Reading visual art: 26 Dreams modern

Édouard Detaille (1848–1912), Le Rêve (The Dream) (1888), oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. By Enmerkar, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the previous article, I looked at the depiction of dreams following the Renaissance convention for showing a composite image including what the dreamer might have seen of their dream had they looked from the position of the viewer, together with the dreamer asleep in the real world.

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.

William Blake was influenced by Henry Fuseli, and followed his lead with Biblical and literary stories. Jacob’s Ladder, or Jacob’s Dream from 1799-1806 is one of the simplest and most beautiful of Blake’s 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 the artist’s 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, but there is no trace of any ladder in sight.

William Blake (1757–1827), Milton’s Mysterious Dream (c 1816-20), pen and watercolour, 16.3 x 12.4, The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY. The Athenaeum.

Blake also developed Fuseli’s swirl of dream figures into a distinctive divine whirlwind in several of his later works. This watercolour of Milton’s Mysterious Dream from about 1816-20 combines sweeping curves of figures with abundant eyes. This is based on Il Penseroso, lines 139-140 and 145-154, rather than Paradise Lost.

William Blake (1757–1827), Queen Katherine’s Dream (c 1825), pen and ink with watercolor heightened with white and gold over graphite, 41.2 x 34.6 cm, The National Gallery of Art (Rosenwald Collection), Washington, DC. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art.

In about 1825, Blake painted his version of Queen Katherine’s Dream, clearly inspired by Fuseli’s. The exuberant stream of figures dominates the painting, breaking up into formations of individual figures, and coalescing in other places to form local ‘tubes’. Blake’s ultimate development of the divine whirlwind was in his famous painting of Dante’s Inferno, The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (The Whirlwind of Lovers) in about 1824.

Blake’s dreams have all but lost their framing scene, which has become merely the figure of the dreamer asleep.

Karl Bryullov (1799–1852), Dream of a Girl Before a Sunrise (1830-33), watercolour, 197 x 252 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts Музей изобразительных искусств им. А.С. Пушкина, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Although not well known outside his native Russia, shortly after Blake died Karl Bryullov painted a series of works showing dreams, among them this marvellous watercolour of a wishful Dream of a Girl Before a Sunrise from 1830-33. It adheres to earlier pictorial convention, with the dreamed content being shown partially transparent to help its distinction.

Another literary account of a dream which has become quite a popular theme in painting is Dante’s dream of Leah and Rachel, the third of three dreams described in Dante’s Purgatory.

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah 1855 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah (1855), watercolour on paper, 35.2 x 31.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Beresford Rimington Heaton 1940), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

This takes place just before Dante enters Earthly Paradise at the top of Purgatory, and involves the two Biblical sisters Leah and Rachel. Leah, who is conventionally seen as representing the active way of life by ‘doing’, gathers flowers and weaves them into a garland. In contrast, she refers to her younger sister Rachel, representing the contemplative way of life by ‘seeing’, who is constantly looking at her own reflection in a mirror.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah (1855) also breaks with tradition. The figures of the two sisters dominate the watercolour, and Dante the dreamer is seen walking in the distance. This neither matches Dante’s account of the dream, where he and Leah conversed, nor does it show the traditional composite of dream content framed within the real.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Dante’s Vision of Leah and Rachel (1887), watercolour, 36.5 × 49 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Marie Spartali Stillman’s Dante’s Vision of Leah and Rachel, painted over thirty years later in 1887, is more true to Dante’s verse. The poet is sat at the left, wearing his customary red chaperon, Leah (in red) stands fashioning a garland of flowers for her head, and Rachel is staring at her reflection. The whole is set in a northern Italian landscape, rising to the southern edge of the Alps in the far distance.

Luis Ricardo Falero (1851–1896), Faust’s Vision (1880), oil on canvas, 81.2 x 150.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Luis Ricardo Falero’s Faust’s Vision from 1880 refers to an episode early in Goethe’s play, of the developing relationship between Faust and Mephistopheles. Here the latter promises Faust great sensory delight in his dreams, as he cunningly contrives to own Faust’s soul. A torrent of very naked young women flow through the air past the sleeping Faust, as Mephistopheles conjures them up for him.

This is reminiscent of both Fuseli and Blake’s whirlwinds of figures.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), The Dream (1883), oil on canvas, 82 x 102 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Shonagon, via Wikimedia Commons.

For all his rebellious style, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ The Dream is surprisingly traditional. In a placid and contemplative Mediterranean coastal setting, a traveller (vagrant), with their meagre possessions tied up in a cloth, is asleep under a crescent moon. Three angelic but wingless figures from a dream are shown in mid-air, two scattering stars and one bearing a laurel wreath.

Édouard Detaille (1848–1912), Le Rêve (The Dream) (1888), oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. By Enmerkar, via Wikimedia Commons.

Contrasting with Puvis de Chavannes’ reflective art following the Franco-Prussian War, other artists including Édouard Detaille were stuck in revanchism, playing on the same feelings of patriotism that had mistakenly drawn France into the war. Detaille depicts these in The Dream from 1888.

Rather than showing military action from the war, Detaille here makes a direct political statement. Showing a group of young conscripts just before reveille, when on exercise probably in Champaign, he paints their collective dream of previous battles, spread across the coloured clouds of the dawn sky.

This flashback technique sided with the rising militarism and thirst for righting the wrongs which the Franco-Prussian War had done France, and the following year conscription was introduced. The painting was awarded a medal, was bought by the French state, and presented at the 1889 World Fair. Its huge canvas is now one of the less popular works on display in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

This is one of the few paintings showing a collective dream, and employs conventional composition to do so. The soldiers of the dream merge into the dawn clouds, making clear their unreal nature.

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 may 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.

This painting was submitted for exhibition in Geneva in 1891, but was rejected as being obscene, so Hodler exhibited it in a separate building nearby, causing quite a scandal. The artist also submitted it to the Salon in Paris, where it received praise from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the sculptor Auguste Rodin. It was exhibited again at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, again to acclaim. For all its modernity, seen as a painting of a dream it follows convention.

Henri Rousseau (1844–1910), The Dream (1910), oil on canvas, 204.5 x 298.5 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Henri Rousseau’s The Dream from 1910 is, at first sight, another challenge to read. A nude reclines on a couch surrounded by lush jungle, complete with lions, an elephant, a local playing a wind instrument, and huge flowers. I suspect that the nude woman is intended to be the dreamer, surrounded by her vivid dream of a jungle.

My final painting defies convention more overtly, in one of Paul Nash’s most complex and elaborate surrealist paintings.

Landscape from a Dream 1936-8 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash (1892–1946), Landscape from a Dream (1936-38), oil on canvas, 67.9 x 101.6 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1946), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) was apparently inspired by Freud’s theories of the significance of dreams as reflections of the unconscious. Nash locates this collection of incongruous objects on the Dorset coast, a landscape he associated with the praeternatural. Dominating the scene is a large framed planar mirror, almost parallel with the picture plane.

Stood at the right end of the mirror is a hawk staring at its own reflection, which Nash explained is a symbol of the material world. To the left, the mirror reflects several floating spheres referring to the soul. The reflection shows that behind the viewer a red sun is setting in a red sky, with another hawk flying high away from the scene.

To the right of the hawk is a five-panelled screen made of glass, through which the coastal landscape can be seen: it’s a screen which doesn’t screen in a dream that is inseparable from reality.