Lost Masterpieces

The Salvador Dalí Paintings That Went Up In Flames

Art by Rubens, Hals, Titian, and Turner were all lost in a 1956 house fire suffered by impresario Billy Rose–as well as the extremely storied 'Seven Lively Arts' by Salvador Dalí.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

At 2:10 a.m. on April 2, 1956, the butler at the home that would come to be known as Rose Hill in Mount Kisco, New York woke up in the east wing to the smell of smoke.

His investigation uncovered a fire raging out of control on the ground floor of the west wing of the 28-room, three-story Georgian mansion.

The blaze had knocked out the phone line, so he woke up the three servants asleep in the home, the only other people there at the time, and then ran half a mile to the caretaker’s cottage to call the fire department.

But help was not immediately on the way. When the firemen arrived, they discovered that the nearest water source was a pond over a mile away, and it took them an hour to get the hose laid out and water flowing.

Let’s just say it all burned up. That’s all I want to say. I lost a lot of things that can’t be replaced with money

It was too late. The house was in flames and all that was left for the firemen to do was wet down the surrounding grass to try to prevent the spread of flames to the grounds. The house was left with “nothing standing but blackened brick walls.”

It was a heartbreaking scene, more so for those who knew that in the ash that swirled from the ruins were the vaporized remains of masterpieces by Rubens, Hals, Titian, Turner, and more great artists who had made up the impressive art collection of the home’s owner and theater impresario Billy Rose. Among those was a series of seven Salvador Dalí oil paintings titled 'The Seven Lively Arts.'

“Let’s just say it all burned up. That’s all I want to say. I lost a lot of things that can’t be replaced with money,” Rose told the New York Herald Tribune after he arrived on the scene from his apartment in Manhattan.

Dalí and Rose first met during preparations for the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, where the artist was commissioned to create a pavilion that he called “Dreams of Venus.”

Often described as a “surrealist funhouse,” the pale-pink facade covered with weird protrusions and statuary led via the recorded song of Sirens into a space filled with naked women, bizarre tableaus, and a radical combination of references to the Renaissance, current pop culture, and the risqué.

Rose helped Dali achieve his vision using his experience as a nightclub don known for putting on raucous shows of his own, among his many other profitable showbiz ventures.

With that collaboration, a long friendship was born. Dalí would supply the illustrations for Rose’s 1946 autobiography Wine, Women, and Words. But before that, Rose envisioned a theater extravaganza for which he enlisted the surrealist’s help.

In December 1944, World War II was still raging, but the end was in sight. Rose had bought the Ziegfeld Theater earlier that year and had transformed it from a picture house back into its original incarnation as a showcase for the art of the stage.

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To christen the theater, he decided to put on a musical revue that would both introduce the space under his new ownership and be a Broadway spectacle the likes of which New York hadn’t seen since the before the war.

His new play was titled Seven Lively Arts, and it told the story of “a group of young people who come to New York to woo the arts.”

Eventually, according to The New York Times review, “Mr. Rose just throws story to the winds, and Seven Lively Arts becomes a revue, or vaudeville, or whatever.”

In addition to the art of the stage, Rose decided that he wanted to wow his theater guests with art of the painted variety. He asked Dalí to create seven works of art to be displayed in the lobby of the theater that would depict the seven arts also referenced in the show: theater, popular music, opera, ballet, classical music, movies, and the radio.

Life magazine, who photographed the paintings in the series 'The Seven Lively Arts' for an art feature, reported that Dalí created the works while “locked in a cubbyhole high in Ziegfeld Theater.”

The result were canvases that were classically Dalí, surrealist visions of the form and effects of the arts in question.

His paintings are deliberately irrational, reflecting the phantasmagoria of Dalí’s unconscious mind. Hence they make no sense to anybody but Dalí and usually not even to him

In the Art of the Ballet, for instance, a smoky dream sequence of a dance takes place in the center of an oval stage, with dancers who are half svelte ladies (the legs) morphing into lobsters (their whiskered heads and claws). They are avidly watched by an audience of insects and crustaceans.

In the Art of Boogie-Woogie, lean, naked figures dance in a sparse rectangular room, worked up into such a frenzy by the music and the movement that bits and pieces of viscera and ligaments fly around the space and off of the figures, some of whom seem to hover in the air, buoyed by the action.

