Asleep in the painting 1: Stories

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Aurora and Cephalus (1810), oil on canvas, 254 x 186 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s Sunday morning-ish, and you’ve probably not long got out of bed. For many of us, this is our one lie-in of the week, the only time we get as much sleep as we want.

Has it ever struck you how often figures in paintings are asleep? It’s strange, as the last thing you’d expect of a character in an image is to be so passive that they’re no longer conscious. You can’t see their eyes, their face is essentially expressionless, and their body language fluent flaccid. Despite those limitations, figures who are asleep are by no means unusual, and in some genres quite common. In this article and the next two I consider why sleeping figures should be so significant in paintings.

The best reason for a figure in a painting to be asleep is because that’s their role in a scene from a literary narrative. There are quite strict conventions which have applied to Biblical stories: the Virgin and Child, for instance, shows the infant Jesus alert and active, whilst scenes from the Passion set in the Garden of Gethsemane often feature the slumped figures of disciples asleep.

Literary narratives often use sleep as one of the devices in their plot.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Angelica and the Hermit (1626-28), oil on oak panel, 43 x 66 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso contains one of the early accounts of failed rape using drugs: an old hermit gives the epic’s heroine Angelica a sleeping draught, then when she is unconscious he fondles and kisses her limp body. Thankfully, when he actually prepares to rape her, he discovers that he’s impotent and is forced to sleep next to her for the rest of the night on a lonely beach. Peter Paul Rubens shows him quite mad with desire in Angelica and the Hermit from 1626-28.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Rinaldo and Armida (c 1630), oil on canvas, 82.2 x 109.2 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

Nicolas Poussin’s favourite literary references are to Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, where the sorceress Armida is sent to ensure that the Christian knight Rinaldo is hors de combat. When the knight falls asleep far from the city, Armida seizes her chance and goes to murder him with her dagger. Just as she is about to bury its metal in his body, she falls in love with him, and decides to abduct and seduce him instead.

Poussin’s justly famous Rinaldo and Armida from about 1630 is arguably the most skilful narrative painting in the European canon, telling the whole story from Armida’s murderous intent through to Rinaldo’s future, using facial expression and body language.

Armida’s right hand represents her original intent, to murder him with her dagger, an action which the amorino is trying to stop. Her left hand, though, reaches down to touch his hand in a loving caress. Poussin manages to tell us what she had intended to do (the past), and what she is going to do next (the future): three moments in time conveyed in a single image.

The Masters were also expert at retelling classical myths involving sleep, with another example of it being used for the purpose of murder.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Mercury and Argus (c 1659), oil on canvas, 127 x 250 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

In Diego Velázquez’ Mercury and Argus from about 1659, the year before he died, Mercury is just about to raise his sword and decapitate the sleeping Argus. Behind them is Io, the woman-turned-cow whom Argus has been guarding to ensure that Jupiter couldn’t get near her.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Nightmare (1781), oil on canvas, 101.6 × 127 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

The Age of Enlightenment brought an interest in what was to become human psychology, and with it came Henry Fuseli’s brilliant exploration of The Nightmare (1781), which brought him recognition when it was exhibited the following year at the Royal Academy. A daemonic incubus is squatting on the torso of a young woman, who is laid out 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.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), The Corinthian Maid (c 1782-5), oil on canvas, 106.3 x 130.8 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph Wright of Derby’s Corinthian Maid (c 1782-5) tells the legendary origin of painting. Dibutades, a maid of Corinth in Greece, was about to see her boyfriend sent away from the city on military service. As the daughter of a potter, she devised an ingenious way of making a portrait to remember him by: when he was asleep, she positioned a light to cast his shadow against a wall behind him, then she traced the outline of that shadow in the plaster. Once he had gone, her father then transformed his painted silhouette into the first relief sculpture by daubing clay within the silhouette.

One Biblical story in which sleep is central is that of Jacob and his dream of a ladder ascending into heaven. This has been extensively painted: my favourite of many wonderful depictions is William Blake’s made at some time in the period 1799-1806.

William Blake (1757–1827), Jacob’s Ladder, or Jacob’s Dream (1799-1806), pen and grey ink and watercolour on paper, 39.8 x 30.6 cm, The British Museum, London. Courtesy of and © Trustees of the British Museum.

Jacob’s Ladder, or Jacob’s Dream tells the story from the book of Genesis, chapter 28, verses 10-19. In essence, 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 Jacob and his descendants. Jacob then named the place Bethel, and in the future it did become a part of the land of the Israelites.

It is one of the simplest and most beautiful of Blake’s very large output of watercolours, and was painted for his principal patron, Thomas Butts. Blake was sufficiently proud of it that it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1808, and the following year in his private solo exhibition at his brother’s house.

