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Rest and Unrest: the Sleeping Body in Visual Art

Sleep is a profound and puzzling phenomenon. Though nearly all of Earth's creatures sleep in some form, its precise mechanism is still not entirely understood. When asleep, the body experiences an altered consciousness, relatively inhibited sensory experience and reduced muscle activity. This vulnerable state has long been explored through visual art. On the representations of sleep in art, physician and sleep researcher Meir Kryger wrote:

[Artists] have intense fascination with mythology, dreams, religious themes, the parallel between sleep and death, reward, abandonment of conscious control, healing, a depiction of innocence and serenity, and the erotic.

As we study the nature of our brain at rest, we discover more about the regenerative and extremely complex nature of the sleep cycle. In art, sleep has been viewed as transformative, transportive, humorous and beautiful. In addition, disorders like the terrors of sleep paralysis have been explored through visual art in famous works like The Nightmare by Swiss artist Henry Fuseli.

Sleep in Mythological Art


Sleep in mythological art operates on a viewer's prior knowledge of myths. By evoking particular mythological arcs, the artist may represent a sleeping character with a more expansive narrative than that of prosaic slumber, drawing out more compelling associations or narratives.

One of the more popular renderings of Eros, the Greek God of love and sex, is that of a sleeping cherubic-like figure. The 3rd or 2nd century BCE bronze statue of Eros sleeping portrays him as vulnerable and disarmed, a characterization that differs from that of the frequently cruel and temperamental being illustrated in antiquated poetry.

In this bronze statue, Eros's slumbering body is cradled on smooth white stone. As one of the few bronze statues to have survived from antiquity, the figure of the plump infant god reveals the tactile materiality that bronze affords.

In Greek mythology, Hypnos is the personification of sleep. Designed to embody the amorphous nature of slumber, Hypnos is often characterized on vases and frescoes. One of the most famous works of art featuring Hypnos is a bronze head of Hypnos himself, a Roman copy of an ancient Greek statue now kept in the British Museum in London. This bronze head has a wing spreading from the god's right temple. In Roman mythology, Somnus is the personification of sleep, and he too sees many incarnations in archaic visual art. Brother of Death and son of Night, Somnus was also sometimes depicted in art with extended wings on his brow. Both Somnus and Hypnos have been rich sources of inspiration for Academic and Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Hypnos, replica of a Roman bronze head that copies a known Greek statue, moulded from the original in the British Museum
Hypnos, a replica of a Roman bronze head that copies a Greek statue in the British Museum

From the Medieval period into the Renaissance, sleep remained a subject often visited by artists. Painted during the early Renaissance, Sando Botticelli's Venus and Mars (1485) was likely intended to commemorate a wedding. The artwork shows Venus (the Roman goddess of love) and Mars (the Roman god of war) in a humorous rendering of beauty, leisure, eroticism and heroism.

In the painting, Venus observes Mars sleeping while several infant satyrs play, one cheekily blowing a conch shell directly into Mars' ear in an attempt to rouse him. The implication here is that the mythological couple has just had sex, riffing on the perceived male habit of falling soundly asleep immediately after intercourse. As Venus reclines, fully clothed and awake, she watches the limp form of Mars rendered unconscious after the liaison - also a possible allusion to the enduring theme of love conquering all.

While Boticellis' Venus and Mars incorporates two subjects, Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (1508) focuses on the lone subject of a nude woman sleeping in the foreground of a pastoral setting. With her left hand covering her genitals, this depiction of sleep is far removed from Botticelli's tongue-in-cheek approach. Instead, the sleeper rests securely in a slumber that permits a voyeuristic gaze. The landscape undulates with the curves of the woman's body, and the cyclical essence of nature reflects the unending cycle of sleep and wakefulness as evening closes in. This depiction established a formula adopted by numerous artists, with many reclining female figures also characterized as slumbering in this way.

Sleep in Religious Art


Religion has been the basis for a variety of narratives and depictions of sleep in art history. Part of the Legend of the True Cross fresco in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo is The Dream of Constantine by Pierro della Francesca. This famous series was originally commissioned by the Aretine family and begun in 1447 by Bicci di Lorenzo. After Lorenzo's death, the task was taken over by Pierro della Francesca who completed the undertaking in 1466.

