ArtSmart Roundtable: Deciphering Dalí’s The Hallucinogenic Toreador

Monday, June 3rd, 2013. Filed under: Art ArtSmart Roundtable Florida

The ArtSmart Roundtable is focusing on painting this month. I’ll be deciphering a mindblowing painting I saw at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida: Salvador Dalí’s The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1969-1970). Be sure to scroll down for more on the Roundtable and links to my colleagues’ posts. Now, The Hallucinogenic Toreador.

The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1969-70), Salvador Dali, oil on canvas, 157″ x 118″. Collection (and image): Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida.

The Hallucinogenic Toreador is 13  feet tall and nearly 10 feet wide.  Seeing it in person is an enveloping, seductive experience. The painting is a complex double image in which the face of a bullfighter is embedded in the Venus de Milo figures. Gaze at it for a while and the toreador emerges: the green strip in the middle of the Venuses’ drapery forms his tie, the white drapery his shirt, her body his face, her left breast his nose.

Venus PencilsThe Venus de Milo is a quintessential Dalinian image. As a member of the Surrealist movement in Paris in the 1930s, Dali would have been very familiar with the ancient Greek sculpture, on permanent display at the Louvre. The Hallucinogenic Toreador was inspired years later in an art supply shop when, staring at a box of Venus brand pencils, Dalí perceived the bullfighter’s shadowy features in her torso.

Dalí was obsessed by physics: molecules and matter, space and time (history and clocks). The exploding molecules in the painting’s centre left form the shoulder of the toreador’s sparkly suit.

On closer inspection, more elements from Dali’s native Spain appear: the Spanish flag in the colours of the Venuses’ drapery, the bullfighting stadium, a dead bull in the foreground, flies flying in military formation (forming the toreador’s cap). In the lower right corner, a little boy–Dali as a child?–watches. While some view the painting as social commentary, autobiography or even a love story between Venus and the bullfighter, I walked away from The Hallucinogenic Toreador with the truth that while the grand sweep of history enchants, its details are often repulsive.

The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1969-70) painting by Salvador Dali

Dali’s technique combines dreamlike blur with startling clarity.  Image: Dali Museum.

Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí I Domenech (1904-1989) was one of the 20th century’s greatest artists and imaginations. For more on his work and life, see the website of the Dali Museum.


Salvador Dali was an academically trained and technically brilliant painter. His trademark moustache was an homage to Spanish master Diego Velázquez (1599-1660).

The stunning Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, is recognized as one of the most significant collections of the 20th century, holding 96 oil paintings, more than 100 watercolors and drawings, 1,300 graphics, sculptures, objects d’art, photographs and much insight into Salvador Dali’s genius. The Spanish-themed Cafe Gala, delightful gift shop and gardens round out the museum experience.

The Dali Museum is located on St. Petersburg’s waterfront.

I found St. Petersburg, Florida, the perfect combination of beach and culture vacation. For more on the arts in this gem on Florida’s Gulf Coast, see Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater.


1969, baby! Salvador Dali with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, photographed the year Dali began work on The Hallucinogenic Toreador. Image:

The ArtSmart Roundtable is a group of informed and passionate bloggers on a mission to help you understand the art you encounter in your travels.  ArtSmart Roundtable members publish on the first Monday of each month on a particular topic. Catch us on Facebook and be sure to check out this month’s posts:

Erin – The Tres Riches Heures Miniatures

Jeff – Vermeer’s The Art of Painting

Christina – Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia Up Close 

Murissa – Leonor Fini: Painting Female Super-Heroines Before Their Time – Leonor Fini, La Chambre Noire 1939

Kelly – Andrew Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea

Jenna – Tips to Understanding Renaissance Paintings

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