Dreams are a common everynight experience that have come to feature in many stories. Although they’re easily contained in verbal narrative, painting a dream is a challenge for the visual artist. At the very least, the painting has to contain two distinct views, one showing the actor asleep and dreaming, the other containing a representation of events in the dream. Distinguishing those is important, as is making clear which is real and which a dream.
The other problem is the different points of view. While that in the real framing view should be normal, there are more options for the dream. Those include the point of view of the actor experiencing the dream, so depicting the dream as the sleeper sees it, or as an imaginary viewer within the dream, who never existed in the original story or the account of the dream. These readily become confusing, but thankfully were resolved in the Renaissance and have become established since.
Raphael’s Jacob’s Dream, or Jacob’s Ladder, tells the celebrated 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.
The framing image is here distinguished using colour, with its dominant greys contrasting with the dream view set inside it with brilliant yellow light. Jacob is shown asleep at the foot of the dream view, linking the real and the dream. The point of view for the dream is that seen by the dreamer, with the figure of God at the top of the steps. This ingenious composition appears natural, and there’s no confusion for the viewer.
Tintoretto’s marvellous painting of the Dream of Saint Mark, or Pax Tibi Marce, probably from the early 1590s, takes a similar approach.
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. Like Raphael’s painting, this is 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 Jacob’s Dream, from 1660-65, follows the same compositional approach. 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 paintings, the view of the dream 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 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 tells a more obscure story of an envoy despatched from Rome in quest of the god Aesculapius who 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 from the dream stares discomfortingly straight at the viewer.
A radical departure from previous paintings of dreams, it follows the same principles in providing the viewer with a composite, with its two views 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 expose his compositional strategy, but the swirl of nudes is a distinctive feature which almost became a cliché in paintings of dreams.
Fuseli’s next notable dream painting is based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, for which 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.
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 keep him asleep. 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 Mab, 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 fake 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, showing 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.
While Ingres was painting Ossian, William Blake was moving the depiction of dreams beyond Fuseli’s work, with a more modern approach.