Dorothea Tanning's Birthday is an announcement, a self-portrait hailing the arrival of an artist who emerged into the public eye with a fully formulated vision and an exquisitely flawless technique. Then thirty-two years old, Tanning was working as a freelance illustrator for Manhattan department stores while pursuing her own erotically charged, dreamlike paintings in her Greenwich Village apartment, after her imagination had been stimulated by the 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. According to Tanning, Birthday was titled by her future husband, the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, who encountered it on her easel while scouting for works for gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim's upcoming exhibition of thirty-one women artists. Although the painting presents an astonishing likeness of the artist, the portrayal does far more to create a character than to reveal a preexisting one. The woman's ruffled purple brocade jacket, opened to reveal her bare chest, tops a skirt of long green tendrils, which, upon scrutiny, assume the form of writhing human bodies. She is attended by a familiar, a fantastic furry creature with wings and a long tail, ready to accompany her on the adventures that lie beyond the infinitely receding doors. Michael R. Taylor, from Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art (2007), p. 216.
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