The Elephants (1948) by Salvador Dali

What inspired Salvador Dali to paint The Elephants in 1948?

  • An Egyptian obelisk and Italian elephant
  • The nature and limits of power
  • Freudian dreams in oil paint

Click here for the podcast version of this post.

Salvador Dali loved to paint elephants. They represent weighty power and strength as a dominant archetype. Ever the notorious contrarian, Dali, props this pair high on towering stilts. Of course, that’s impossible. But so are the obelisks that float above the elephants’ backs. If you look closely, it’s clear that they levitate. But from an ordinary distance, these pillars appear to ride on The Elephants‘ backs.

The obelisks are a direct reference to the statue Minerva’s Pulcino, which sits outside the church of Santa Maria. That statue’s also often called the Elephant and Obelisk statue. The Pharaoh Apries had the red granite obelisk built in around 580 BC. Gian Lorenzo Bernini put the obelisk and elephant idea together for Pope Alexander VII in the 1660s. He hired Ercole Ferrata to sculpt an elephant for the piece. An inscription at the sculpture’s base reads:

Let any beholder of the carved images of the wisdom of Egypt on the obelisk carried by the elephant, the strongest of beasts, realize that it takes a robust mind to carry solid wisdom.

Latin inscription on base of Pulcino della Minerva

Obelisks have always symbolized the laser-like vision and power of a sun ray. But by Dali’s time, obelisks and Freud had coalesced into a union of phallic intrigue. That notion brings the elephant and obelisk image into the modern world. An obelisk combines concepts of power with society’s masculine idolatry.

Dali elevates this symbolism. He positions the obelisks above the world’s strongest animal. This idealizes them to an even higher level. They rise from an unfeasible position, atop an elephant’s back, into the impossible sky above. So, Dali shifts the viewer into the realm of surrealism. The Elephants seems almost a concocted dream, yet retains a sense of order and symmetry. At the same time, it also feels unreal.

Bizarre was Dali’s favorite flavor. He started with familiar subjects and portrayed them with stunning precision. Then he’d throw in a Surrealist twist. Dali drew ideas for his work from dreams, Freud, and mysticism. In many ways he treated painting like play. For instance, he was notorious for making contradictory claims about his intended meaning. This could get confusing given that his artwork was already incongruous in nature.

The Elephants by Salvador Dali


More than just about art, Surrealism imbued European culture with colorful surprise after World War I. The defining factors of Surrealism combine juxtapositions of dreams and reality. In fact, the movement sought to create a whole new kind of super reality. That’s why it’s called Surrealism. It was meant as a sort of hyper, ultimate, experience – above reality. Premiere Surrealist Salvador Dali epitomized the movement with his wildly popular dreamlike distortions. His work often twisted familiar subjects into subversive masterpieces.

Why The Elephants painting matters

Many signature Dali paintings remain popular. They paper the walls of college dorms across the globe. But The Elephants isn’t a typical example. It’s not as familiar as melting clocks. Still, this is an iconic masterpiece in its own right. It matters thanks to its distorted composition. The canvas feels almost empty. Yet it glows fiery red and orange from within. In our world, elephants pound the earth. They shake the ground with each hefty step. But thanks to Dali, elephants seem weightless on this canvas. This pair float in the atmosphere as if held up to heaven on the tips of chopsticks.

The precarious position of Dali’s elephants reminds us of power’s impermanence. One can only stay on top for so long. Elephants on stilts illustrate this to perfection. They point to how even the most powerful being at the highest echelon can’t hold onto that position forever. Dali captures an impossible dream about power and dominance in The Elephants. But he also reveals the temporary nature of real power.

This painting tickles at our unconscious ideas. It asks us what it means to be on top of the world. The best part is how Dali holds us there in that commanding moment. He suspends us in the dream where it’s beautiful and seems everlasting. But that’s all to point out the inevitability of every power’s eventual downfall.

The Elephants – FAQs

Why did Salvador Dali paint The Elephants?

We can’t always take Dali’s word when it comes to his artwork. He was a flagrant contrarian. But Dali did seem to be truthful about his painting The Elephants. He said it reflected the Elephant and Obelisk sculpture by artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

This statue sits outside church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, Italy. The red granite obelisk dates back to 580 BC. Bernini had his assistant, the sculptor Ercole Ferrata, craft the elephant sculpture at its base.

What is Salvador Dali known for?

Dali was an idiosyncratic artist. He loved whimsy and exactitude with equal passion. So, Dali is known for a twisted vicissitude as well as his precision. He was a tough one to nail down. Dali’s work stays relevant through the ages thanks to his distinctive take on Surrealism.

The artwork of Salvador Dali reminds us of dreaming. He populates paintings with recognizable subjects. From animals to clocks, Dali’s astounding accuracy brings his work a sense of realism. But he also loved to subvert that reality.

Dali’s subversions carry viewers into a surreal world. His clocks melt. Dali’s elephants perch on chopsticks. These singular takes on familiar imagery keep Dali’s work fresh, fun, and popular.

Like this analysis of The Elephants?

Check out essays on more Spanish Painters.

Robert Descharnes, Gilles Néret (1 August 2007). Salvador Dalí: 1904-1989. The paintings. Taschen. 

Michael Taylor in Dawn Adès (ed.), Dalí (Milan: Bompiani, 2004).

Lorenzo, Bernini, Gian. “The Obelisk of the Minerva”

See the piazza della Minerva where the Elephant and Obelisk statue sits

Heckscher, William S. (1947). “Bernini’s Elephant and Obelisk”. Art Bulletin. XXIX (3): 155–182.

Popham, A. E. ‘Bernini’s Drawings of Elephants’. The Burlington Magazine 97, no. 633

Descharnes, Robert, Salvador Dalí (translated by Eleanor R. Morse), New York, Abradale Press, 1993

Ades, Dawn, Salvador Dalí, Thames and Hudson, 1995 (2nd ed.)

Dalí, Salvador, The Diary of a Genius, London, Hutchinson, 1990 (translated by Richard Howard, first published 1964)