Sleep In Art And Literature


Furthermore, although sleep is a basic human function, it is a unique experience for everybody. Thus, just as every man’s sleeplessness differs from his neighbor’s, so does his sleep. Sleep is a necessity and every person does it (or hopes to), but the actual experience cannot be shared. When one goes to sleep, one falls alone, and when one enters dreamland, one walks by one’s self. Here lies the appeal for artists. This inactive state contains so many connotations, evokes a large array of emotions, and holds an abundance of internal activity. How does one execute through painting one’s experiences and thoughts on sleep? Artists encounter a great barrier to over-come in trying to convey a multifaceted action whose origins lie in inaction. It is extremely difficult for an artist to separate one sleeping figure who may represent strength in sleep from another that symbolizes vulnerability.

This chapter explores the various devices and methods artists use to articulate their explorations and understandings of sleep. Furthermore, it investigates the different themes and ideas that artists have had about this mysterious human experience.


One way artists explore sleep is through mythology. Artists take advantage of the viewer’s knowledge of and familiarity with the characters, stories, and settings of myth. This allows the artist to convey his or her definition of sleep by immersing it in these visual mythical cues. This is accomplished once the viewer recognizes these cues because it forces the viewer to ask, “What are the implications of sleep in the context of the story?”

An example of this is Sandro Botticelli’s Mars and Venus (Fig. 1-2). In this painting, the fully clothed Venus sits at the left, upright and alert, whereas the sleeping Mars on the right lies languidly, incapacitated, exposed, and vulnerable. Venus appears to be in control while Mars is reduced to being a play-thing for the baby satyrs. Thus, this painting likens the state of sleep to weakness. It is a powerful force that can overtake the god of war. Sleep is undesirable because it is capable of lower-ing the defenses of someone as formidable as the god of war. The god of war becomes subject to humiliation. Furthermore, he has become prey to the outside world. This power of sleep is often not appreciated by patients, even those who suffer from sleep disorders, who may need to be reminded, for example, that sleep deprivation is used as a technique of torture. In other words, sleep is so highly necessary that “take those sleeping pills” may be the simplistic mantra.

Lorenzo Lotto’s Sleeping Apollo (Fig. 1-3) portrays sleep in a manner similar to that of Botticelli’s Mars and Venus. Once again, the sexes are divided; the naked female Muses are on the left and the slumbering Apollo sits on the right. Fame, who flies above Apollo, is ready to desert him and join the other Muses. The Muses have taken advantage of the sleeping Apollo to abandon their clothes and arts to frolic about.

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