The portion of the fresco titled The Dream of Constantine was finished in 1464 and depicts the night before the clash between Constantine’s forces and those of Maxentius at Milvian Bridge - a battle that would lead to Constantine coming to power in 312 and Christianity being established throughout the Roman Empire. Legend has it that the night before the skirmish Constantine had a dream about a cross in the sky which was accompanied by the message In hoc signo vinces (By this sign you shall conquer). He then used the symbol in place of the traditional Roman eagle as the symbol for his legions in the battle.

This story of divinity manifesting through sleep and dreams is a common occurrence in religious storytelling. Other examples include Jacob in the Bible who dreamed of a ladder that reached heaven and Joseph's dream that the Virgin Mary's baby was the son of god. Both of these instances have also been depicted extensively through art, pointing to sleep as a way to communicate with a god or holy messenger. This leads to a visual shorthand through which artists can cultivate divine expressions by portraying the unique and personal experiences of a sleeper.

This shorthand appears in many different artistic manifestations of religious events. Maha Maya was the mother of Gautama Buddha. According to Buddhist legend, Maha Maya dreamed that a white elephant with six tusks entered her right side, which was interpreted to mean that she had conceived a child who would eventually become a world ruler or a Buddha. This story is a particularly popular theme for carvings in wood and stone.

Queen Māyā's white elephant dream, and the conception of the Buddha. Gandhara, 2nd–3rd century CE.
Queen Maya's white elephant dream and the conception of the Buddha. Gandhara, 2nd–3rd century CE

Vishnu, the god of preservation, often appears in artistic incarnations to depict salvation for humanity. The Hindu god is depicted as an omniscient being with both benevolent and fearsome forms. In more benevolent aspects, Vishnu is often realized as an omniscient being sleeping on the coils of the time-serpent Adishesha floating in the primeval ocean of milk with his consort Lakshmi.

Peaceful and Restorative Sleep


Although sleep has been characterized as a dramatic phenomenon built on prophecies and visitations, sleep has also been depicted as restful, peaceful and restorative. In The Cradle (1872) by Berthe Morisot, a grateful and vigilant mother watches over a sleeping baby. In Two Women Asleep in a Punt under the Willows (1887) John Singer Sargent depicts two women lulled to sleep beneath the reach of a willow tree in a vibrantly outfitted vessel.

Realist painter Jean-François Millet is best known for his painting Gleaners (1857). However, his painting Noonday Rest (1866) encapsulated the toil of a peasant's workday with a quiet dignity that evokes a relatable characterization of human exertion. Resigned to withering stamina, a man and woman sleep in the hazy shade of a stacked hay pile, with bound sheaves cushioning the pair from the stubbly ground. Two sickles arranged one over the other mirror the sprawling workers as a couple of cattle graze in the shadow of another distant heap.

The image of exhausted rural farmers sleeping in the shade of harvested hay has become an enduring icon of work and labor. Vincent van Gogh had great admiration for Millet and was moved to paint peasant life himself. Van Gogh's painting The Siesta or Noon - Rest from Work (1890) was a close study of Millet's techniques and content, with violent coloration and strokes keenly associated with the post-impressionist.

Through these renderings, both Millet and van Gogh reflect the limitations of the human body and our inherent need for sleep. In viewing artworks that depict sleepers, we relate to our physical selves and the pleasures and limitations that sleep affords.

Noon - Rest from Work | Vincent van Gogh | 1890 | Wikimedia Commons
Noon - Rest from Work | Vincent van Gogh | 1890 | Wikimedia Commons

In 1895 Sir Frederic Leighton began a design intended as a lesser feature in one of the artist's other works. Becoming attached to the design, Leighton undertook extensive preliminary sketches and studies to coax out the best way to depict his subject's recumbency in a new artwork. The resulting painting, a masterful rendering of a slumbering woman veiled in diaphanous and vivid drapery is considered to be Leighton's magnum opus. Now reproduced in countless forms of media, Flaming June has become a beloved rendering of sleep, the looseness of the woman's garments a possible allusion to the expanding consciousness of dreaming. An oleander flower in the top right is speculated to be a nod toward the blurred line between sleep and death, with Grecian architecture pointing to the mythos of nymphs in Greek folklore.

