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Dorothea Tanning was born on August 25, 1910, in Galesburg, Illinois. She attended Knox College, a liberal arts college with no arts degree program, and then moved to Chicago where she attended the Chicago Academy of Art for three weeks. It was during her time in Chicago that Tanning began to educate herself about painting through visits to the Art Institute.
Tanning's career truly began in the 1930s. After moving to New York in May 1935, she participated in several group exhibitions, including shows in a New Orleans bookshop in 1931, the De Young Museum Annual in San Francisco in 1937, and the Directions in American Painting at the Carnegie Institute in 1941. She held her first solo show at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1944, where she was introduced to influential artists and became part of a vibrant social circle that included Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Robert Motherwell, Kay Sage, Yves Tanguy, John Cage, Xenia Cage, Merce Cunningham, Gypsy Rose Lee, George Balanchine, Tanaquil Leclerq, Pablo Picasso, and Leonor Fini.
Tanning's work in the 1940s and 1950s often focused on themes of children, as seen in her paintings "Birthday" (1942) and "Children's Game" (1942). She also had a strong connection to the worlds of theater, ballet, and film, creating costumes and designing sets for several of George Balanchine's ballets, including "The Night Shadow" (1945), "The Witch" (1950), "Bayou" (1952), and "The Will of the Wisp" (1953).
In her personal life, Tanning had a tumultuous relationship with writer Homer Shannon, whom she married in 1941 but separated from six months later and divorced a year after that. In 1942, she met Max Ernst, who was encouraged by Julien Levy to see her work. They married in 1946 in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner in Beverly Hills. Tanning and Ernst remained married until Ernst’s death in 1976.
Throughout her life, Tanning lived and worked in various locations, including New York, Paris, the south of France, and Sedona, Arizona. She continued to produce artwork in various forms, from painting to lithography, and her style evolved over time, moving towards abstraction in the 1950s and 1960s.
Dorothea Tanning passed away in New York on January 31, 2012. Today, her work is held in the collections of the Dorothea Tanning Foundation and numerous museums and galleries worldwide. As a pioneering female artist of the 20th century, Tanning's contribution to the world of art and her influence on future generations of artists is indisputable.