Born in Galesburg, Illinois to Swedish parents, Dorothea Tanning studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago School in 1930. She furthered her knowledge of art by going to New York and visiting galleries and museums. Impressed by an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, she was impelled towards painting. After meeting Max Ernst at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1942, Tanning became part of the group of exiled Surrealists living in New York during World War II. She had her first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1944.
Tanning married Max Ernst in 1946, but he had no perceivable influence on her work. After the late 1930’s, Tanning depicted young women and their sexual fears and fantasies in a hyper- realistic style. During the 1950’s her work became more abstract with more violent images that were not clearly discernable. From the late 1940s’, Tanning and Ernst spent a great deal of time in France, consequently Tanning’s work is much better known in Europe than in the United States.