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Love story in pictures: Salvador Dalí and Gala

The relationship of the Spanish artist and his Russian wife was something dazzling, eventful, abundant in scandals and gossip. As strongly did the world hate her as an avaricious, sly, and calculating character, so highly was she pedestaled by Salvador, who called her ‘his victorious goddess.' She was his never-failing inspiration: he painted her portraits throughout decades, employing different styles and techniques. And now these pictures can tell us the story of their love.
Love story in pictures: Salvador Dalí and Gala

'Gala’s Dream (Dream of Paradise)'

No wonder Dalí was captivated by Gala at first sight. The woman was really stunning: being of quite ordinary looks, she could draw the attention of everyone her eyes stopped at.

By some accounts, Elena Diakonova (this was her real name) was born in Kazan in 1894. According to other sources, she was two years older. The girl received a good education in Moscow, in a girl’s grammar-school, a gymnasium, and in 1912, her family sent her to Switzerland for the treatment of tuberculosis. In the sanatorium, she met her first husband, the poet Paul Éluard (by the way, this name was her idea, for, before meeting her, he had been called Eugène Émile Paul Grindel). In turn, it was him whom she owed her nickname Gala (the French for ‘festivity,' or ‘celebration').

Indeed, she was a festive woman. Never could anyone be bored with her. Spontaneous, ambitious, vain, capricious, and irrepressible, she would never allow any man to feel relaxed beside her. ‘I'll never be an ordinary housewife. I’ll read a lot and do anything I want, but I’ll never lose the charm of a woman who does not overwork herself. Like a cocotte, I’ll sparkle, smell of perfume, and always have nicely groomed, well-manicured hands,' — these were Gala’s plans for further life, and she was quite successful in translating them into practice.

Salvador Dalí
Portrait of Gala, 1933

Compared to her, her husband lacked charisma. That is why she

Salvador Dalí
Portrait of Gala, 1933

Compared to her, her husband lacked charisma. That is why she soon started an affair with the painter Max Ernst. She never kept it secret from her legitimate husband — for some time, they even lived as a household of three. But Éluard never considered his rival a real threat, and never believed him capable of breaking up their marriage. Nor did he see a peril in introducing his wife to young painter Salvador Dalí. Even later, when Gala had abandoned him and their daughter Cécile for the Spaniard, Éluard waited for her return and kept writing her letters till his death.


In 1929, Salvador Dalí's career was about to skyrocket. Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) had come out, a surrealist short film, his joint creation with Luis Buñuel. They had made friends when the artist was studying at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. Dalí was young, good-looking, and charismatic. He was a dapper man, with neatly styled hair on his head and face. Only his romantic life was a failure. He was rumoured to have never made love to a woman, except for keeping at bay Federico García Lorca with his regular advances.
Dalí invited to his place in Cadaqués Paul Éluard with his wife and their eleven-year-old daughter. The family arrived as part of a real boho landing force that included René Magritte and Luis Buñuel. The artist had met the poet in a nightspot in Paris, but then, he had had no idea that his new friend’s visit would rock his entire life forever. He recounted the mixed impression he had produced on his 35-year-old visitor. ‘She even admitted to me that … she had thought me an unbearably obnoxious creature because of my pomaded hair and my elegance, which she thought had a "professional Argentine tango slickness." … In my room I was always completely naked, but as soon as I had to go into the village I would spend an hour in fixing myself up, plastering down my hair, shaving with maniacal care, always wearing freshly creased white trousers, fancy sandals and pure silk shirts. I also wore a necklace of imitation pearls, and a metal cloth ribbon tied to one of my wrists.'
Photo from: islanders. is
Photo from: islanders. is
The key factor, though, was Gala’s infallible instinct that allowed her to determine this queer ‘creature' as having potential that could materialise all her ambitions. She remembered she had immediately realised he was a genius. Dalí echoes her words. ‘She considered me a genius — half mad but capable of great moral courage. And she wanted something — something which would be the fulfilment of her own myth. And this thing that she wanted was something that she was beginning to think perhaps only I could give her.'
Salvador Dalí
Portrait of Paul Éluard. 1929

They never parted since then. They would take strolls i

Salvador Dalí
Portrait of Paul Éluard. 1929

They never parted since then. They would take strolls in the country about Cadaqués, feeling a growing attraction to each other. In an instant, Gala decided to disown both her husband and her daughter, and Dalí was as wise as to paint Paul Éluard's portrait as a consolation prize. He felt it was his duty ‘to perpetuate the poet’s physiognomy from whom he had taken away one of the Muses of his Mount Olympus.'

