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Sleeping Beauties in Victorian Britain

Cultural, Literary and Artistic Explorations of a Myth


Edited By Beatrice Laurent

Artists, scientists and the wider public of the Victorian era all seem to have shared a common interest in the myth of the Briar Rose and its contemporary implications, from the Pre-Raphaelites and late Victorian aesthetes to the fascinated crowds who visited Ellen Sadler, the real-life ‘Sleeping Maid’ who is reported to have slept from 1871 to 1880.
The figure of the beautiful reclining female sleeper is a recurring theme in the Victorian imagination, invoking visual, literary and erotic connotations that contribute to a complex range of readings involving aesthetics, gender definitions and contemporary medical opinion. This book compiles and examines a corpus of Sleeping Beauties drawn from Victorian medical reports, literature and the arts and explores the significance of the enduring revival of the myth.
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Beneath the Surface: Sleeping Beauties in Representations of Antiquity and their Reception (1860–1900)


British painting in the mid-1860s saw a prominent renewal of paintings of antiquity that was to last until the early twentieth century. The painters concerned have sometimes been referred to as ‘Olympians’, ‘Neoclassical’ or ‘Parnassians’1 because of their academicism, their return to classic forms and their promotion of noble ideals. Recent specialists have placed some of these painters – mostly Frederic Leighton and Albert Moore – within the broader Aesthetic Movement.2 However, both categories are problematic. First, neither completely accommodates painters such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Edward Poynter, who produced a kind of historical genre painting similar to that in vogue in France.3 Moreover, the term ‘Olympian’ connotes a serene and luminous Greece which is more akin to the Hellenism that art historians such as Winckelmann envisioned: this idealized and sanitized concept, therefore, precludes the darker and more complex elements of Greece which these painters in fact took into account in their works. Then, the inscription within the Aesthetic, or ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, Movement posits the primacy of the formal qualities of painting at the expense of subject, and yet these painters were highly concerned with literary, dramatic, historical or mythological subjects, even though they sometimes explored Aesthetic principles. Finally, beyond the ← 213 | 214 → formal beauty and the noble ideals these painters wanted to attain, their works express concerns for inner conflicts and hidden pulses which neither term – ‘Olympian’ or ‘Aesthetic’ – completely accounts for.

One of the privileged themes of that painting is the representation of sleeping...

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