Every night – sometimes during the day if we’re allowed – the great majority of us dream in our sleep. Those dreams have become part of many stories, and a rich theme for visual artists. This weekend, in this article and tomorrow’s sequel, I’m going to look at how paintings from the Renaissance onwards have shown those dreams.
I’m going to try to be rigorous in including only what are intended to be dreams, rather than visions or similar revelatory experiences. In these, the person experiencing the dream is asleep at the time. This excludes many of the most popular religious visions, such as the temptation of Saint Anthony, and the visions experienced by Joan of Arc.
Unless you have unusually good dream recall, most people can remember a few events they have experienced in dreams, but seldom much detail about exactly what they saw. As far as most are concerned, vivid dreams are no different from the real world we experience when awake. Dreams that turn sour to become nightmares are thoroughly convincing, and can be terrifying sensory combinations of sight, hearing, smell, touch, somatic sensation such as pain, and strong emotional responses.
For most paintings of dreams, the fundamental problem which the artist has to solve is how to represent and distinguish visually between the real world of the dreamer asleep, and the content of their dream. For this, compositional conventions developed during the Renaissance which have largely been followed ever since.
Tintoretto’s marvellous painting of the Dream of Saint Mark, or Pax Tibi Marce, probably from the early 1590s, shows this well.
According to the Golden Legend, Saint Peter sent Mark to preach in Aquileia, in northern Italy. When he was returning to Rome, Venetian legend claims that Mark fell asleep in a boat which was driven ashore at Venice during a storm. Mark dreamed that an angel appeared to him and said “Peace be with you Mark,” (Pax tibi Marce in Latin) “my evangelist. Here your body will find final rest, and the city which will rise here will name you its protector.” And that is the delightful but palpably false story of how Saint Mark came to be patron of the city of Venice.
Mark is shown asleep in the boat, his head lit with a halo emanating from the angel above, who is flying in a pool of light in the night sky. What Tintoretto shows us is what Mark might have seen in his dream had he seen it from the viewer’s eye, combining the ‘real’ view of the legend with the ‘dream’ view of the dreamer. It is, of course, a composite view concocted for the benefit of the viewer, as it existed neither in the minds of others there at the time, nor in that of the dreamer.
Murillo’s painting of the more widely known Jacob’s Dream, from 1660-65, shows this story from the book of Genesis, chapter 28, verses 10-19, using the same compositional approach.
Jacob went to sleep one night when he was travelling, and dreamed that a ladder had been set up, stretching from earth to heaven. Angels were ascending and descending the ladder. God spoke to him in the dream, telling him that the land on which Jacob was sleeping would be given by God to him and his descendants. Jacob then named the place Bethel, and in the future it did become part of the land of the Israelites.
Jacob is asleep at the foot of the ladder, as angels ascend and descend its rungs, making their way through a bright gap in the clouds. Again, this isn’t the view seen by Jacob in his dream, nor what might have been seen by someone standing where the viewer is, but an imaginary composite of the dream set within reality.
In those two paintings, the dream content is relatively circumscribed. Luca Giordano takes it to extreme in his painting of the Dream of Solomon from about 1694-95. This is based on the story told in the first book of Kings, chapter 3, verses 5-12. There, God appeared to the young King Solomon in a dream, inviting the king to ask for whatever he wanted. Instead of asking for long life or riches, Solomon asked for the wisdom to tell good from evil, for which he then became famous.
Giordano’s depiction of the dream almost fills the canvas, with the mighty figure of God, attendant angels, rolling clouds, and sundry classical figures. The composition, though, still follows convention, in showing the viewer the imaginary composite of Solomon’s dream as if seen by the viewer, with the sleeping figure of the king.
Sebastiano Ricci’s painting of The Dream of Aesculapius from about 1718 is at the other extreme, in telling a more obscure story in which an envoy despatched from Rome in quest of the god Aesculapius had a dream in which he saw the god beside his bed, holding a staff around which a snake was entwined (his attribute). The god told the envoy that he would change into a larger snake for the Romans to find and take back with them.
The envoy is asleep in a rather grand bed at the right, as Aesculapius floats in mid-air swathed in a column of cloud, as if he was an accomplished magician.
It was a Swiss artist who worked for much of his career in Britain who first came to specialise in painting dreams.
Henry Fuseli’s breakthrough painting of his career, The Nightmare (1781) was exhibited the following year at the Royal Academy, and remains the work by which he is best known.
It shows a daemonic incubus squatting on the torso of a young woman, who is laid out as if in a deep sleep in bed, her head thrown back, and her arms above her head. Lurking in the darkness to the left is the head of a black horse, whose eyes appear unseeing. The incubus stares directly at the viewer in a manner which arouses discomfort. Fuseli also painted a second version with a slightly different composition, which is as well-known.
A radical departure from previous paintings of dreams, it follows the same principles in providing the viewer with a composite. The two worlds are well differentiated by Fuseli’s use of colour.
Fuseli then turned to literary sources, in The Dream of Queen Katherine, (1781), taken from Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, Act IV, Scene 2. This is a remarkable fragment of a larger painting intended to show this Shakespearean scene, commissioned by Thomas Macklin in 1779 for his Poets’ Gallery. Insufficient survives to cast light on his compositional strategy, but the swirl of nudes is a distinctive feature which almost became a cliché in paintings of dreams, as I will show.
Fuseli’s next notable dream painting is based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and we’re fortunate in having both a chalk study and the finished oil painting.
The Shepherd’s Dream (1786) (above) is an elaborate drawing made in preparation for the finished oil painting below. As it shows many of the elements within Fuseli’s composition more clearly than the painting, it is probably more useful for understanding their narrative.
John Milton’s (1608-1674) Paradise Lost held a special appeal for Fuseli since he had been introduced to it when a student. These works show a scene in the poem when the fallen angels in the Hall of Pandemonium (in Hell) are compared to the fairies who bewitch a peasant with their music and dancing:
… fairy elves,
Whose midnight revels by a forest side
Or fountain some belated peasant sees,
Or dreams he sees, while over head the moon
Sits arbitress, and nearer to the earth
Wheels her pale course, they on their mirth and dance
Intent, with jocund music charm his ear;
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.
Fuseli transforms the convention of these fairies dancing on the ground, and instead they swirl through the air above the sleeping shepherd. One of the fairies is touching the shepherd with his wand, to maintain his sleep. At the lower left, a fairy has pulled a mandrake root, which has transformed into a tiny homunculus, which is now standing. At the far right, sat on the steps, is the small figure of Queen Mabs (or Mab), who is responsible for bringing nightmares.
Exuberant though Fuseli’s depictions are, they adhere to the composite approach seen since the Renaissance, and the swirling bodies in the dream are placed where you’d expect to see angels and other heavenly figures.
The last painting I have to show from this classical phase in the painting of dreams comes from the great narrative painter JAD Ingres.
Ingres had been inspired by the (probably faux) Gaelic epic of Ossian from his time as a student in Rome. Shortly after his return to Paris, he was commissioned to paint two works for the bedroom to be used by Napoleon when he visited Rome. His Ossian’s Dream completed in 1813 is probably the best-known painting based on Ossianic stories. It shows an episode from Ossian’s epic, with the aged Ossian asleep on his harp, dreaming of past wars and loves.
This is true to tradition, but introduces one new device. To distinguish even more clearly what is being dreamed, Ingres has painted it in monochrome, which contrasts with the full-colour image of the sleeping Ossian below.
At the same time that Ingres was painting that, the great William Blake was moving the depiction of dreams even further beyond Fuseli’s work, as I will show tomorrow.