Flaming June |  Frederic Leighton | 1895 iris28 sleep in art
Flaming June | Frederic Leighton | 1895 | Wikimedia Commons

Georges Seurat is known for his pointillist renderings seen most famously in A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884 - 1886). However, the artist did create more intimate sketches, often executed in crayon. Sleeping Woman (1881 - 1890) is a frenetically sketched portrait of a seemingly peaceful and unaware sleeper. The hurried strokes appear to be made quickly to fix a moment with an off-kilter, almost photographic perspective.

Sleeping Woman | Georges Seurat | 1881-1890 | WikiArt sleep in art iris28
Sleeping Woman | Georges Seurat | 1881-1890 | WikiArt

Unrest, Terror and Oblivion


Sleep is frequently been depicted as peaceful, restorative and even illuminating, yet slumber is also a phenomenon that evokes a unique terror, with our vulnerable wandering consciousness and depressed physiology often manifesting in extended states of dread and subsequent fatigue.

One of the most famous visual encapsulations of nocturnal terrors is The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli. A woman, flexed with the rigours of a nightmare, suffers the weight of an incubus perched on her torso. The painting simultaneously depicts the nightmare and the effect of the nightmare on the woman herself, her supine position believed to encourage nightmares or sleep paralysis. A strong contrast of light and dark articulates the dramatic scene, with a royal red velvet curtain sectioning off the spectacle and a curiously bug-eyed horse possibly added to fracture the image overall.

After its first exhibition at the 1782 Royal Academy of London, critics and patrons reacted to Fusili's The Nightmare with both horror and intrigue. Sleep and dreams were common subjects for Fuseli, though The Nightmare is unique because of its lack of reference to literary or religious themes. The inclusion of the incubus relates to the sensation of weight on the chest often experienced during sleep paralysis, formally thought to be a demonic visitation.

Another artistic work based on sleep paralysis and nightmares is Eugene Thivier's 1894 sculpture Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare) now displayed at the Musee des Augustins in Toulouse, France. Sculpted in white marble, a naked sleeper is also menaced by a demon or incubus which digs its claws into the skin of the horrified subject.

Unlike Fuseli's painting, the subject in this depiction is not completely limp, raising an arm to repel the demon. In a literal interpretation, the sculpture is not a completely accurate depiction of the sleep paralysis phenomenon. However, the sculpture could depict the frantic desires of the victim to free themselves from paralysis and fend off the demon physically.

When Freud published his theories on dreams and the unconscious, the topic became a primary inspiration for the surrealists, who sought to transcend the constraints of society and rationality. The unconscious, believed to manifest in sleep, became a tool to be harnessed as a means to pin down the self. One of the most prominent examples of this is surrealist Salvador Dali's 1944 work Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking. Here, as in many historic examples, the painting depicts both the dreamer and the dream. Dali's wife and muse Gala sleeps as she hovers above a rocky slab. Above her, two tigers leap towards the foreground and a rifle with a bayonet is suspended mere millimetres from piercing Gala's pale inner arm. Other details include a stilted elephant, several pomegranates and a fish that spews forth the tigers from its cavernous mouth. As the title suggests, the dream sequence will rouse Gala, inevitably restoring the rationality of the mind and suspending the surreal event in fragmented memory.

The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) by Henri Rousseau is a painting that may address the coercive nature of sleep and the separation of the sleeper from the surrounding environment. Oblivious to the lion that regards her scent but refrains from attack, the sleeper rests unperturbed. The thick stick in the woman's hand may indicate some prior knowledge of the dangers of the landscape and that her slumber may be inadvertent. A full moon illuminates the scene and the woman will likely wake in the morning to regard the close call as evidenced by lingering tracks in the sand.

The Sleeping Gypsy | Henri Rousseau | 1897 | Public Domain sleep in art iris28
The Sleeping Gypsy | Henri Rousseau | 1897 | Public Domain



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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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