The image of the 'Space Elephant" appeared for the first time in Dalí ’s 1946 painting "The Temptation of Saint Anthony".The origins of the painting making interesting reading; Dalí participated for the first and only time in a contest to create an artwork using the theme of the 'Temptation of Saint Anthony'. The contest was run by the ‘Loew Lewin Company’, a US movie- producing firm. The winning painting was to figure in a film taken from the story, ‘Bel Ami’ by Guy de Maupassant.
In total, eleven painters took part in the competition, among them Leonora Carrington, Dalí , Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, and Dorothea Tanning. Even though the prize was given to Max Ernst by a jury composed of Alfred Barr, Marcel Duchamp, and Sidney Janis, Dalí 's efforts produced a masterpiece.
For his contribution, Dalí created the image of an elephant in the Egyptian desert carrying an obelisk, a symbol of power and domination: temptations, according to Dalí, to which St. Anthony would not have been immune. Dalí painted these earthly temptations as a procession led by a rearing horse, a phallic symbol of the mastery of one person over another. Four elephants stand on almost invisible spider legs of desire, and offer art, beauty, power, erotic pleasures, and knowledge. This picture was painted in a studio that the artist occupied for a few days, next to the Colony Restaurant in New York.
The painting also reflects the slight transition Dalí went through in the 1940's, as he became interested in nuclear mysticism, including floating motifs and playing with the role of gravity. The elephant theme appears various times in Dalí ‘s artworks of this period, for example, in the pieces "Atomica Melancholica" (1945) and in "Triumph of Dionysus" (1953).
In the bronze sculpture "Space Elephant", (1980) the elephant is a distortion in space; his long legs stretched out, moving toward the heavens. Perhaps Dalí wished to contrast the idea of weightlessness with structure. On the back of the "Space Elephant" stands an obelisk, a symbol of the presence and progress of technology in the modern world. The "Triumphant Elephant" (1975) instead has a gold embellished saddle and a golden angel atop its back, symbolizing wealth, prestige and renewal.
Dalí was the recipient of a real live elephant in 1967. The Air India company had commissioned Dalí to create a souvenir for them that would be given to first class passengers. Dalí created a porcelain ashtray, and in lieu of payment, Dalí asked for a baby elephant. One was duly flown from Bangalore to Geneva.