When Tanning was eighteen and a student at Knox College, she did a series of drawings inspired by the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley. At twenty, she ran away to Chicago, and enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Arts—where she spent just two weeks—then became a commercial artist and directed a puppet theater. After moving to New York, she worked at the Metropolitan Opera as a walk-on extra, and as a photographer's model. Frequenting galleries and museums, she received an initiatory shock at the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, in 1936. Her first paintings, depicting perverse little girls at play—scenes that corresponded to childhood terrors—were shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. It was there that she met Max Ernst, in 1942, whom she married and moved with to Sedona, Arizona, enjoying a solitude interrupted only by the occasional trip. During a stay in Honolulu, in 19..52, she taught painting at the University of Hawaii. In 1955, she accompanied Ernst to France where they settled at Huismes (Indre-et-Loire). Her paintings —shown several times in Paris—changed in style. Her canvases, through colored mists, suggest orgiastic ceremonies, sometimes presided over by a monstrous dog (Paris and Vicinity, 1961-2, Whitney Museum of Art, New York). She created the sets and costumes for two of Balanchine's ballets, Night Shadow and Bayou, and made etchings, including those illustrating Accueil (1962), an unpublished book by René Crevel, and La Marée (1962), a story by André Pieyre de Mandiargues. She expressed her Dionysian pre-occupations in sculptures made of padded fabric. After Max Ernst's death, she left France, moving to New York in 1981. In 1986 she published her auto-biography, Birthday, and had several exhibitions in New York galleries, including a show titled Emotions, in 1989, which featured her collages, and an exhibit, Messages, in 1990, which featured her works on paper. A retrospective of her drawings and sculptures was held in 1993 at the Canadian Arts Center in London, after first being shown in Malmö, Sweden. Later in life, she wrote the novel Chasm (2004) and published poems in the New Yorker.
Born 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois; died 2012 in New York.