy’s most impressive paintings. Brodskaïa writes that the painting reflects his debt to Giorgio de Chirico – falling shadows and a classical torso – and conjures up a sense of doom: the horizon, the emptiness of the plain, the solitary plant, the smoke, the helplessness of the small figures. Tanguy said that it was an image he saw entirely in his imagination before starting to paint it. He also claimed he took the title of this and other works from psychiatric textbooks: “I remember spending a whole afternoon with … André Breton,” he said, “leafing through books on psychiatry in the search for statements of patients which could be used as titles for paintings.” Jennifer Mundy, however, discovered that the title of this painting and several others were taken from a book about paranormal phenomena, Traite de metaphysique (1922) by Dr Charles Richet.

Tanguy’s style was an important influence on several younger painters, such as Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, and Esteban Francés, who adopted a Surrealist style in the 1930s. Later, Tanguy’s paintings (and, less directly, those of de Chirico) influenced the style of the 1980 French animated movie Le Roi et l’oiseau, by Paul Grimault and Prévert. Tanguy’s works also influenced the science fiction cover art of illustrator Richard Powers.


Tanguy, Yves (1900-55). French-born American painter. Originally a merchant seaman, he was impelled to take up painting after seeing pictures by de Chirico and in 1925 joined the Surrealist group. In 1939 he emigrated to the USA, where he lived for the rest of his life, marrying the American Surrealist painter Kay Sage in 1940 and becoming an American citizen in 1948. Tanguy’s most characteristic works are painted in a scrupulous technique reminiscent of that of Dalí, but his imagery is highly distinctive, featuring half marine and half lunar landscapes in which amorphous nameless objects proliferate in a spectral dream-space (The Invisibles, Tate Gallery, London, 1951).

Yves Tanguy French painter
Yves Tanguy French painter


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Source: Wikipedia