'The Madonna of Port Lligat'

The start of their cohabitation was much of a challenge. Dalí was then far from being a top-earning artist, and Gala had no income of her own. To top it all, there was a public outcry about the inscription Dalí had made on one of his pictures: ‘Sometimes I spit with pleasure on the portrait of my mother.' This made his father shun connection with the son and cut off his allowance.
The parent went as far in his anger as to make a public statement of disowning his son, and appealed to all the dwellers of Cadaqués and Figueres to join him in boycotting Dalí. And many in the neighbourhood did side the notary of so high a reputation, and refused Salvador residence or tenancy. Only a fisherman’s widow, some Lidia Sabana de Costa, who had known him since his childhood, and always believed in his talent, — only she sold the couple for a song a solitary shack off Cadaqués, in Port Lligat, used for storing fishing tackle. And Salvador and Gala’s love made the shack a castle.

The room of sixteen square metres in area was the front parlour, the bedroom, and the studio — all in one. For lunch, they sometimes had one fruit for the two of them. This period of her and Dalí's living below the breadline hardly fits the popular idea of Gala as an avaricious, money-minded woman, though, when with Paul Éluard, she had had a far better-off lifestyle in well-furnished Parisian apartments. But for those who would only see her as cold and calculating, this fact is just another proof of her envisioning of wealth she could soon get with the budding artist.
Salvador Dalí
Gala Nude from Behind Looking in an Invisible Mirror. 1960

To sell several pictures a

Salvador Dalí
Gala Nude from Behind Looking in an Invisible Mirror. 1960

To sell several pictures and have some money for the repair of their hovel dwelling, they came to Paris. There. Éluard put them up in an apartment of his. Dalí kept painting, and Gala, from dawn till dusk, knocked on the doors of every art gallery in Paris, holding a pile of his pictures, offering to buy them. When back at home, she would manage the household charging herself with doing all the chores.

A visitor remembers the couple’s lifestyle as far from eccentric — they just could not afford it then. Gala would count every céntimo and buy the cheapest food. The couple could get on well with everybody. Dalí was well-bred, with beautiful manners. So was Gala. But for her, he could have ventured some antics, but she understood the importance of meetings and the value of personal communication and backed them in every possible way. It was her who was his PR manager.
Photo from:

In that period, the peak of their success was Dalí's solo exhibition hel

Photo from:

In that period, the peak of their success was Dalí's solo exhibition held in June, 1931, in the Pierre Colle Gallery. The 24 pieces presented to the public made him popular with buyers and art critics. The headline display item of the event was the painting The Persistence of Memory. The painter credited his love-mate who had moved heaven and earth for his success. He started signing his canvases 'Gala-Dalí.'


Little by little, the couple’s finances were getting better. In 1934, Dalí and Gala went on a trip that once and for all consolidated their financial position — to the United States. But prior to that, they had formalised their relationship. Gala had only agreed to it after her first husband’s second marriage, although Éluard himself had kept insisting on her marrying Dalí. Her ex had had fears that otherwise, Gala would end up with nothing if she and Dalí suddenly split up, or if the painter got in an accident.
Salvador Dali. Galarina
1945, 64×50 cm
During their first trip to America, the family tandem succeeded in attracting the public attention easily convertible into dollars. There was a scandal, though, right before their leaving home. Whether it was accidental or intentional, it forever branded Gala as a cruel and cynical woman.

The couple arranged a pompous farewell party (Dalí Ball), where Gala was wearing a hat with a doll on top representing a dead child. The press treated it as an allusion to the recent kidnapping and murder of the son of Lindbergh, the first pilot who had crossed the Atlantic. Later, Dalí assured that Gala’s costume had nothing to do with the tragedy, but with the psychoanalytical theories by Sigmund Freud, whom he revered. However, he failed to persuade the public that his wife was by no means cruel and had had no ill intention.

