In honor of Halloween, we’re diving into one of Salvador Dali’s most haunting artworks, Portrait of My Dead Brother. Salvador Dali, the artist, though the most famous bearer of his name, was not the first or even the second in his family. His brother, who died from infectious stomach inflammation at just three years old, was also named Salvador Dali. Grief-ridden and perhaps looking to fill the void of this tragic death, Dali’s parents gave the boy the same name as his late brother (and, incidentally, their father, a third Salvador Dali). The family believed that the youngest Salvador was the reincarnation of his brother that died almost nine months to the day that Salvador was born. The young Salvador was even forced to wear his brother’s clothes.
Dali admitted to struggling to paint his brother’s image. He had made a concerted effort to differentiate himself from his brother. He asserted his individuality in part through the eccentric behavior that Dali is known for today. From selling a fake lock of his hair to Yoko Ono to taking a bite of an ant-covered bat. Not to mention the artists arrest and imprisonment in 1924, for being “intensely liable to cause public disorder.”
This struggle of Dali’s soul found artistic expression in his 1963 painting Portrait of My Dead Brother, an homage to the deceased Salvador Dali. In this characteristically surreal artwork, a background of a battlefield is rained on by cherries, with a flat pop art portrait superimposed over the background imagery. As Dali described, the portrait represents both himself and his brother, with Salvador, the painter, depicted in sunlit cherries and Salvador, the deceased brother, in dark cherries. At the bottom of the composition, soldiers with spears help Dali scatter the countenance of his late brother.
A combination of dead and living, self and sibling, and Dali’s typical surrealistic style with the pop art Ben-Day dot technique, Portrait of My Dead Brother provides valuable insight into Dali’s struggle for individuality amidst the unusual circumstances of his naming. By imagining his brother as the adult he tragically did not live to be, Dali rewrites history, pulling the memory of the departed child into the present. By including and even forefronting himself in the painting, Dali reclaims his own identity and individuality.
Today, Portrait of My Dead Brother is displayed at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, home of the most extensive collection of Dalí’s works outside of Europe. Dali fans and art enthusiasts can even view the painting in augmented reality through the free Dalí Museum App as part of the exhibit Dalí’s Masterworks: A Closer Look along with four other iconic, large-scale Dali paintings of over five feet in height or width.
This closer look allows art lovers to see the remarkable cherry detail and the molecule of dark and light cherries around the painted figure’s nose representing the deep fraternal entanglement of lives and identities that this relationship meant for Dali.