Art History Lab

Rebellion and Resilience: The Extraordinary Life and Art of Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington: Her Life and Art

Leonora Carrington was an influential artist known for her contribution to the feminist Surrealist movement. Her unconventional life, ranging from a rebellious youth to an exploration of Surrealism, has influenced her art and made her one of the most sought-after artists of all time.

In this article, we will delve into her life and discuss her journey as an artist, exploring her early years, education, and influences.

Early Life and Rebellion

Carrington was born in 1917 to a wealthy British family. Growing up, she was expected to live an arranged life and conform to the societal norms of the upper-class.

However, from an early age, Carrington was always rebellious, which caused conflict between her and her family. She studied at a boarding school with a focus on the arts, which further contributed to her rebellion against her familys expectations.

Exploration of Surrealism

In her early twenties, Carrington began exploring Surrealism, which had only just begun to emerge as a prominent movement in art. Her artworks from her Surrealist period display a variety of female imagery and symbolism, along with her interpretation of nature and the animal world.

Her exploration of Surrealism placed her in the company of some of the most prominent Surrealist artists of her time. She was known for her feminist work in Surrealism, which was groundbreaking considering how it is often considered to be a male-dominated movement.

Carrington’s Unconventional Birth

Carrington’s creation story is one of the most bizarre stories of all time. According to her mother, she was born after a communion with a machine, animal, and human – with the creature’s face being that of her future father.

This bizarre story further exhibited Carrington’s interest in the world of Surrealism.

Influence of Upbringing and Education

Her rebellious nature was further fueled by the strictly Roman Catholic boarding schools that she attended. These schools were often known for their strict disciplinary measures and oppressive atmosphere.

Carrington’s art provided a way to escape from the restrictions imposed by her upbringing and education, making it a necessary and influential part of her life.


In conclusion, Leonora Carrington was an artist of great influence known for her rebellion against the norms and her exploration of Surrealism. She used her art to escape from her strict upbringing and education, making it an essential aspect of her life.

To this day, her art continues to inspire individuals around the world. It is a testament to her incredible talent and the influence of Surrealism in the modern art scene.

3) Leonora Carrington and Surrealism

Leonora Carrington’s affinity for Surrealism began early in her artistic career. In 1936, Carrington painted her first Surrealist piece named The Inn of the Dawn Horse, which was exhibited at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London.

However, her first Surrealist painting was not welcomed due to the lack of familial support and understanding of the movement’s tenets. Despite this, Carrington was determined to explore the movement further and continued to study and create works that embodied Surrealism’s principles.

With her interest in Surrealism growing, Carrington found herself increasingly drawn to the movement and began attending lectures on the subject, which led her to meet her future partner, Max Ernst. They fell in love and began a close and passionate relationship marked by artistic collaboration and inspiration.

Their influence on each other was significant, shaping their artistic styles and philosophies, and thus contributing to their artistic development. Ernst’s influence, in particular, was prominent in Carrington’s early body of work, which demonstrated a similar genre of Surrealist imagery and the use of nature and animals.

Despite the considerable influences on her photographic and artistic style, Carrington retained autonomy in relating her artistic expression. She was keen to explore her artistic vision in Surrealism, moving away from the traditional romantic, Freudian, or violent themes so often adopted by male Surrealists.

Instead, she adopted a symbolic resignation of the world’s contemporary values and used her art to show how it could be possible to maintain a sense of strength and dignity in times of crisis.

4) Fleeing the Nazis and Fighting Mental Health

In 1939, Carrington and Ernst fled to Paris, where they joined a thriving community of Surrealist artists. Unfortunately, their peaceful lives were interrupted by the Second World War, which forced them to flee once more to the south of France.

After the Nazi occupation, Carrington was arrested by the French Police for her association with the Nazi enemy, while Ernst was taken by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp. The detention and arrest heightened her already unstable mental state, and she broke down with hallucinations and suicidal tendencies.

In 1942, Carrington was admitted to Headingley Mental Hospital in Leeds, where she underwent convulsive therapy. The treatment served to reinforce her mental instability, and she remained in the asylum until her father arranged to have her transferred to a private institution in 1944.

During her stay in the English mental institution, Carrington continued to draw and produce other types of artistic works. She experimented with new forms such as etching and lithography.

Although Carrington’s commitment to Surrealism undoubtedly influenced her work following the end of the war, the traumatic experiences of World War II bore heavily on the artist and marked a turning point in her work. Her art later showed a greater influence of unbridled symbolism and a return to mysticism and her beliefs in magic.

This was also marked by a deep connection to nature, with an emphasis on the transformation of wounded or decaying life into new life. In conclusion, Leonora Carrington’s life was one marked by turbulent times, including fleeing the Nazis, mental health struggles, and uncertainty.

Still, despite these difficulties, she remained steadfast in her commitment to Surrealism and her creative artistic output, which laid the groundwork for her significant contributions to the movement. Her art continues to inspire art lovers from all walks of life, making her an important figure in modern art.

5) Leonora Carrington in Mexico

In 1942, Leonora Carrington settled in Mexico and began a new chapter in her life as an artist. There, she found inspiration in Mexico’s rich cultural heritage, including its local folklore and legends.

Eventually, Carrington married Emerico Weisz, settled in Mexico City, and began exploring new forms of expression, collaborating with other artists such as Remedios Varo. Carrington and Varo’s friendship further expanded their artistic influence, constructing an alternative reality in their art that showcased their artistic prowess.

Despite initially finding work as a model for advertisement agencies, Carrington continued to produce her artistic work, which slowly gained her recognition within her community. Carrington’s newfound political activism came with her association with a group of bohemian artists and writers, including Varo.

