Dorothea Tanning was born in 1910 in Gaelsburg, a provincial town in Illinois. She settled in New York in 1936 and earned a living as a commercial artist, producing magazine advertisements. It was in New York that she saw the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, at the Museum of Modern Art. It had a profound effect upon her and she began painting in a Surrealist manner.
She met Max Ernst in New York in 1942. They spent the summer of 1943 in Sedona, a town of about 500 people, just south of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. They were married in 1946, in a joint ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Browner. They moved immediately to Sedona, bought a plot of land and made their own cabin house.
In the late 1940s and 1950s Tanning and Ernst shuttled between Arizona and Paris where they kept a home and studio. In 1953 she had her first major show, at the Alexandre Iolas Gallery in New York. She held her first exhibition in France, at the Galerie Furstenberg, in 1954. Tanning and Ernst were based mainly in Paris and the south of France until 1976, when Ernst died. Tanning then returned to New York where she continued working right up until the end of her long life. She died in 2012, at the age of 101.