The Persistence of Memory is a 1931 painting by artist Salvador Dali, and is one of his most recognizable works.
The well-known surrealist piece introduced the image of the soft melting pocket watch. It epitomizes Dalí’s theory of “softness” and “hardness“, which was central to his thinking at the time.
The Persistence of Memory is one of Dali’s biggest triumphs, but the actual oil on canvas painting measures only 24 cm x 33 cm (9 1/2” x 13″).
This painting made Dali world famous when he was 28 years old.
After its gallery show, a patron bought the piece and donated it to the Museum of Modern Art in 1934. It’s been a highlight of MoMA’s collection for 80 years and counting.
The Persistence of Memory has sparked considerable academic debate as scholars interpret the painting. Some critics believe the melting watches in the piece are a response to Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. As critic Dawn Ades put it, “the soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time.”
When asked directly if Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was an inspiration, Dali declared his true muse for the deformed clocks was a wheel of Camembert cheese that had melted in the sun. As Dali considered himself and his persona an extension of his work, the seriousness of this response is also up for debate.
It is possible to recognize a human figure in the middle of the composition, in the strange “monster” that Dali used in several contemporary pieces to represent himself – the abstract form becoming something of a self-portrait, reappearing frequently in his work.
The figure can be read as a “fading” creature, one that often appears in dreams where the dreamer cannot pinpoint the creature’s exact form and composition. One can observe that the creature has one closed eye with several eyelashes, suggesting that the creature is also in a dream state.
The iconography may refer to a dream that Dali himself had experienced, and the clocks may symbolize the passing of time as one experiences it in sleep or the persistence of time in the eyes of the dreamer.
The orange clock at the bottom left of the painting is covered in ants. Dali often used ants in his paintings as a symbol of decay.