The Life and Work of Man Ray, Modernist Artist

Portrait of May Ray
McKeown / Getty Images

An enigma during his lifetime, Man Ray was a painter, sculptor, filmmaker, and poet. He is best known for his photography and experimental art in the Dadaist and Surrealist mode. Ray was one of the rare artists who never seemed to struggle. After launching a serious career in his youth, he moved effortlessly between media, formats, styles, and geographical locations. Today, Ray is revered as a modernist icon.

Fast Facts: Man Ray

  • Known For: Painter and photographer associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist artistic movements
  • Born: August 27, 1890 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
  • Died: November 18, 1976 in Paris, France
  • Major Works: The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows, Le Cadeau (The Gift), Le Violon d'Ingres (The Violin of Ingres), Les Larmes (Glass tears)
  • Spouse(s): Adon Lacroix (1914-1919, formally divorced in 1937); Juliet Browner (1946-1976)

Early Life

Man Ray, circa 1952
Man Ray, circa 1952. Michel Sima

Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1890. Shortly after, the family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Emmanuel—known as Manny to his family—grew up. In 1912, when Emmanuel was 22, the Radnitzky family changed their name to Ray in an effort to avoid the antisemitism they had encountered. Emmanuel and his siblings changed their first names to match. A cultivator of mystery, Ray often refused to admit that he’d ever had a different name.

Ray demonstrated artistic skill at an early age. In high school, he learned the fundamentals of drafting and illustration, and after graduation announced his intention to become a professional artist. Ray's family was concerned about the viability of this career decision and would have preferred their son apply his artistic and creative talents as an architect, but nonetheless supported him by creating a studio space in their home. During this period, Ray took work as a commercial artist and technical illustrator in order to support himself and his family.

Early Work and Dada

The Gift by Man Ray
The Gift by Man Ray. Public Domain

In 1912, Ray moved to New York City to attend the Modern School (also called the Ferrer School). In New York, he founded his footing, moving away from the classic painting styles of the 19th century and embracing modern movements such as cubism and Dada. Two years after arriving in New York, Ray married his first wife: poet Adon Lacroix. The couple couple separated five years later. 

Early paintings such as The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows saw Ray using modernist techniques to capture a sense of movement in painting; the work is an explosion of images that make no obvious sense but which pull together as a memory of a tight-rope walker. Later, Man Ray absorbed the concept of Readymades from friend and fellow artist Marcel Duchamp during this period, creating works such as The Gift, a sculpture created from everyday objects combined in an unusual and striking way—in this case, an old iron and some carpenter’s thumbtacks. The result is an object with no definable use that nonetheless comments on the gender divisions of modern life at the time.

Ray brought immense discipline and planning to his work. This attitude subverted the popular notion that surrealism relied on luck rather than artistic ability. 

Paris, Photography, and Surrealism

Le Violon d'Ingres by Man Ray
Le Violon d'Ingres by Man Ray. Public Domain

In 1921, Ray moved to Paris, where he would live until 1940. Unlike many American artists who flocked to Paris only to return a short time later, Ray quickly became comfortable on the European stage. In Paris, he concentrated on his photographic work, exploring techniques such as solarization and rayographs, which he produced by arranging objects directly on photographic paper. He also made short experimental films in the surrealist mode.

At the same time, Ray became an in-demand fashion photographer, with work regularly gracing notable fashion magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. Ray took on the fashion work to pay the bills, but by integrating his surrealist sensibility and experimental approach into his fashion photography, Ray used the work to strengthen his reputation as a serious artist. 

Ray’s photography was unpredictable and surprising, treating his subjects as objects that could be modified or arranged in unusual ways. One famous example is his photograph Le Violon d'Ingres, which features Kiki de Montparnasse, with whom Ray was romantically involved for years. In the image, de Montparnasse is photographed from behind wearing only a turban. Ray painted the sound-holes of a violin on her back, noting the similarity in shape between a violin and a women’s body.

Another example of Ray’s surrealist approach to photography is Les Larmes, a photo that at first glance appears to be a model looking upwards with glass tears affixed to her face. Even that superficially artistic impression is inaccurate, however; the subject isn’t a model at all but a mannequin, expressing Ray’s longtime interest in mixing the real and the unreal. 

Interrogating the Past

Les Larmes by Man Ray
Les Larmes by Man Ray. Public Domain

World War II forced Ray to move back to the United States from Paris in 1940. Instead of New York, he settled in Los Angeles, where he would live until 1951. In Hollywood, Ray shifted his focus back to painting, as he believed fervently that all modes of artistic expression were equally interesting. He also met his second wife, dancer Juliet Browner. The couple married in 1946.

Ray and Browner moved to Paris in 1951, where Ray began to interrogate his own artistic legacy. He recreated earlier pieces that had been destroyed in the war as well as other iconic works. He made 5,000 copies of The Gift in 1974, for example, many of which can be found in museums around the world today.

Death and Legacy

Black and White by Man Ray
Black and White by Man Ray. Public Domain

In 1976, the 86-year-old Ray died of complications stemming from a lung infection. He passed away in his studio in Paris.

Active and creatively vibrant up until his final days, Man Ray is remembered as one of the most important and influential modern artists of the 20th century. His early efforts in the Dada style helped establish the Dadaist movement. Ray's painting and photography work broke new ground, redefining the boundaries of subject matter and broadening notions of what art could be.

Famous Quotes

  • “One of the satisfactions of a genius is his will-power and obstinacy.”
  • “There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love. There are simply different ways of doing it.”
  • “To create is divine, to reproduce is human.”
  • “l paint what cannot be photographed, and l photograph what l do not wish to paint.”
  • “I do not photograph nature. I photograph my visions.”

Sources and Further Reading

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Somers, Jeffrey. "The Life and Work of Man Ray, Modernist Artist." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Somers, Jeffrey. (2020, August 27). The Life and Work of Man Ray, Modernist Artist. Retrieved from Somers, Jeffrey. "The Life and Work of Man Ray, Modernist Artist." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).