“People who don’t care for the accompanying pictures are cautioned against saying that their 6-year-old son could do better because the answer is that he could not unless he is crazy,” read the account in Life. “Salvador Dalí, who painted them, is not only unbalanced to begin with but makes a business of seeming crazier than he is. His paintings are deliberately irrational, reflecting the phantasmagoria of Dalí’s unconscious mind. Hence they make no sense to anybody but Dalí and usually not even to him. Nevertheless Dal is a great draftsman, perhaps even a great artist.”

Big and rambling, sometimes it is top-heavy, but there is no getting away from the fact that as a Broadway show it is right in the groove

The production received lukewarm reviews, with the New York Times deeming it “big and rambling, and sometimes it is top-heavy, but there is no getting away from the fact that as a Broadway show it is right in the groove.” Cole Porter produced all of the music for the revue, which the Times declared was “definitely…not his best.”

Despite this, the Dec. 7, 1944 opening night was a sensational affair. Rose instructed his ushers to serve the A-list audience free champagne before the show began, during intermission, and then again as the performers took their final bow. He reportedly went through 300 cases of bubbly over the course of the night. Ticket prices cost as much as $24 a seat (around $340 today).

“The opening of Billy Rose’s revue, Seven Lively Arts, in New York City on Dec. 7 was the most glamorous premiere since the war began and the apotheosis of the Manhattan phenomenon known as the first night,” Life magazine reported.

His guests were also treated to the grand reveal of the accompanying Dalí paintings in the theater’s lounge. One photo from the night shows Alfred Hitchcock, glass of champagne in hand, standing in front of Dalí’s Art of the Cinema painting. (A year later, Dali would help Hitchcock conceptualize and bring to life the surrealist dream sequence in his film Spellbound.)

Billy Rose’s Seven Lively Arts would go on to have 183 performances, but it’s run at the Ziegfeld was outlasted by the Dalí paintings, which remained on display for 10 years.

Two years before the devastating fire would break out, Rose moved the paintings to his mansion in Westchester. Their loss—and the loss of all of his worldly possessions…at this house, at least—was devastating to Rose.

Nearly three after the fire, New York Herald Tribune columnist HY Gardner was attending the sixty-sixth birthday party for singer Jimmy Durante when he saw Rose spot Dalí across the room, stand up, walk over to the artist, and give him a big hug.

When Gardner asked what prompted this “a rare display of affection,” he heard the story of what happened in the days following the devastation.

About a week after the blaze, Rose told him, Dalí contacted the entertainment mogul with his condolences. When Dalí discovered that his paintings were among those lost, he said, according to Rose, “Billy, the money you paid me back in 1943 was very important to me at that time. These pictures were like part of my life.”

Dalí gets anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 a picture these days. Any one of the seven paintings he replaced is now worth more than the 1943 price for all seven. I like nice people. And Dalí is one of the nicest

In order to return the favor for helping him at such a crucial moment, Dalí agreed to repaint the paintings for Rose for the original amount, which Rose had recovered in insurance claims. It was a significantly lower sum than Dalí’s pieces were fetching at the time, a fortune that was out of the financial reach of Rose.

The next year, Dalí returned from Spain and installed the re-incarnated series of The Seven Lively Arts in Rose’s Manhattan apartment.

”Dalí gets anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 a picture these days. Any one of the seven paintings he replaced is now worth more than the 1943 price for all seven. I like nice people. And Dalí is one of the nicest,” Rose told Gardner.

At least where the Dalís were concerned, the fiery affair didn’t end wholly in tragedy. The second series continues to exist today, although with significant differences from the original.  

While Dalí used the black-and-white Life photos as the basis for his recreations, he took liberties ranging from minor details to new compositions altogether to make the replacements. They are the surreal—sometimes haunting—doubles of their lost twins who disappeared into a wall of flames.

Reporting on the tragedy in 1956, Life ran an image of the fire, from which only some garden statuary survived. The image shows a large window surrounded by bricks. The glass of the window has been knocked out and the opening frames a stormy fire raging out of control.

Silhouetted against this brilliant and angry light is the lanky statue of lady, who stands serenely in profile amid the devastation. It is as if a Dalí painting has come to life.