The painting shows Jacob, asleep, at its foot. Right by his head is a spiral staircase which ascends to the top of the paper, thence we presume to heaven. Figures are ascending and descending the staircase: although some bear angel’s wings, many do not. The whole scene appears to be taking place inside some sort of ‘big top’ tent, with the starry sky of a moonlit night behind. There is no trace of any ladder in sight.

One artist who seems to have made a speciality of painting stories in which sleep plays a key role is Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Aurora and Cephalus (1810), oil on canvas, 254 x 186 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In Greek mythology, there are different accounts of Cephalus, among which is a story that he was an Aeolian who was kidnapped by the goddess of the dawn, Eos (or, in the Roman pantheon, Aurora), when he was out hunting. In spite of his apparent resistance, Eos/Aurora conceived a son by him. Eventually she released Cephalus to return to his earthly family.

Guérin’s fleshy romance Aurora and Cephalus (1810) shows that seduction in remarkably erotic terms. His depiction of Aurora’s arms pushing up the fabric of the heavens, almost like a bridal veil, is innovative.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Narcissus, Morpheus and Iris (1811), oil on canvas, 251 × 178 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

He painted another even more explicit erotic romance the following year, showing Narcissus, Morpheus and Iris (1811). Iris, the Greek personification of the rainbow and messenger of the gods, sits at the upper right on a bench of clouds, her ethereal wrap forming her short wings. Morpheus (from whose name is derived morphine), the god of dreams, is the smaller winged figure in the middle, looking up at Iris.

Often omitted from the title of this painting, the sleeping male is Narcissus, whose beauty was so great that he fell in love with his own reflected image.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (1817), oil on canvas, 342 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Guérin’s Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon from 1817 is taken in part from Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae (Argos), and Clytemnestra his wife. She was one of the famous clutch of children produced by Leda, queen of Sparta, when she was impregnated by both Zeus (in the form of a swan) and her husband Tyndareus, who was Clytemnestra’s father.

When Agamemnon was away fighting the Trojan War, Clytemnestra had a love affair with his cousin, Aegisthus. On her husband’s return with Cassandra as his concubine, Aegisthus urged Clytemnestra to murder first Agamemnon, then Cassandra. Although accounts vary of their deaths, in this painting Guérin shows Clytemnestra about to kill her husband while he is asleep in bed, with a short sword. After those murders, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra ruled as king and queen of Mycenae, until Agamemnon’s son Orestes murdered her in turn.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Romantic fantasies blossomed into ‘faerie’ paintings, including some of the early works of Richard Dadd.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Titania Sleeping (c 1841), oil on canvas, 59.7 x 77.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Dadd’s Titania Sleeping (c 1841) is fairly typical of the genre, and is drawn from Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its intricately detailed human-like creatures. Other faery painters include Robert Huskisson, Joseph Noel Paton, and Daniel Maclise, whose works were shown at the Royal Academy, and became quite popular around 1850.

More contemoporary literary references also became popular, among them John Keats’ poem The Eve of St. Agnes (1819).

William Holman Hunt (1827–1910), The flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the drunkenness attending the revelry (The Eve of St. Agnes) (study) (1848), oil on panel, 25.2 x 35.5 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool England. Wikimedia Commons.

Madeline has fallen in love with Porphyro, who is an enemy to her family. Older women have told Madeline that she can receive sweet dreams of love on the night of St. Agnes Eve, which precedes the day on which the patron saint of virgins is celebrated (21 January).

On that night, Porphyro gains entry to the castle in which Madeline lives, and looks for Angela, who remains a friend to his family despite the feud. Angela reluctantly agrees to take him to Madeline’s room, so that he can gaze at her sleeping there. Angela takes him there, and he hides in a large wardrobe. He watches her prepare for bed, seeing her full beauty in the moonlight. He creeps out to prepare a meal for her, but she wakes, and seeing the same figure which she had just been dreaming, takes him into her bed. She then wakes properly and realises her mistake. They declare their mutual love before escaping from the castle past drunken revelers, and flee into the night.

William Holman Hunt’s painting from 1848 shows the climax of the poem, with Madeline and Porphyro, dressed in their cloaks, creeping past the drunken bodies of those who have been at the feast. Through the arches at the left the drinking and feasting can be seen, still in progress. In the foreground he shows one of the revelers clutching an empty cask of drink, whilst other remains of the drinking are scattered on the floor to the right. Two large dogs appear to be somnolent, not reacting to events.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the rise of social realism was soon to use sleeping figures in much simpler stories, which I’ll show in the next article.