The Surreal Story of Dalí’s Watercolors

Visitors will have a rare opportunity to see four original watercolors by Salvador Dalí from the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s own collection in THE LUME Indianapolis featuring Dalí Alive this March. At first glance, the watercolors feature a number of familiar Dalí-esque images, including the requisite melting clocks, butterflies, and elongated elephants that are signature to the artist’s paintings. The story of the watercolors’ creation, however, highlights their uniqueness, even among Dalí’s broader body of work.  

Painted sometime in 1960 or 1961, the four watercolors are set designs for an opera, The Spanish Lady and the Roman Cavalier (La Dama Spagnola e il Cavaliere Romano), which was performed in Venice, Brussels, and Paris from August 1961 to April 1962. Lorenzo Alvary, a bass at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City, produced the show and starred as the lead male role. Based on an earlier, eighteenth-century opera by Alessandro Scarlatti, The Spanish Lady focuses on the love story of two characters from the original opera. Alvary and his collaborator, Italian musicologist Giulio Confalonieri, selected Dalí as an “adventurous and controversial” artist to design the sets and costumes. By 1960, Dalí had already contributed to several other theatrical productions in both film and stage and was a logical, if avant-garde, choice for the designs.  

I learned this and more in a one-day research trip to the Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where the archival collection of Lorenzo Alvary’s papers resides. The collection contains a variety of articles, letters, theater programs, and photographs related to the production of The Spanish Lady and the Roman Cavalier, and together, they tell the story of the drama behind the scenes.  

Alvary was initially thrilled with Dalí’s contributions, calling the set designs “phenomenal” in a telegram. The opera’s first staging, held at the historic La Fenice theater in Venice, received much attention and fanfare from the press. Archival photographs from the opening night depict an excited and playful cast.  

Unfortunately, Alvary and Dalí’s relationship soured early in the performance schedule. Although Dalí’s contract stipulated his part as a designer of sets and costumes, the artist insisted upon a larger role in the opera’s overall visual direction and was frustrated by his lack of authority in the final stagings. This resulted in a legal battle between Dalí, Alvary, and others, in which Dalí claimed his artistic vision had been misused. Documentation of the lawsuit is still in Alvary’s collection of papers at the New York Public Library. Luckily for Alvary, a French court dismissed Dalí’s claims.  

Prior to the legal proceedings, The Spanish Lady faced its own hiccups. Dalí’s original plans had called for specially formulated, cube-shaped bubbles filled with Guerlain perfume that would float around onstage. Despite experimentation, the bubbles remained round, and the whimsical shapes could not be achieved. Additionally, the performers were strained by an ambitious schedule that spanned seven months and three different cities. In one incident highlighted across newspaper articles, principal ballerina Ludmilla Tchérina fainted onstage during a performance in Paris after months of dancing with no understudy.  

It was during this run of the opera in Paris that the production faced its decline. According to Alvary, ticket sales slowed after Dalí publicly expressed his dissatisfaction at a Paris performance. Alvary, who had considered further touring the opera in London and New York City, abandoned these future plans.

Happily for the IMA, the story of the watercolors did not end with the opera. Per his contract with Dalí, Alvary owned the watercolors but legally could not sell them. He could, however, donate them to a museum. Although he considered giving the four watercolors to another institution, he ultimately gifted them to the IMA between 1973 and 1975, likely because his wife, Hallie Fox Alvary, was a resident of La Porte, Indiana. The four watercolors went on display in 1979, along with other artworks from Alvary’s collection, including the opera’s costume designs. The costume designs never joined the IMA’s collection, and their present-day whereabouts, along with that of a fifth set design, are unknown. Following the exhibition, the IMA’s four watercolors rested in storage, awaiting their chance to go on display again. Former Curator of European Art, Dr. Annette Schlagenhauff proposed their inclusion in the Dalí iteration of THE LUME Indianapolis, and they will finally be on view for the first time since 1979.  

The fascinating tale of the watercolors’ commission, use, and eventual arrival at the IMA, as illuminated by the Lorenzo Alvary papers at the New York Public Library, enhances our understanding of these works of art. It is just one of the many stories awaiting discovery through research of the Museum’s collection.       

Exhibition Credits:
THE LUME Indianapolis is made possible through funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. Additional support is provided by Monna Quinn & David Spoelstra, and Ms. Nancy L. McMillan. In-kind support is generously provided by Show Sage LLC.

Image Credits:
Rendering of THE LUME Indianapolis featuring Dalí Alive courtesy of Grande Experiences. Artworks (left to right): The Persistence of Memory,1931; Melting Watch, 1954; and The Disintegration of The Persistence of the Memory, 1952–1954. © 2024 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.  
Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904–1989), Apotheosis (Design for the Opera La Dama Spagnola e il Cavaliere Romano), 1960–1961, pencil and watercolor on white paper with collage, 27-1/2 × 27-1/2 in. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Lorenzo Alvary, 73.106 © 2024 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. 

Review of the 1979 exhibition featuring the Dalí watercolors in the Indianapolis News, July 7, 1979. Indianapolis Museum of Art Exhibition Records (EXH001), Newfields Archives.