Dreams and Nightmares: Examining John Flaxman’s Penelope’s Dream

Gabriella Lawson is a rising senior at Syracuse University. She is majoring in art history and is interested in the role of art history in fashion design.

John Flaxman illustrates a moment in The Odyssey when Minerva or Athena, suddenly conjures a physical presence in front of a sleeping Penelope in order to relay a message concerning Odysseus, Penelope’s husband. The illustration is conveniently titled Penelope’s Dream. This is one of Flaxman’s many illustrations of scenes within the well-known Greek epic. Returning to antiquity or the era of ancient Greece, The Odyssey is an epic poem by the ancient Greek poet, Homer. The story follows Odysseus, the king of Ithaca and soldier of the Trojan War, on his journey back home immediately after the fall of Troy. While Odysseus undertakes his ten-year long journey to return home, his wife, Penelope, finds herself dodging troublesome suitors who want her hand in marriage and the crown to the city-state of Ithaca. Flaxman’s revival of Homer’s classical epic reflects the renewed appreciation for classical ideas, subjects, and elements in eighteenth- and nineteenth- century Europe.

   Flaxman’s etching sits on a 168 mm by 245 mm page, which is about the normal size of a compact book page. The size of the print quickly shows the visual interpretation of the text, which is quite complex in comparison to the initial impression of an ostensibly simple composition. Nevertheless, this initial impression of simplicity gives the viewer just enough stimuli to move along in the story and follow the illustrations that are to come, without being distracted by other visual elements. However, if one were to look more closely at the composition, there is an exactness and brevity in the line work that conveys a sense of tidy cleanness. Flaxman focuses on the single encounter between Athena and Penelope, and desists from crowding the scene with more than it needs.

   The viewer is presented with the visual representation of the bed that Penelope sleeps on – a hint of the setting in which the encounter takes place. Then, in the center of the print, Penelope is interrupted in the midst of her slumber, while a single oil lamp burns in the left corner of the image. The bed and the lamp remain the only inanimate objects; however, one can still feel the flickering of the fire as Athena suddenly rushes into the scene. Although the print seems to lack spatial detail, our imagination works to complete the scene in our minds just as for a novel that only gives so much detail, it is the reader that creates the image of characters and landscapes as best to match the details of the story. It is also by filling in the gaps of our imagination that we acknowledge the intensity of Penelope’s emotions, as she lies upset about the unknown whereabouts of her husband, which are settled by Athena’s arrival. The goddess herself is almost depicted as a hero, her hand wavering over the head of Penelope in a savior-like motion. Nevertheless, this immortal form that appears before Penelope is quite frightening. Although a divine being, Athena appears to be ghost-like and swiftly visits Penelope just as she falls asleep. In the flickering light of the oil lamp, Athena gifts Penelope with the vision that Odysseus will return and vanquish the numerous suitors at her doorstep.

   Penelope’s Dream exemplifies the key Romantic idea that reality and illusion become blurred in dreams in which new scenarios that we think about on a subconscious level finally have freedom to reign. How then might this single illustration by Flaxman reflect some recognizable themes of Romanticism, most notably in the state of dreaming? While Penelope’s Dream is an illustration of a specific incident in an epic, itself a multitude of stories within a single story that typically follows the journey of a lone hero (also a Romantic motif), Flaxman emphasized the dream-like state to heighten the intensity of the encounter between Athena and Penelope. The sphere of the subconscious mind or the act of dreaming was a recurring Romantic theme that we can also see in Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) and Francisco de Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1797-1799). Both Fuseli and Goya accentuated the human repression of strong emotions such as fear. Somehow, Flaxman’s illustration is less about the horror of the subconscious and more about the ethereal quality of dreaming, represented by the airborne Athena. Furthermore, Athena becomes a personified form of a dream since it is she who brings the vision to Penelope.

   At another level, Flaxman’s Penelope is visited by what can be interpreted as a spectral Athena, who is also disguised as Iphthima the fair (Icarius’s daughter). Athena approaches Penelope in her most vulnerable state, whilst she is sleeping. It is a phantom Athena that hovers over a Penelope, becoming somewhat of a representation of a hallucination for Penelope, who is tormented in her dreams about the current state of her husband Odysseus. Athena being depicted as a ghost-like figure is yet another romantic image because it channels the emotions of fear and terror that all mortals experience. Keeping in mind that dreams emerge once an individual becomes fully unconscious, we can interpret Athena as a physical manifestation of Penelope’s fears, since it is Athena who arrives to bring the message of Odysseus’s destiny.

   Returning to Fuseli’s The Nightmare and Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, we find that the former depicts a distressed woman in deep slumber. A demonic figure rests on her chest, this very incubus possibly being the cause for her vivid and haunting nightmares. In the dark corner, a horse adds to the haunting atmosphere. In Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, an etching like Penelope’s Dream, the sleeping figure appears to be tormented in his dreams by a group of animals that include owls and bats. Both The Nightmare and The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters have an ominous air, something that Flaxman’s careful and clean line rendering lacks. Nevertheless, all these images highlight just how troublesome the subconscious can truly be to a human being. It is where our deepest fears lie and when one is asleep, these fears and horrific feelings come to the surface.

   Unlike Fuseli and Goya, however, Flaxman not only evokes dreams, he also incorporates sculptural renderings of fabric into his illustration. Flaxman’s artistic choice may be due to his nine-year stay in Rome during an early period of his life when he was exposed to classical sculpture. His emphasis on line became his signature style. To this end, Flaxman’s graphic illustration is similar to what we see today in graphic novels. Images like Penelope’s Dream can be considered the precedent to contemporary versions of an original visual reading in which the artist tells a compelling story through images and dialogue. Today, artists and writers illustrate their poetry books as seen in the poet Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey (2014). Kaur herself experiments with line but in a looser manner than Flaxman. As far as dreams are concerned, there have been new discoveries and experiments with dreams such as the idea of lucid dreaming in which individuals are aware that they are dreaming and through this awareness, they learn to control the elements of their dream. In addition, modern Science Fiction movies have also been based on dreaming and dream infiltration as we see in the military tactics depicted in Inception (2010), a film that explores a different realm of the dream state in which the subconscious is broken down into a series of levels of consciousness. Dreams and the latent parts of the mind continue to be romanticized in modern culture, especially as science advances and contemporary artists, writers, and film makers continue to explore dreams in their own works.


Further Reading

  • The Art of Dreams.” The Public Domain Review.
  • Irwin, David. “John Flaxman’s Drawings” The Burlington Magazine 118, no. 878 (1976): 333-336.
  • Flaxman, John. The Odyssey of Homer, Engraved from the Compositions of John Flaxman. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees & Orme, 1805.
  • Stafford, Barbara Maria. “Romantic Systematics and the Genealogy of Thought: The Formal Roots of a Cognitive History of Images.” Configurations 12, no. 3 (2004): 315-348.
  • Thomas, John. “John Flaxman, R.A. (1755-1826).” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 104, no. 4966 (1955): 43-66.

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