Stuart Haldorn (stepson of James A. Murray) commissioned Salvador Dali to paint a full portrait of his wife, the former Enid Gregg, in 1948. On his passing, he donated the painting to the de Young Museum in San Francisco where it hangs today. Enid was a familiar subject for noted artists. As a debutante in San Francisco at the turn of the nineteenth century, she was photographed by Arnold Genthe on numerous occasions and at least once by Francis Bruguière. She also stood for a full portrait by Walter Cox. In those days, Enid was popular member of the City’s elite, with her social calendar captured in society pages every week. Besides the accounting of her tea parties and dances, her image was captured by the press, either in new fashions or performing at charity events four to six times a year.
Special attention was given by the press to her departure for Paris in 1910 with her mother and fellow debutant Kathleen de Young (daughter of the founder and namesake of the de Young museum). That article included a portrait of her mother, wearing a dress that is also in the collection of the de Young today. Enid’s return was highly anticipated by fashion critics, one writing, “Miss Gregg without doubt will appear in something daring and extreme on her return.” Enid did not disappoint. Upon her return she wowed the crowds at the St. Francis Tea Room. The papers photographed Enid in her new mummy dress along with the reaction of her fellow debs. “There were exclamations of “Oh!” and “Ah!” from the group of younger girls who greeted Miss Gregg and subdued remarks of “Perfectly stunning” and “Too stylish for anything,” reported the press.
Fast forward 25 years, and it is Salvador Dali’s turn to capture Enid’s beauty. The 55-year-old sits with her left side to the artist on a small section of crumbling adobe bricks, on a vast sandy beach with just one twisted barren tree (reminiscent of the windblown cypress trees that dot the rocky shores of Monterey and surrounds). She is dressed in a flowing gown and sandals as a stiff wind blows back her salt and pepper hair and a delicate scarf. Her left arm hangs down at her side, as she releases a few sea shells to the sand below. In the distance, nine characters wander the shoreline. An angel, holding the hand of a small girl offers a handout to a beggar. A woman walks alone, passing a solitary man sitting by the shore. The man is crouching as someone guiding a small sailboat (perhaps her husband partaking in his favorite past time). A man in a religious robe stands facing the same direction as Enid, leaning slightly into the wind. A woman and a small child hold hands just where land and sea meet. Finally, there is a woman that appears to be dancing, like Enid when she was a young women performing for charities. The sky is shared by wispy white clouds, a dark imposing thunderhead, and a sliver of the moon. The sun’s rays break through the puffy dark clouds, casting long shadows for each of the characters in Enid’s gallery.
It is no easy task interpreting the symbolism of a surreal image. But there are some things we know about the subject that are reflected in Dali’s work. She and her husband lived in a seaside mansion in Monterey for many years with their own small, but private beach. Their Monterey community cherished adobe structures. Besides the man crouching to sail, and the girl dancing on the beach, it is difficult to pin down the meaning of the other characters. Enid lived a fairly private life in Monterey after her marriage to Stuart. The dark clouds certainly could represent the suffering she experienced early in life. She lost her mother when she was just 22, only a year after her marriage to Stuart. Just a few years later she experienced a severe mental breakdown. Then in 1922, she lost her father. The rays of light could represent that she was never for want, inheriting great wealth from her husband’s stepfather, James A. Murray.
Despite the challenge of interpreting the complex painting, it makes perfect sense that the former debutante, who started her adult like with artists capturing the beauty of her youth, bookend her life with the work of another artist. It is also fitting that the work hangs in the museum which holds her mother’s most cherished dress, and is named after the father of her former childhood friend.