Swans Reflecting Elephants – Salvador Dali

You know, the world is full of things which makes your brain believe that it can see something which isn’t actually there.  You know what I am talking about… things like seeing a hot dog in clouds or a face in the pattern of fabric.  It’s called Pareidolia, and it is a psychological phenomenon where the brain responds to stimulus of a pattern (or a sound) and perceiving something that isn’t really there.  I know psychological phenomenon seems a bit heavy for an opener to one of my articles, but it just fits so well with this painting, with that in mind lets give you a light-hearted example of Pareidolia…


Hopefully you can all see the faces in these every day objects.  It is the same phenomenon which is the bases for the renown ink blot test.  It is also really the bases for Dali’s double image pictures – as they play on this phenomenon although he never really attributed them to this, rather created his own term “paranoia-critical method” which he references in his 1935 essay “The Conquest of the Irrational”.

This is one of my favourite paints by Dali – I was not a normal child (hard to believe I know) so when everyone else had posters of Bros on their wall – I had a print of this, I was mesmerised by it on sight and that print followed me around right up until I left university and it was too battered to be presentable.  I have put off writing about this painting more times that I care to mention, as I just don’t think I can give it the justice it deserves, but I will certainly give it a try.

“Swans Reflecting Elephants” was painted in 1937 oil on canvas and demonstrates a process Dali called “spontaneous method of irrational understanding based upon the interpretative critical association of delirious phenomena.” Dali used this method to bring forth the hallucinatory forms, double images and visual illusions that filled his paintings during the Thirties.  Which is all just a very fancy and artsy way of saying pareidolia.

“Swans Reflecting Elephants” uses a very similar setting to “Metamorphosis of Narcissus”, rocky backdrop with a lake, it is a typical Catalonian landscape, as used in so many of Dali’s paintings as a homage to his home.  The colour pallet is that of a fiery autumnal hue, and in the brushwork of the cliffs are swirls in a direct contract to the stillness of the water on the lake.  At first glance of the picture, you notice three swans on a lake, which bare trees behind them.  Then you start to look a little closer… Ok the title of the painting does somewhat give away what you are looking for, but in the water, you can see three elephants, the swans neck and plumage making the trunks, the trees creating their legs.  To the left-hand side of the lake a man stands, thoughtfully looking away from the illusion.

I have read many reviews, and analytical essays on this piece, and it always surprises me when it is said how hard it is to see the elephants or the man standing on the shore line, and I find it even more peculiar when this picture is described as “weird” or “odd”, so while the painting is in camp of surrealism, the elements in it are all very realistic (aside from the clouds which appear to be upended), but as always I can hear you crying out at me what is all means.

Let’s talk about the man first, some feel that this is a self portrait of Dali, facing away from the surrealist event demonstrating his frustration at the direction that the surrealist movement was going in during the 1930s.  Others feel that this could be a premonition of his brother Salvador who died, while others think that this could just be a portrait of Andre Duchamp, it has never really been pinned down as to who exactly the man is, but to me, as he the man is facing away from the swans/elephants in almost a ponderous stance, it does feel that there is a air of confusion or frustration to him, so I would lean towards this being a self portrait (much as I love Dali, he was a huge egotist, so it would only make sense for him to add his own frustration to the piece.

The swans and elephants might feel like a really unnatural combination, lets face it, they are not two things that come in to contact with each other under natural circumstances.  There aren’t many swans wandering around Africa or India, equally there are not many elephants skipping around the lakes and rivers of the UK, but symbolically the pair make a beautiful union.

Elephants hold the symbolism of strength, unity and power as well as being marked as sympathetic and clever.  Swans are the symbol of love, music, poetry and art.  So together, for me, this painting is about the strength and love for what Dali was truly passionate about.  He was a surrealist through and through and if we combine that I think the man is a frustrated Dali, this is about him continuing to follow his passion and hold strong to his own style.

This painting has always given me an inspirational push as the power of the symbolism is so strong in this piece, the images flow so happily together that there is a union between bird and beast which is so serene.

What do you think about “Swans Reflecting Elephants”? Why not tell me in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?


14 thoughts on “Swans Reflecting Elephants – Salvador Dali

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  1. How cleverly done! The elephants’ reflection is so surprising there. The frustrated man appears quite unexpectedly too, like taken from a collage. I wonder why Dali has him facing away… if it was truly a self-portrait. Unless he was pondering leaving Surrealism behind? Well, a good head-scratcher is always welcome! And I just love the contrast between the swans and the elephants. He somehow makes it work brilliantly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Out of all his double image pieces I think this is my favourite. It flows so well and just has such an air to it. I still feel like I get new elements of it coming through now… and I have spent a lot of time looking at this painting 😂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It shows, I think you did it justice! It’s a lovely post. I sympathize with you, I know how difficult it is to write about your favorite artworks. It’s like being in elementary school and telling the boy/girl you fancy that you have a crush on them. GULP.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. You just described it perfectly. Most pieces I relish writing about, yet there is the odd one that I look at and while I love the piece the thought of writing about it fills me with dread 😂 thank you for your on going support though 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  2. An effective illusion. And pareidolia are such fun. Vast image caches on the net for those.

    I wonder if Dali wasn’t painting a swan one day, painted its reflection and said – whoa, that looks like an elephant.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow, this is a very clever analysis. Optical illusions are a fascinating phenomenon that I also like to observe in nature (especially rainbow). The use of artistic optical illusions was common in Dali’s time. René Magritte, Arcimboldo, Escher also created fabulous artwork. Dali was especially obsessed with controlling his image. He acted in the manner of strategists to access that power of master of the world. Fortunately, only in the constructed space of the field of art. I really enjoy pour post.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Fantastic write on what is also my favorite work by Dali. Long ago when I was introduced to it, it was explained as there being 4 swans. Look to far left to a wilting swan. There’s been many a theory on that one from it being fallen angel Lucifer, to Dali’s disdain to the way surrealism was going, as Death as in the 4th Horseman of the Apocalypse to a prediction of a coming death of someone close to Dalí himself. As for the man, I most definitely believe it’s Dalí himself. I was told he is, in some form (not nearly as obvious as this but sometimes in shadow, sometimes entwined with Gala etc) usually to be discovered in all his work as is Gala. Many are very hard to see. As for Swans Reflecting Elephants, when I had a great framed lithograph of it, I mounted it on what would appear as a dart board mount that rotated. Every 30 minutes it would rotate the art 180 degrees such that the swans & elephants took turns being on top. This work has long been taken from me and I’m ready to find it again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing how much you also love this painting 😊 Dali is by far one of my favourite artists and I have read A LOT about him and the multiple theories on his work. He never fails to intrigue me


  5. I love this too and just completed a puzzle of the image. In addition to the 4th wilted swan, who has a crutch, I also see a figure of a woman in the central tree branches in deep aqua facing away from Dali. The taller middle cloud appears to have 2 or maybe even 3 figures in it facing left.

    Liked by 1 person

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