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Work Titania Sleeping
Department of Paintings: English painting
© 2008 RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
The painting depicts a scene from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (act 2, scene 2). Oberon, king of the fairies, is jealous of his wife Titania. He wants to see her suffer and so squeezes the juice of a magical plant over her eyelids while she sleeps so that she falls in love with the first creature she sees when she awakes-the stupid, oafish weaver Bottom, who has magically been given the head of an ass. At the end of the play, the spells are lifted and everyone is as they were before.
The painting is dominated by a sort of maelstrom or cornucopia reaching from the entrance of the cave to the figures dancing on the left. The composition is extremely dense; the characters are completely integrated into the scenery, giving the impression of a microcosm entirely separate from the real world.
The layout of the piece is similar to that of a stage, with a curtain of bats. The scene is being played out at the entrance to a grotto. This "mise en abyme" sense of a scene within a scene adds to the impression of unreality. Dadd combines a natural landscape, a stage set, and a scene that is almost religious in nature, bringing a touch of mysticism to the work. Tatiana is shown as a Madonna figure, seated in a niche in the rocks and surrounded by arabesques and fairies. Oberon, who is hidden in the shadows, is an unsettling presence. The fairy magic of the scene is subtly suggested by the contrasting tonalities of white, the color of purity, and darker tones, symbolizing mystery and darkness. The composition in circles, the lithe dancing bodies, and the bucolic charm of the plants and flowers all make for an enchanting yet dynamic scene.
A world re-enchanted
The painting was first shown at a Royal Academy exhibition, where it was hailed as a great success. Fairies were a popular theme in Victorian England. Artists once again drew on Shakespeare's plays and British folklore for inspiration. Magical enchantment was a way of escaping everyday concerns and of subverting the strict religious, social, and cultural practices of the day.
Fairy paintings allowed artists to bring together a number of themes: nudes, the eroticism of mythological scenes, pastoral landscapes, sentimental narratives, and literary scenes. The success of this genre can be seen as resulting from the overworking of the genre of history painting, promoted by the Royal Academy.
The art of a madman
Richard Dadd was a student at the Royal Academy and later worked with the group of artists known as the Clique, including William Powell Frith, John Phillip, Augustus Egg, Henry O'Neil, and Thomas Joy. In the 1840s he traveled around Greece and the Middle East with some fellow artists. Tatiana Sleeping is typical of Dadd's work. His interest in the fantastic is shown by the choice of literary subject, and there are already signs of his later obsession with detail in the little gnomes.
Sadly, Dadd is most often remembered for having killed his father in a fit of madness. He spent the last forty years of his life in an asylum. The amount of detail and the use of various decorative effects in what is a relatively small work prefigure the style of the art he produced in the asylum, where his use of detail reached manic proportions.
Richard DADD (Chatham, 1817-Chatham, 1886)
Oil on canvas
H. 64 cm; L. 77 cm
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