And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hillside.

(John Keats)

What colours and shapes our dreams? Do we hear bird song, rolling waves, the voice of a loved one? Often dreams feature images, pictorial situations, a coherent narrative or disconnected fragments of a story. As dreams are said to represent the fulfilment of a repressed wish, or the embodiment of some unrecognised fear, they consist of similes and metaphors, hints and allusions.

Hints and allusions offer rich material for allegories, fantasies and abstract compositions, to give the story and the atmosphere of the dream a visual reality on canvas. Dreams are represented symbolically.

With its roots in literature, especially poetry, in particular the poetry of Mallarmé and Verlaine, symbolism is, unlike other art ‘isms’ not only a reaction against, but a continuation of a style that favours mythological and religious topics, spiced with erotic and mystical elements.

Legendary or literary characters, deities, animals and landscapes but especially women are the subjects of symbolist paintings. The artists bravely address themes of great relevance, like the relationship between human and divinity, love, sin, disease and death.

Seated on an impressive, if improbable, throne, Jupiter looks directly at the viewer, a young but powerful ruler of the world in Gustave Moreau’s Jupiter and Semele. A small and pale human figure, his victim Semele, is draped on his thigh. She has been incinerated by Jupiter’s bolts of lightning. Following a previous encounter with Jupiter, Semele is pregnant. As she lies dying, Jupiter performs an unusual caesarean and implants the foetus into his own thigh. The painting is heavy with impasto and symbols: power, life, death, magic, present and future are represented by various figures and heads of deities, the moon, birds and vegetation.

The femme fatale

Mythical creatures acted in unexpected ways. When Oedipus answered the Sphynx’s riddle correctly, thus winning the freedom for the Thebans, she (the Sphynx is female) killed herself by jumping into the sea. The Sphynx has the body of a lion, the wings of a falcon and human head (and breasts). The meeting has been often represented with the two characters engaged in dialogue but keeping at a polite and safe distance from each other. In Gustave Moreau’s painting, the Sphynx gets closer than acceptable for casual acquaintances, by climbing onto Oedipus chest. They gaze into each other’s eyes. Half woman and half-wild animal, the sphinx is the embodiment of femme fatale, an exhilarating mix of desire and danger.

A wizard and a prophet, Merlin also had a weakness for beautiful women. He was especially enamoured of one of his apprentices, Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. Nimue (also known as Ninnian or Vivienne) seduced him, learned all his secrets and buried him alive under a rock.

Looking at The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones, we wonder if Merlin has the prophetic knowledge of his student’s plot; did he purposefully allow her to use the spell he taught her, because he was so smitten? The painting shows the wizard in a defeated pose, looking adoringly at his tormentor. Wearing a transparent dress designed to reveal more than hide her curves, a very tall Lady of the Lake has snakes in her hair and is holding an open book of spells. Education and knowledge make women dangerous.

The original femme fatale, Lilith was Adam’s first wife. Unlike Eve, she was created from the same soil as Adam. Refusing to be subservient to her husband, she left Adam and the suburban life of the Garden of Eden, thus gaining her place among early feminist icons, as a strong and independent woman.

Adam's wife, his first. Beware of her
Her beauty's one boast is her dangerous hair.
When Lilith winds it tight around young men
She doesn't soon let go of them again.

(Goethe Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy)

In Victorian interpretation, beauty and sensuality translate as culpability. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith is Goethe’s temptress. She is portrayed in her boudoir, surrounded by white and pink flowers, holding a mirror and languorously brushing her gorgeously flowing flame hair. She wears a white dress, the soft material falling away to reveal a translucent shoulder and an elegant long neck. Lilith is relaxed, the languid atmosphere reiterated by the inclusion of a poppy (the opium flower) in the lower right corner.

The cursed

And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

(Alfred Lord Tennyson)

The sad Lady of Shalott could only look at the world through a mirror, her knowledge of reality restricted, her perception unaffected by previous experience and expectations. The brave Lady of Shalott dared to break her shackles and follow her heart and her knight. But Victorian society didn’t look kindly upon female freedom and desire; her punishment was severe. Before drowning, in a Renaissance landscape, she looks beautiful, delicate yet determined. This is how we came to see her in the painting of John William Waterhouse, floating onto Camelot, as described by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Painted around the same time, William Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shalott is captured at the moment her life begins to unravel, like the tapestry within her circular loom. She has just looked directly to the outside world and seen Lancelot, heard him sing. Like the effect of a tornado, her red hair is whipped up, her bare feet tangled in the thread of her unfinished tapestry, and the mirror has “crack’d from side to side”, bringing the curse upon her.

Woe's me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!

(Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

Proserpine was abducted by Pluto, the king of the Underworld, to be his wife and co-ruler of Hades. At the request of her mother, Proserpine was allowed to return to earth provided she has not tasted any of the fruits on the land of the dead. But before letting her go, Pluto made her eat a grain (some say as many as six grains) of pomegranate seeds, and this meant she can only live on earth for six months of the year.

Rossetti’s 1874 painting of Proserpine features his lover Jane Morris holding a pomegranate, symbol of captivity and marriage. Like Proserpine, Jane was enchained in a loveless marriage. In the dark corridor of her cold home, there is only a glimpse of light from the world above. The picture is dominated by the luxurious folds of the green drapery and lighted by Jane’s elegant hands and elongated nape. It is a beautifully decorative composition, complete with the ivy foliage, symbol of clinging memory and the incense burner: she is a goddess.