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Beneath the Surface: Sleeping Beauties in Representations of Antiquity and their Reception (1860-1900)

Abstract : The revival of the Sleeping Beauty myth finds avatars in the numerous representations of sleeping maidens clad in antique costume which are to be found in paintings of the “Neo-Classical” and “Aesthetic” movements. From the mid-1860s onwards, Frederic Leighton, George Frederick Watts, Albert Moore, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, John William Waterhouse, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, and many other lesser known artists, treated this motif in their productions, such as Ariadne. The sleeping woman was sometimes considered as a pictorial pattern – a pure form derived from the noble classical models of Antiquity which these artists aimed at emulating. The aim was therefore to concentrate on a purely aesthetic representation – away from a decidable meaning, from a recognizable context, or even from the mythological source. However, this aesthetic choice was not exempt from tensions and contradictions, and this paper aims at delving on the more ambiguous and even disquieting dimensions of those aestheticized images of beautiful sleeping girls modelled on antique precedents. A particular attention will be given to the reception of such artworks, most of all in the periodicals of the time. The art critics were indeed aware of and therefore sometimes verbalized an awareness of those tensions. In the late 19th-century context of anthropological or psychological explorations, these images explore notions such as archaic pulses, erotic fantasies, interest in onirism and dreams, fears of degeneracy, attraction to mystery, or the return of the repressed. These sleeping beauties should therefore be resolutely inscribed within the larger contemporary context of Nietzschean and proto-Freudian ideas, and should be placed next to the troubling paintings by the French and Belgian Symbolists.
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Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada. Beneath the Surface: Sleeping Beauties in Representations of Antiquity and their Reception (1860-1900). Béatrice Laurent. Sleeping Beauties in Victorian Britian: Cultural, Literary and Artistic Explorations of a Myth, Peter Lang, 2014, 303431745X. ⟨hal-02093331⟩

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