Her involvement in women’s rights, culminating in the co-founding of the Mexican women’s liberation movement, provided an opportunity for her art to reflect her feminist ideals and her belief that society should respect and protect all women. Carrington’s contributions to gender equality receive recognition on an international scale when she was selected as a delegate of the United Nations Womens Caucus for Art, which sought to identify ways to incorporate feminist art into public space and encourage the recognition of female artists.

6) The Late Life and Legacy of Leonora Carrington

Towards the end of her life, Carrington’s focus shifted from painting to creating bronze sculptures. She began to sculpt thanks to the encouragement of her close friend, sculptor, and painter, Remedios Varo.

Carrington found the medium of bronze sculptures to be especially suited to her artistic style while being able to pay homage to Mexican culture’s rich artistic heritage. In 1965, Carrington had her first solo exhibition in New York at the D’Arcy Galleries, which established her reputation as a significant presence in the art world.

In her Mexican home, Carrington continued to experiment with new materials, including a 26 meter mural, and when she visited Chicago and New York, she became increasingly interested in unconventional materials. During her near 50-year career in sculpture, Carrington created more than 45 pieces.

Carrington’s groundbreaking contribution to art, particularly through her feminist perspective, and her commitment to art as an expression of the highest human aspirations, have cemented her status as a feminist icon. With time, she became an inspiration to a new generation of artists, with her retrospective exhibitions throughout various countries showing the depth of her influence on artists who succeeded her.

Her influence on other creatives is particularly significant, with numerous female artists looked to her as a source of inspiration and guidance. In conclusion, Leonora Carrington’s life was one marked with creative exploration, social and political activism, and a commitment to her artistic vision.

Her contributions to Surrealism, feminism, and her incredible artistic output make her an important figure in modern art. Despite the considerable challenges she faced, Carrington remained committed to her art and showed that one’s finest work can come from the most difficult experiences.

Her legacy continues to inspire generations of artists and continues to play an instrumental role in the advancement of gender equality. 7) Leonora Carrington’s Paintings

Leonora Carrington’s paintings were a reflection of her inner world, often challenging societal conventions and delving into the depths of her own psyche.

In her self-portraits, she presented herself in androgynous riding clothes, challenging traditional gender roles and societal expectations. The inclusion of a female hyena in some of her self-portraits further emphasized Carrington’s rejection of convention and her exploration of a fluid sense of identity.

Symbolism played a significant role in Carrington’s paintings, with many of her works incorporating autobiographical details and personal mythology. One example of this is her painting “Self-Portrait (The White Horse),” in which she depicted herself sitting astride a white horse named Lord Candlestick.

The horse symbolized Carrington’s connection to the subconscious and the spiritual realm, while the presence of Lord Candlestick represented an animal familiar from her personal mythology. Another recurring motif in Carrington’s paintings was maternal symbolism, often depicted through the imagery of a mother and child.

This symbolism served as a representation of fertility and creation, reflecting Carrington’s desire to celebrate the power and strength of femininity. Through her art, Carrington was able to transcend personal experiences and tap into the universal aspects of the human experience.

8) Leonora Carrington’s Books

In addition to her prolific career as a visual artist, Leonora Carrington also made significant contributions to literature. Her books, including “Down Below” and “The Hearing Trumpet,” provided a deeper insight into Carrington’s personal experiences and allowed her to explore themes related to mental illness and gender identity.

“Down Below” is a memoir in which Carrington details her experiences during her mental breakdown and her subsequent confinement in a psychiatric institution. It is a candid account of her struggles with mental illness, but it is also a reflection on resilience and the triumph of the human spirit.

Through this book, Carrington aimed to cleanse herself of the traumatic experiences she had endured and to find meaning and understanding in her own journey. “The Hearing Trumpet,” on the other hand, is a surreal and allegorical novel that explores themes of aging, femininity, and the search for identity.

The protagonist, Marian Leatherby, is an elderly woman whose life takes a turn when she receives a hearing trumpet, enabling her to hear the conversations of those around her. Through her newfound ability to listen, Marian becomes part of a community of aging women who challenge societal norms and celebrate the power and creativity of the feminine.

Both “Down Below” and “The Hearing Trumpet” highlight Carrington’s unique perspective and her ability to merge the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Her writings, like her artwork, were a means for her to express the complexities of her own experiences and to create narratives that resonated with universal themes.

In conclusion, Leonora Carrington’s paintings and books showcase her unique artistic vision, her defiance of societal norms, and her exploration of personal and universal themes. Her art, with its symbolic elements and autobiographical details, continues to captivate audiences and inspire generations of artists.

Likewise, her writings offer profound insights into her own experiences and provide a platform for a deeper understanding of mental health, femininity, and the human condition. Carrington’s legacy as both a visual artist and a writer remains a testament to her brilliance and her unwavering commitment to unearthing the mysteries of the mind and soul.

In conclusion, the life and art of Leonora Carrington reveal a remarkable journey of rebellion, exploration, and resilience. Her early rejection of convention and exploration of Surrealism challenged societal norms and established her as a prominent feminist voice in the art world.

Carrington’s paintings, filled with symbolic imagery and autobiographical details, reflected her unique perspective and served as a gateway into her inner world. Her books further expanded on themes of mental illness, gender identity, and the power of creativity.

Carrington’s legacy as an artist and writer continues to inspire and captivate, reminding us of the transformative power of art and the importance of embracing our true selves. Through her work, she encourages us to challenge societal expectations and celebrate the beauty and strength within.

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