When the irrepressible surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was twelve years old he stumbled across the similarity, in his mind’s eye, between a cherry and a mouse. He was living in the Catalan countryside, where his parents had sent him to stay with their friends, the wealthy and cultivated Pichot family, while he recovered from an illness. Of their rural estate, Molí de la Torre, Dalí would later write, “It was in this spot that most of my reveries during the whole rest of my life have taken place.”
But for the moment in 1916 Dalí, yet untutored in painting, was nevertheless spending his time painting furiously from life. Two years earlier, he had appropriated a small laundry room at his home in Figueres for his studio and painted his first work—a landscape—that displayed, we are told, remarkable depth and perspective. And now at the Pichots he had just finished a roll of canvas and turned to the only thing he could find, an ‘unmounted’ old door full of wormholes. He rested the door on two chairs, and chose to use the door’s center panel for the painting so the outside panels could serve as the frame. He then set up a basket of ripe cherries for a still life and, eschewing a palette, he painted straight from the tubes. “I place between the fingers of my left hand a tube of vermilion intended for the lighted side of the cherries, and another tube of carmine for their shade. In my right hand I held a tube of white just for the highlight on each cherry.” He applied the three colors to the rhythmic sound of the mill wheel: tock, tock, tock…tock, tock, tock…tock, tock, tock. Afterward, according to Dalí, “[a]ll the peasants came and stared in opened-mouth admiration at my monumental still life.” Only one farmer pointed out he had forgotten to paint the stems. So young Dalí took some cherries and ate them one by one, he took each of their stems and glued them to the painting. Standing back and surveying his work, he realized he wasn’t quite done. Using a hairpin he painstakingly pulled out the worms in the holes that punctuated the painted cherries on the door and exchanged them with the worms in the actual fruit. At that moment Señor Pichot passed by, shook his head and said, “That shows genius.”
Dalí had yet another idea—one that involved a small mouse he kept in a chicken coop in a biscuit tin that, to his delight, happened to display a picture of a row of little mice gnawing on biscuits. He thought of the mouse’s tail and the cherry stem, and understood what a perfect model the tiny rodent would make. He could do a large picture “in the style of the one with the cherries.” So he went to the coop to get his mouse. Only when he opened the tin, he noticed the mouse was swollen, “round as a cherry miraculously turned gray and hairy.” He lifted the creature cautiously by his tail and murmured, “the resemblance to my cherry was complete, with its paws all folded up and making no movement.” However he could see the mouse was still breathing and he gently laid him back in the container, when all at once the tiny rodent leaped straight up in the air and hit Dalí in the face, giving him a start, and bringing his latest project to a full stop.
Source of all quotes: Salvador Dalí, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, 1942/1993, translated by Haakon M. Chevalier.
Other sources: Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation; Meredith Etherington-Smith,
The Persistence Of Memory: A Biography Of Dali.
(Image Woman-Animal Symbiosis by Salvador Dalí, 1928 reproduced for non-commercial use only.)