Le chevalier de la mort (The Knight (or Horseman) of Death) is one of a series of dream-like paintings of spectral apparitions appearing on the vast empty Ampurdan plains near Dali's home in Port Lligat in Northern Spain that dominate much of the artist's imagery in the mid-1930s. Painted in 1934, during an ominous period of political uncertainty in Europe, especially in Spain, and one of dramatic personal change for Dali, this ethereal picture of a ghostly encounter between three spectral figures and death on a deserted plain is a deeply evocative and perhaps even prophetic work highly indicative of the strangely unnerving period in which it was made.
It is one of an outstanding series of paintings in which strange shroud-covered spectres, skulls and other clear images of death, petrification, decay and dissolution seem to perpetually permeate Dali's dreamscapes and newly-developed paranoiac-critical landscapes. Dali's subject of Le chevalier de la mort is founded loosely on the specific Christian theme of the journey of the Knight of Death - one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, immortalised in art historical terms by Albrecht Dürer's famous 1513 engraving - is one that consistently appears in the artist's work between 1933 and 1936.
This painting's first owner was Countess Anna Laetitia Pecci-Blunt a great patron of the arts and a friend of Dali's who along with eleven others founded the now famous Zodiac group as a way of lending regular financial support to Dali at this time. The Zodiac group was an entertaining and innovative form of patronage that consisted of the twelve members of the group paying an annual stipend to the artist in return for one of them receiving a painting each month. Le chevalier de la mort appears to have been acquired by Countess Pecci-Blunt through her participation in the group. It appears to have been a strange feature of Dali's art at this time however, that just as his formerly precarious financial situation was beginning to stabilise, and at a time when his international reputation as probably the leading Surrealist painter of his generation was becoming established, the artist's always feverish imagination became heavily haunted by the spectre of death. Recognising it first as an unknown anxiety forcing its way into his consciousness and later materialising in his paintings in the form of anamorphic skulls or as decomposing or petrifying horses, Dali came to recognise the imagery of his dreams as not merely indicative of his own private concerns with death but also with a creeping premonition of the Spanish Civil War.
In this version of the subject of the 'Knight of Death', Dali seems to directly engage with his own 'petrifying' fear, presenting the towering spectre of a horse materialising or perhaps disintegrating into the sky behind the elongated limbs of a figure who resembles the 'ghost of Vermeer' in several other Dali paintings of this time. Vermeer was what Dali once described as 'the authentic painter of spectres' and, along with de Chirico and Böcklin, was an artist who always prompted in him an 'unconscious funereal feeling.' (Salvador Dali quoted in Haim Finkelstein, The Collected Writings of Salvador Dali, Cambridge, 1998, p. 152.) The figure in this work, though possibly not Vermeer, has similarly had his right leg transformed into a table while he holds aloft what appears to be either an egg, or more appropriately perhaps a skull. This morphological ambiguity between an egg and a skull recalls a similar ambiguous use of this form in the painting Geological Destiny which Dali once explained, depicted a horse metamorphosing into a rock.
In the distance, forming a strange triangle with this apparent depiction of a horsemen's Hamlet-like philosophical contemplation of death, the human-like form of a shrouded spectre of the kind that would populate so many of Dali's empty white-plain landscapes of this period seems to arise out of the land. Part ghost, part geological outcrop or monolith, this shrouded figure, like the disintegrating horse or the furniture-like figure, is also ultimately an image of paralysis or immobility. The common theme of this version of Le chevalier de la mort therefore, appears to be that the contemplation of death is in itself a process of paralysis and petrification.