Henry Fuseli – The Shepherd’s Dream, 1793
Upon laying my eyes on the creamy voluptuous scene, I feel connected to the languorous atmosphere created by the dancing creatures. Henry Fuseli is inviting us to witness a realm of seduction within a shepherd’s dream orchestrated by four charming fairies.
The man is sleeping innocently. He must have had a rough day for being so tired. His dog stayed awake and is now feeling a supernatural presence twirling and enchanting his master’s subconscious. The Shepherd must have thought he was alone in the middle of the meadow, free of trouble and of responsibilities. His dream is just about to prove him wrong.
A couple of violins murmur a sweet melody; the air, warm and dense, echoes the four fairies chanting. They are wearing long, airy velvet and muslin dresses covering their bodies, unveiling only their pale skin, arms, and ankles. Holding hands and spreading love with all their hearts, their magnificence shines through a dim light, illuminating a bird and other guests sitting on each side of the shepherd. He is warm too. His cheeks are red; or is he blushing, charmed and seduced by the dance of the fairies?
One of the fairies is pointing a wand towards the man’s face. The odor, perhaps of lavender and rose emanates, from the tropical colored leaves. Flying and twirling from left to right, the delicate smell of the flowers take part in seducing and enticing the man’s unconsciousness. This is where the scene slowly drifts from reality.
Where would our imagination and our deepest desires lead us if we were to embrace our dreams? Where would the fairy take the man? Is he in danger? He might come back as a different person. Would that be terrible?
The young shepherd seems to be willing to take a chance. As he is resting his body, his mind travels and encounters characters, aromas, delightful visions, beautiful colors and the sensation of a warm breath twirling around his body. The fantastic fairies are comforting, whispering sweet melodies and poems, lyrics suggesting he should let himself go.
One of the fairies, sitting on his right, is looking at us. She is wearing a mask and her hair is ornamented with a feathered bird. She is wearing a blue-grey dress and is about to take part in the dance and in seducing the young man.
Why is she looking at us? She probably saw us staring. She makes a malicious eye-contact and perhaps is wishing we could stay and take part in the dream.
On her right, at the far left-hand corner of the painting, an ugly child is also looking at us with a mischievous smile. She is wearing a beige dress covered with blackened wings. Her presence reveals an ominous omen, a vengeance targeted towards the shepherd in reaction to the pleasurable dream he is having. She is mimicking the good fairy’s smile. Only we know that hers is not well-intentioned.
On the opposite right corner, two other dark characters are crawling next to the young man. Queen Mabs*, the bringer of nightmares, is holding the demonic Incubus* on a leash. Incubus is a male demon whose will is to become part of a body by sexually abusing a sleeping man or woman. This abominable monster is quietly sitting in the dark, waiting for his master to set him free so he can perform his atrocities.
The naked woman on the wooden stairs is kneeling and brushing her hair. She is renowned to overpowering unsuspecting travelers and stealing their clothes*. Once she realizes there’s a man resting close by, she will certainly approach him.
The terror happening next to the shepherd is enlightened by the magical and eerie atmosphere above his head. Beyond darkness and threat hides the possibility of a heavenly dream. One has to trust to find beauty hiding beneath.
*Extracts from the Tate Museum website.