Temptation of the surreal

Amongst the countless images of religious figures, stories, ideas and themes, one in particular is the basis of this post: The Temptation of Saint Anthony.


To precis: St Anthony was born around 251 in Egypt.  A Christian monk, who it is believed was one of the first to go into the wilderness.  His story is linked to the many supernatural temptations  put his way during his sojourns.  Since his death in 356, he has been revered as a Saint and is called upon by those with infectious diseases, basket makers, brushmakers, farmers, gravediggers, to name but a few!

The influence of this story in Western art and literature is immeasurable and this post has a wealth of information on paintings before 1560:

The Story on Paintings: The Temptation of St Anthony before 1560

The story I have found fascinating brings the world of cinema into the equation.

In 1945, US film producer, Daniel Loew announced an art competition: Bel Ami International Art Competition and invited 12 renowned artists to compete to have their painting appear in a crucial scene in the film ‘The Private Affair of Bel Ami’, based on the story by Guy de Maupassant. The film centres around a social-climbing cad, who works his way through Parisian cafe society.  At the request of the film’s director, Albert Lewin who wanted the painting to appear in close-up during film, the competition was set.

Eleven artists took part (the 12th, Leonor Fini, declined) :

  1. Ivan Albright

    Ivan Albright (1945)The Temptation of St. Anthony © The Art Institute of Chicago.

    I love Albright’s work; the grotesque never fails with this artist and you have to spend a long time trying to work out what he has done.  The thick, impasto style lends itself to the subject matter and you do have to look very carefully to see where St Anthony is:


2. Eugene Berman

Eugene Berman (1899-1972)
La tentation de St. Antoine (The Temptation of St. Anthony)
ink on paper, 1946
signed with the initials and dated 1946 in ink lower right recto
titled upper left recto
paper size 12¼” x 9½” (31.1 x 24.1 cm.)

An artist I had not come across before, Eugene Berman was born in Russia and was also a set designer as well as a painter.  He settled in California in the early 1940s and a little information about him can be found here: Eugene Berman: Caldwell Gallery  The verticals of this drawing show how his design influence would have played a part in the finished painting.

3. Leonora Carrington



Anyone who follows this blog will know that I love Leonora!  This just hits the spot and the way in which she places St Anthony just off centre in order to bring in the surrealism of the landscape is sublime.  I love the way in which she creates the river pouring out of the jar.  One of the symbols attributed to St Anthony is the pig and, this little specimen is given pride of place at the feet of the Anthony the Good.

What is surprising, given the ferocity or sheer seductiveness of the tempters in the other works, Carrington imbues this scene with a serenity that may seem out of place.  What she depicts here is the way in which a man can be tempted by gentleness and a sense of respite from a weary world and not just from lust.

download (1)

Sotherby’s recently sold this painting and they gave more background to both this painting and the competition: Sotherby’s – Temptation of St Anthony, Leonora Carrington

4. Salvador Dalí


Well, it’s Dali, isn’t it?  Can we add anything to this one? Fulcrum Gallery

5. Paul Delvaux


I have to admit to a fondness of Paul Delvaux.  One of my favourite paintings of his is in Vienna, and I was fortunate to see that one.  He has an air of de Chirico about him with his use of perspective and the way he inserts buildings into the scenes,  Always with an air of melancholy about him, but, my goodness, any excuse for a passive nude, seems to be Delvaux’s forte!  You have to look closely for any sign of the saint, and I am guessing that he is the figure crawling away in the centre.

6. Max Ernst

Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg

There are times where you want to shout at Max Ernst and ask what in the blazes is going on here!  This one seems sinister but fun at the same time.  Trying to work out the symbolism is almost impossible but doesn’t the Saint’s cloak and the manipulation of his body make you think of a lobster?  Our poor St Antony doesn’t look tempted so much as terrified.   What is wonderful about this, is the landscape and the ruins.  Ernst calls on the flatness of Renaissance paintings to place his saint at the forefront of the landscape.  I love this quote from Ernst:

“Plunging into darkness, the weakening mind Antonia screams for help, but his cry of horror only echoes from the calm surface of the water and drowns out the laughter of the monsters generated by the saint’s imagination.”

Painting Planet – The Temptation of St Anthony

7. Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi

The Temptation of St. Anthony, [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son) Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
I could not find any information on the painting itself, although I did take a look at his other works: Wikiart – O.Louis Guglielmi  The lines of this make it very appealing and I so liked the way he had the head of St Anthony painted in such a way that we can see the agonies he goes through and which are mirrored in the rock behind him.  The saint’s attibutes of the Tau cross and book are clearly depicted here.  What is striking is the way the woman is partially clothed in the black stocking and long silk glove, giving a modern feel to the work.

8. Horace Pippin


Horace Pippin was an American artist whose works seem to be placed in the ‘Naive’ style of painting.  After horrors of Ernst and Dali, this one seems almost a blessing rather than a temptation.  Check out Pippin’s other works here:  The Athenaeum.org

9. Abraham Rattner

Abraham Rattner, Temptations on Saint Anthony, 1942, pen and ink and ink wash on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Abraham Rattner, 1981.153.10
Abraham Rattner, Temptations of Saint Anthony #5, 1945, pen and ink and ink wash on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Abraham Rattner, 1981.153.37


Another work where there seems to be very little to find on it, however, this held a lot of possibility as it would appear that Rattner had a few ideas about what he wanted to portray.

10. Stanley Spencer


This is so Stanley!  Using his Cookham as a kind of paradise, the writhing figures swarm around St Anthony, who appears to attempting to hide away in the grave.

11. Dorothea Tanning


This was my favourite! Tanning has encapsulated all that I have read about the temptations St Anthony experienced.  The way her voluptuous temptresses flow out of his clothing, swirling up and away but with a curve that indicates that they will swoop back down and reenter his being.  The way in which St Anthony pins down the demon with his left arm but can only ineffectively shield himself from the onslaught is wonderful.

Tanning herself said,

‘It seems to me that a man like our St. Anthony, with his self-inflicted mortification of the flesh, would be most crushingly tempted by sexual desires and, more particularly, the vision of woman in all her voluptuous aspects,’ she noted. ‘It is this phase, which I have tried to depict in my painting, St. Anthony, alone in the desert, struggles against his visions, half-formed, moving in indolent suggestions, coloured with the beautiful colours of sex, his desires take shape even in the folds of his own wind-tossed robes.’


But the winner?  It was, rather surprisingly…or not, depending on your point of view, Max Ernst!

And, if you want to see it used in the film, check it out at 1:16:48