Meanwhile, Dalí's attachment to, or rather obsession with Gala was but growing. He believed her to be the cause of everything good happening to him. He never stinted on epithets. ‘I immediately felt peace and balance, felt that my life was now smooth and even. I can say that my wife’s only glance was enough to put in order my paranoiac-critical activity. … All the isolated, projecting, dominating elements of my life were taking an architectural form.'
No less did Gala worship him. When, in the days of World War II, her daughter Cécile had to sell a few pieces by Dalí to make ends meet, her mother never forgave her for doing that. What is more, the incident made her disinherit Cécile. And Dalí, on a picture of his, once wrote the confession, ‘I love Gala better than my mother, better than my father, better than Picasso, and even better than money.'

'Gala against the Light'

Nothing lasts forever, though. While the artist’s fame and wealth were growing exponentially, his relationship with Gala started deteriorating. The reason was his spouse’s physical wear. She was getting old — and incapable of putting up with the inexorable progress of time, and this did not make her character, already problematic enough, any better.
Trying to lay hold on her evading youth, Gala started frantically changing young lovers and undergoing plastic surgeries, and all these pricy delights required a good deal of money. She was rumoured to go as far as to lock Dalí up, so that he worked without budging anywhere from the place. However, the situation was not all that simple, for Dalí had felt the taste of big money, too. Now he would earn them through every possible means, including quite dishonest ones. For example, he did not mind putting his signature on dozens of thousands of blank sheets used for lithographic printing and bought by swindlers at 40 dollars a piece.

But even then, Dalí and Gala, by all accounts, still complemented each other admirably well. John Richardson, a vice president in charge of the Knoedler Gallery, New York, says that in business, Dalí was a sly dog, an absolutely ruthless one. Gala manipulated him, and so did he with her. Typically, an artist is a free-floating, starry-eyed individual, but an artist’s wife is utterly pragmatic — a real virago. And, indeed, Gala was one. She could punch anyone if she failed to get what she wanted. And Richardson is certain that the only things she wanted were power, money, and luxury.
In 1969, Dalí decided to keep his long-standing promise and gave his wife a castle as a present. Gala became the owner of Púbol, a genuine medieval castle. He himself was not allowed to visit it without a prior written notice. He was not distressed by it, anyway. On the contrary, for him it was a sort of masochistic enjoyment to seek an audience with his queen.
Photo from:

The painter was then taken care of by the young French model Amanda Lear. Da

Photo from:

The painter was then taken care of by the young French model Amanda Lear. Dalí loved watching her having a bath, but beyond this, they had no other physical contact. In the meantime, Gala found a sweetheart across the ocean. Her new, long-running passion, young enough to be her grandson, was American rock singer Jeff Fenholt, who had starred in the Broadway musical production Jesus Christ Superstar. She invited him to make his stay in her castle, and the golden-haired youth accepted the invitation.

'Galatea of the Spheres'

In the early 1980s, both the husband’s and the wife’s health deteriorated rapidly. Dalí started having bouts of depression and, ironically, fits of paranoia — he, who had always been making it a corner-stone of his ‘paranoiac-critical method.' 85-year-old Gala longed for reuniting with Fenholt who had dumped her. Her aggression she took out on the painter. The rows even ended up in fights and serious injuries.
In 1982, Gala fell down, had a hip fracture, and shortly after this, died of heart failure.
Dalí was by no means ready to lose his lover. At first, he kept denying her decease. He claimed that no one could replace her, and that he would stay lonely.
Photo from:

A year after this, while working on the introduction to the catalogue of his

Photo from:

A year after this, while working on the introduction to the catalogue of his retrospective, Dalí gave it the title The Divine Gala. He still worshiped his late spouse assuring that he had loved her prior to his birth. At the peak of the feeling, he said, a mutation had taken place to give rise to his singularity. This had resulted in the appearance of his famous paranoiac-critical method that enabled the critical mind to register hallucinations with maximum precision.

His last years he spent in the Galatea tower in Figueras. Originally a historical building of the 13th century, it was later renovated and became a part of the Dalí Theatre and Museum. He had re-christened the tower in honour of Gala. When she was alive, nobody but her could give her consent to let visitors in the landmark.
The painter predicted that the day ‘the twins' Dalí and Gala died, the huge statue that symbolised the eccentric couple in their home in Port Lligat would start crying. On the day when Dalí passed away, the local fishermen were closely watching the statue. They saw no tears, though.

Text: Natalya Azarenko

Title photo from: