Dreaming in Art: 5 Fantastical Paintings

The mystery of dreams and dreaming has been fascinating artists since ancient times. Many famous artists (from Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco de Goya and William Blake to Gustav Klimt, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí) had tried to give life and form on canvas to the wondrous and bewildering nature of dreams. Whether taking folklore, mythology or biblical scenes as their main themes, artists’ greatest challenge was to enable the easy differentiation in the painting between the waking and the dreaming lives of their subjects. Below is just a snippet of this fascinating art tradition.

I. The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of/Dreams [1858] by John Anster Fitzgerald 

John Anster Fitzgerald (1819 – 1906) was a British painter of the Victoria era known for producing detailed, colourful artwork depicting various mythological figures: fairies, ghouls, demons, and also effects of drug-consumption. Dreams is just one of his paintings that depicts a young girl sleeping and seeing dreams. Those dreams “materialise” around her in this piece, showing various mischievous spirits playing musical instruments at the foot of the girl’s bed, while the more benevolent ones dance in the painting’s background, encircling the girl’s most pleasant dream of forming a couple with a (real or imagined) man she loves. The girl’s chic dress is probably also a part of her dream, and the red drapery around the girl’s bed work almost as stage curtains further emphasising the effect of an ongoing performance.

II. The Dream of Solomon [1693] by Luca Giordano

This painting by Italian artist Luca Giordano demonstrates a biblical episode whereby God appears to the young King Solomon of Israel in a dream, asking the King what he wants most in his life. God is impressed when Solomon does not request riches or long life, but asks God wisdom to differentiate good from evil. God also sends a vision to Solomon (through a ray) giving him the exact location where to build his Temple. Above Solomon’s head, Minerva, the Roman Goddess of Wisdom, Law and Victory can be seen. She is indispensable for any King who desires to rule justly. Though Minerva is a pre-Christian deity, she also signals in this art the arrival of the Son of God because to her left there is a lamb (Lamb of God) and a book (standing for the Holy Bible). The artist managed to achieve the feel of a truly heavenly, otherworldly experience by placing God and His angels in the golden aura, which then contrast effectively with the touches of blue.

III. The Knight’s Dream [c. 1650] by Antonio de Pereda

Spanish artist Antonio de Pereda (1611 – 1678) showed in this painting a sleeping knight who dreams of the Angel divulging to him the secrets of life and death, presenting to the knight the ephemeral nature of riches and honours. In his hands, the Angel bears a banner that reads “Aeterne pungit, cito volat et occidit“, which means “Eternally it stings, swiftly it flies and dies“. On the table in front of the sleeper are the usual objects of the “vanitas”, such a skull, representing death’s proximity, a mask, hinting at the dangers of hypocrisy, an elaborate golden clock, standing for the unrelenting passage of time, and numerous other coveted material possessions, such as jewellery and coins, that are useless in that other spiritual world.

IV. The Dream of a Young Girl Before Dawn [c. 1830] by Karl Bryullov

Similar to the first painting on this list by John Anster Fitzgerald, Russian painter Karl Bryullov presented in his art a sleeping girl just before dawn. There are signs she is dreaming of something pleasant because she hugs her pillow and her mouth is slightly open. Above her is a hazy presentation of the nature of her dreams: the fairy (or maybe even the girl’s completely contented and liberated alter ego), dressed in blue and wearing a crown of flowers on her head, makes it so that the young couple at the centre of the girl’s dreams are happily together, while the girl’s father is positioned just behind them, giving his blessing to the union. By the looks of the shepherd boy who is playing a flute outside, he may as well be one of the girl’s admirers. Like the first painting on this list, Bryullov presents a dream as a whimsical, fairy-tale-like reverie.

V. The Shepherd’s Dream [1793] by Henry Fuseli 

Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) is known for producing one of the most recognisable nightmare paintings – The Nightmare [1781]. His painting titled The Shepherd’s Dream presents a scene from John Milton’s Paradise Lost where the fallen angels of the Hall of Pandemonium (Hell) are compared to the singing and dancing fairies who bewitch a passing peasant. This painting is certainly gloomier than the rest on this list, presenting dreaming as part of dark swirling forces that seize a person’s soul, controlling the mind through sleep. In the lower left corner of this painting, a fairy has just pulled out a mandrake root, producing a standing homunculus, while in the the lower right corner, the small figure of a woman is said to represent Queen Mab, at times benevolent and at other times mischievous Queen of the Fairies (or, according to Shakespeare, the Fairies’ midwife, helping sleepers “give birth” to their dreams).

9 thoughts on “Dreaming in Art: 5 Fantastical Paintings

  1. None of these were familiar to me, though a couple of artists like Fuseli were, so thanks for the introductions and descriptions! I can only think of Goya’s ‘The Dream of Reason produces Monsters’ and Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. These are all beautiful! And the techniques they use to make the difference between the “reality” and the “dream” are really fascinating! I didn’t know any of these paintings and I’m glad I discovered them through this post. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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