By the time that Albert Moore began painting his most famous works, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, dream and fantasy had already become an established topos both in the literary and pictorial arts. Fellow painter Edward Burne-Jones was using colour and tone in a manner that gave his paintings their characteristic sense of other-worldliness, situating them in an imagined world. Algernon Charles Swinburne's first collection of poetry Poems and Ballads, published in 1866, which was incidently dedicated to Burne-Jones, is abound with dreaming and sleeping as a narrative standpoint and thematic device. Both of these artists provide a window through which we can look at Moore's paintings depicting sleeping woman, of which there are no fewer than five, most notably for their reception Dreamers (1882) and Midsummer (1887) among them.
I wish to use Swinburne's poetry to analyse the dream/fantasy topos and provide a framework within which we can approach Moore's paintings. Fittingly the very first poem of Poems and Ballads entitled 'A Ballad of Life' opens
I found in dreams a place of wind and flowers,
Full of sweet trees and colour of glad grass,
In midst whereof there was
A lady clothed like summer with sweet hours.
Her beauty, fervent as a fiery moon,
Made my blood burn and swoon
Like a flame rained upon.
Sorrow had filled her shaken eyelids' blue,
And her mouth's sad red heavy rose all through
Seemed sad with glad things gone.
One of Swinburne's most famous poems 'Laus Veneris', second in the collection, develops his idea of the dream as a representation of an aesthetic consciousness. In a difficult to untangle, multi-layered image Love is described as a person that stands 'hard' by Venus' head 'like one labouring at a loom'.Yet
Labouring he dreams, and labours in the dream,
Till when the spool is finished, lo I see
His web, reeled off, curls and goes out like steam.
The first poem defines beauty as something interior in the mind of the poet as opposed to the Romantic notion of beauty as a unison between the subject and the outside world. The dream is a production of the poet's own imagination and within it he finds the beautiful woman in like surroundings. In the second poem the productiveness of the dream is emphasized through the praxis of work at the loom. The intensity of the dream becomes apparent not only through the physicality of the labour but also through the temporal finitude of the production which evaporates as soon as it is completed.
The chiasmus of the line 'Labouring he dreams, and labours in the dream' complicates the relationship between beauty and dreaming. Love dreams whilst he works at the loom but he also works within the dream. In other words beauty and imagination, aesthetic and subject, are inseperable or more to the point they are intertwined in a reciprocal relationship Love's labour is literally labour, beauty's value is beauty, art for art's sake. But also, and this is the crux of the topos, the dreamer's art is self-conscious, he knows that he is dreaming and that his art is a consequence of this dream. And art being the product of an aesthetic consciousness, an imagination that produces beauty from within, is nothing more than a self-conscious representation of beauty.
Moore's paintings must be seen in this light because unlike Giorgione's Sleeping Venus, these beauties are not just sleeping but they are imagined as dreaming (Dreamers). Thus Moore's preoccupation with sleeping women comments on aesthetic movement which Burne-Jones and Swinburne are said to have ushered into Victorian Britain. We could see the sleeping women as representing the epitome of the aesthetic life as accompaniments to the first stanza of "The Ballad of Life." At least in Dreamers the painter suggests that his painting represents the aesthete's notion of beauty as something artistically created. Of course beautifying the act of dreaming, no less having it as the entire subject of a painting, is Moore's way of being self-conscious, of telling the audience that the painting is entirely a self-constructed notion of beauty. Just as the women are dreaming, Moore dreams their dreaming. The other paintings might seem problematic because although they are all almost identical in content, the titles make no explicit attempt to define the pictures' content and instead they refer to objects in the painting such as Lilies, Work Basket and Apples (a trend in his other works as well). Yet this can be seen as the refusal to assign any value to the paintings whatsoever other than their visual content — the sheer beauty of the beautiful women in beautiful surroundings.
1. What sort of concerns does Giorgione have compared to Moore?
2. Could it be that Moore is more of an aesthete than Burne-Jones but the former is more culturally transgressive?
3. In the Baroque Period we have plays such as Calderon's Life is a Dream and Corneille's Theatrical Illusion which both question whether life or art is simply an illusion created by the mind and what the value of this illusion might be. What role does the concept of illusion play in Victorian art or what type of self-consciousness does the lack of such a notion express? reality/illusion vs. art/life - art imitates life vs. life imitates art
4. In what sense is Moore a more modern artist than Swinburne and Burne-Jones?
5. What role does repetition play in Moore's work?
6. Does the dream topos help us to elucidate the differences between Moore and Swinburne/Burne-Jones?
Last modified 23 April 2007