Asleep in the painting 3: Homeless

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), White Slave Trade (1895), oil on canvas, 166.5 x 194 cm, Museo Sorolla, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article of this series, I showed a selection of paintings in which sleeping figures played a role in stories. In the second, we saw how sleeping rough became a sign of fatigue from work, and of poverty. In the final couple of decades of the nineteenth century, it was even more strongly associated with destitution and distress.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Mother and Child (1883), oil on canvas, 53 x 48 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Christian Krohg painted a series of works showing exhausted or worried mothers with their children, of which Mother and Child (1883) is an early example. A young infant lies asleep in their crib, their exhausted mother fallen asleep on the head of her bed, her hand still resting where it had been rocking the child to sleep.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), A Martyr – The Violet Vendor (1885), media and dimensions not known, Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Paintings of Fernand Pelez became even more pointed, as in A Martyr – The Violet Vendor from 1885, showing a child of the street. One of the small bunches of violets has fallen from his tray. His eyes are closed, and his mouth agape: is he dead asleep, or simply dead?

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Tired (1885), oil on canvas, 79.5 x 61.5 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Krohg revisited the theme of fatigue from work in his Tired from 1885. The young woman seen here is another seamstress, one of the many thousands who worked at home at that time, toiling for long hours by lamplight for a pittance. At the left is an empty cup, which had probably contained the coffee she drank to try to stay awake at her work.

Home work as a seamstress was seen as the beginning of the descent into prostitution. The paltry income generated by sewing quickly proved insufficient, and women sought alternatives. Prostitution had officially become a criminal offence in Norway in 1842, but was tolerated in Oslo (then known as Kristiania) from 1840, with the introduction of police and medical supervision of women sex-workers.

Évariste Carpentier (1845–1922), Children Asleep (date not known), oil on canvas, 71 x 90 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Évariste Carpentier’s undated Children Asleep is one of a great many paintings of the poor which are more sentimental, with two young children asleep by a hedge as their parents are cutting hay in the field.

A Silent Greeting 1889 by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1836-1912
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), A Silent Greeting (1889), oil on wood, 30.5 x 22.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Sleep from fatigue even reached the canvases of those artists who continued with more classical themes. Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s A Silent Greeting (1889) shows a young woman who has fallen asleep, exhausted, a bouquet of red roses on her lap. Her right hand holds a needle, with which she had presumably been sewing the garment on which the roses rest. Her partner gestures silently towards her – perhaps having just put the roses on her lap – as he steps outdoors.

For some, the night terrors of Fuseli had grown.

Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), The Night (1889-90), oil on canvas, 116.5 × 299 cm, Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Ferdinand Hodler’s symbolist painting of Night from 1889-90 appears to refer back to Fuseli’s Nightmare, although the artist’s later account doesn’t mention that. Four young men and three young women are sleeping outdoors, under black blankets. In the middle of the group, the black-cloaked figure of death is crouching between the legs of one of the men, who is understandably alarmed. This painting can therefore be read as telling the all too common story of early death among adults at the time, notably from tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, something that Hodler knew well.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), White Slave Trade (1895), oil on canvas, 166.5 x 194 cm, Museo Sorolla, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

During Joaquín Sorolla’s period of Naturalist painting, he showed sleep as the response to long-distance travel in the contemporary trade in prostitutes in Spain. His White Slave Trade (1895) is set in a bleak railway compartment, where four young women are asleep while being transported in the care of a much older woman.

In contrast to their guardian, who wears black, the young women are dressed in bright-coloured Valencian regional costumes, and wear fashionable shoes. Their few possessions are stacked on the bench at the right, and include a guitar. The ‘slave trade’ to which Sorolla’s title refers is, of course, the movement of prostitutes between brothels. This could have been from Valencia to the port of Cartagena, then over to Orán and Algeria, as suggested by Powell for example.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Ariadne (1898), oil on canvas, 151 x 91 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

There were still a few artists painting scene from mythology. John William Waterhouse’s Ariadne (1898) shows the abandoned Ariadne, one breast peeking from her rich red robes, two leopards or cheetahs resting by her. In the distance, Theseus’ ship has just sailed. Presumably Ariadne is still asleep and blissfully unaware of her former partner’s departure, and her red robes may indicate that they had consummated their relationship the previous night.

Aksel Waldemar Johannessen (1880–1922), Streetboy (1918-22), oil on canvas, 107 × 114.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Painted between 1918-22, the years immediately following the Great War, Aksel Waldemar Johannessen’s Streetboy shows a homeless boy asleep on some packing cases in the docks, his small dog looking equally hard done by, beside him.

John Collier (1850–1934), The Sleeping Beauty (1921), oil on canvas, 111.7 x 142.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

John Collier had been a pupil of the Pre-Raphaelites, and continued to paint well into the twentieth century. His Sleeping Beauty from 1921 shows an easily recognised scene from this popular ‘fairy’ story.

The central story tells of a princess, who has seven good fairies as her godmothers. An eighth and evil fairy was overlooked, and seeks a way to get revenge. She puts a curse on the princess that she will prick her hand on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. One good fairy tries to reverse this, changing the spell so that it will put her into a deep sleep for a century, and can only be awakened by a kiss from a prince.

Royal edict then forbids all spinning throughout the kingdom, but when the princess is a young woman, she discovers an old woman spinning, and pricks her finger on the spindle. She then falls to sleep. The king summons the good fairy to try to address the problem. Her solution is to put everyone in the castle to sleep, and to summon a forest with brambles and thorns around the castle, to prevent anyone from entering.

A prince later hears the story of the Sleeping Beauty, and rises to the challenge to penetrate the trees and bramble thickets around the castle. He discovers the sleeping princess, kisses her, and she and the rest of the castle wake up. The prince and princess marry, and they all live happily ever after.

My final painting is perhaps the most poignant of all, one of Christian Krohg’s last works, which he probably made in around 1924, when he was in his early seventies.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Five to Twelve (c 1924), oil on paperboard, 79 x 33 cm, Nasjonalmuseet (purchased 1990), Oslo, Norway. Courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.

Five to Twelve appears to be a self portrait, showing the artist with a long white beard, and almost bald, asleep in a chair underneath a pendulum clock. The face of the clock is completely blank, but the title tells us the time: it is five minutes to midnight, very late in his life. Krogh died the following year.

Far from sleeping figures playing passive roles in paintings, their slumber is usually of significance. Some are victims in well-known stories, others exhausted workers or carers, or they may be so destitute as to lack shelter. Or they may just be napping in preparation for the Big Sleep.