Nicolas and Olivier Descharnes have confirmed the authenticity of this work.
The constant tragedy of life is fashion. – Salvador Dalí
For Dalí, his incursion into the fashion world was a legitimate extension of his Surrealist and artistic activities. He saw his involvement with fashion as another means whereby he could experiment and communicate the strange landscape of his universe. A familiarity with Dalí’s work reveals that amid the enormous diversity of his imagination, there were a few images that appear again and again, such as the inclusion of the butterfly within larger scale compositions. In the 1950s, this imagery is presented primarily in his work with the International Silk Convention, for which the artist created several poster designs.
Eleanor Lambert, the first owner of the present work who was closely associated with the International Silk Convention, was a notable presence in the fashion world and beyond. At the start of her career, the doyenne of public relations represented artists like Jackson Pollock, George Bellows, Isamu Noguchi, Thomas Hart Benton, Cecil Beaton, Dalí and many others. In those days, it was commonplace for the artists to compensate her with art, as they often could not afford her monthly retainer. It was through such arrangements that Lambert came to amass an impressive collection, including a wood sculpture portrait of herself by Noguchi and the present work among many others. After a time at the Whitney Museum of Art shortly after its formation, she aided in the establishment of the Art Dealers Association of America. Often referred to as the Empress of Seventh Avenue, Lambert was a major figure in the promotion of American fashion. She founded the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1962, started the International Best-Dressed list and promulgated the idea of New York Fashion Week. Her enduring influence on the fashion industry was further bolstered by her instrumental role in the formation of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as organizing its associated fundraiser the Met Gala. Through her work as his publicist, Lambert tapped Dalí for many fashion-related projects in the United States including designing posters and scarves for the International Silk Convention and creating sets for the March of Dimes charity fashion shows in the 1950s, in which the present work was likely included.
Dalí contended that “as a Renaissance man…I feel no separation between myself as an artist and the mass of the people.” He believed “the modern artist should participate in every kind of extracurriciular activity. Michelangelo designed the dress for the Pope’s Swiss Guards. It is all propaganda of your imagination, no?” (quoted in H. Crawford, “Surrealism and the Fashion Magazine,” American Periodicals, vol. 14, no. 2, 2004, p. 212). Femmes aux papillons is the product of Dalí's direct engagement with consumer culture, a work in which the specificity of contemporary fashion is displaced by symbols and presented in the context of an atemporal dream-like world. He became known to American audiences as Surrealism's impresario and was increasingly viewed as the very personification and embodiment of Surrealism itself. Dalí's self-proclaimed "dazzling" fame and notoriety had led, as the artist remarked in his 1942 autobiography, to the receipt of "a shower of extravagant offers, each more unexpected than the last" (S. Dalí, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, New York, 1942, p. 344).
By the 1950s, Dalí’s work had a considerable commercial value and appeal, particularly in the United States, where he had lived from 1940-1948. Although he had returned to Europe by 1950, his popularity and success still boomed in America; his likeness and his artworks gracing the covers of many popular magazines. Throughout his life, as early on as his childhood, Dalí was conscious of his appearance and henceforth developed himself as an artist-dandy seeking to communicate messages as much through the organization of his appearances as by his paintings. His well-known image of the insane genius became an essential quality of his marketability. Beginning in his Paris years of the 1930s, spent in the company of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, he had been greatly influenced by the contemporary world of fashion, and in turn, he too had an influence on that world. In his relationship with Schiaparelli, their creative partnership fused art and fashion to create designs like the famous shoe-hat. His collaborations with magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Flair among others were endless. Dalí’s profound impact pervaded the salons and society gatherings of the late 1930s and eventually the wider world of fashion, which adopted many of his ideas in watered down versions in the years to follow. Fashion, with its focus on the body and foregrounding of desire, as well as its connection with notions of artifice and the real, concealment and revelation, and disfigurement and embellishment was a fertile area of exploration for the artists of the movement.
The juxtaposition of the real and the unreal in the present work renders the ordinary sublime, as the oversized accessories are embedded in an enigmatic landscape replete with leitmotifs drawn from Dalí's earlier body of psychoanalytic work. The debt to many of the artist's pictures of the 1930s, most notably his iconic 1931 Persistance de la mémoire, is evident in the landscape setting reminiscent of the Ampurdán plain of his native Catalonia, and its trademark compositional structure with a very deep sense of perspective.