In the first article in this series of three, I looked at a selection of paintings up to the middle of the nineteenth century which feature figures sleeping, invariably as part of a well-known story in which sleep makes it possible for a victim to be murdered, abducted or raped, for instance. This changed with the rise of social realism.
Although not normally considered a social realist, Samuel Palmer’s paintings of the British countryside provided glimpses of reality in the warmth of their light. In his The Sleeping Shepherd; Early Morning from 1857, a shepherd is asleep with his flock, as a distant team is already at work ploughing.
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Robin of Modern Times (1860) is a highly original wide-angle composition, and one of the most visually-arresting paintings made at this time. It too is set in the rolling countryside of southern England, during the summer.
The foreground is filled with a young woman, who is asleep on a grassy bank, her legs akimbo. She wears cheap, bright red beads strung on a necklace, and a floral crown fashioned from daisies is in her right hand. She wears a deep blue dress, with a black cape over it, and the white lace of her petticoat appears just above her left knee. On her feet are bright red socks and black working/walking boots. A couple of small birds are by her, one a red-breasted robin, and there are two rosy apples near her face.
In the middle distance, behind the woman’s head, white washing hangs to dry in a small copse. A farm labourer is working with horses in a field, and at the right is a distant farmhouse.
This painting most probably refers to the popular contemporary account of how girls and young women from the country around London were claimed to find their way to the city, to become its prostitutes. Stanhope might also be making the visual suggestion that she may be in post-coital sleep, with her bare legs akimbo, hair loose and tousled, and flushed cheeks.
For Gustave Courbet, sleep was strongly associated with sex, and his increasingly explicit nudes during the 1860s.
The Sleepers from 1866 was commissioned by Khalil Bey, the rich collector of erotica, and is one of several of Courbet’s paintings for which Joanna Hiffernan modelled. It was exhibited by a picture dealer in 1872, when its explicit lesbian motif resulted in a police report. The painting was removed from sight of the public until 1988.
Just five years later, one of Gustave Doré’s prints used sleep to demonstrate the plight of the homeless.
When Doré visited London, he was shocked by its large population of vagrants and homeless. His print of A Couple and Two Children Sleeping on a London Bridge (1871) is one of several objective records which he made at the time, asking the loaded question as to why this family is sleeping here. A selection of these prints was included in his best-selling illustrated book on London which was published the following year.
Although Jean-Léon Gérôme was hardly a social realist, in his painting of Saint Jerome from 1874 the ascetic saint is seen during one of his sojourns in the desert, almost naked, asleep on a lion, one of his better-known attributes. Over on a rock table is Jerome’s translation of the Bible, which he made between 392-405.
Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema’s World of Dreams (1876, Opus 76) is innovative in its use of sleep as a sign of fatigue from overwork. Here a nurse/nanny (or possibly mother) has fallen asleep, exhausted, on a large illustrated family Bible, which is open at the start of the book of Amos.
Henri Gervex continued Courbet’s association of sleep with sex, in the painting for which he is now most famous: Rolla, which he submitted for the Salon of 1878. There would have been nothing wrong with this nude had she been in a classical setting, but like Manet’s notorious Olympia (1863) before, her contemporary surroundings and the heap of clothes beside her were deemed immoral.
Rolla was inspired by a poem by Alfred de Musset about a prostitute, and Gervex depicted her asleep in bed as her client gets dressed the following morning. Their clothes are mixed together, and tumble onto the floor beside her.
Gervex got a commercial gallery to exhibit this painting, where it attracted far more attention than it would have in the Salon.
With the rise of Naturalism in the 1880s, sleep was more persistently the result of overwork.
Fernand Pelez’s early portrait of a Sleeping Laundress (c 1880) is one of a group of works which showed poor women reclining. Another showed a young woman dead from asphyxiation. For all her obvious poverty, there is a faint smile on her face, as she enjoys a brief rest from her long hours of washing.
Wenzel Tornøe, a Danish genre painter, shows the impact of the introduction of the sewing machine in his Seamstress, Whit Sunday Morning of 1882, his best-known work. This seamstress had been engaged in making costumes to be worn for the Danish festivities of Pentecost (Whitsun), when many Danes rise early to go out and see the sun dance at dawn. By the time that the festival morning has arrived, she has fallen asleep over her work, exhausted.
With the decline in popularity of mythical paintings, sleep associated with tales from classical myth was uncommon, but still appeared in paintings in the late nineteenth century.
Endymion was a classical Greek mythological character, an Aeolian shepherd. Although accounts differ, there are threads which run that Selene, the Titan goddess of the moon (in Roman terminology, Diana), fell in love with Endymion, when she found him asleep one day. Selene/Diana asked Zeus to grant him eternal youth, which resulted in him remaining in eternal sleep. In spite of his somnolence, Selene/Diana still managed to have fifty daughters by him.
In Walter Crane’s beautiful pastoral watercolour from 1883, Endymion is seen, fast asleep, in a meadow. Diana is in her other role, as hunter, with her dogs, bow and arrows. Endymion’s flock of sheep is in the distance.
By the closing years of the nineteenth century, figures who were painted asleep were in distress, not comfort, as I’ll show in the third and final article of this series tomorrow.