This handsome hardbound volume, an authoritative study in art history that can pass as a coffee-table book, is billed by its publisher as “the first-ever history of the representation of dreams in Western painting.” The author, Daniel Bergez, is himself a painter, and also a scholar, critic, and professor at the Lycée Henri-IV in Paris. He works on both literature and painting, exploring particularly the intersection between them. While such interartistic studies have blossomed now for decades, the field for researchers remains lively. Bergez’s credentials include a doctorat d’État ès Lettres et sciences humaines and the Prix Bernier de l’Académie des Beaux-Arts for his monograph on Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian. Prizes these days are a dime a dozen. The Prix Bernier is worth, in prestige and euros, far more than a dime.

Painting the Dream first appeared in French in 2017; it is not stale. Nor are the art works, however old, on which it is based. Nothing in the presentation is clichéd. The organization is generally chronological. Chapters focus on periods and, within them, subjects and styles. The earliest depictions of dream examined are medieval, the latest from the first decades of the 20th century, represented particularly by the Surrealists, for whom dreams were crucial. French art furnishes the greatest number of examples, but works by Italian, Flemish, British, and other artists are included. The text accompanying the illustrations (nearly 190) does not consist merely of short identifications, but includes ample explanatory commentaries, comprehensible by lay readers. Paintings of literal dream action are side-by-side with those inspired simply by a dreamy atmosphere or an apparition, such as Eugène Delacroix’s Hamlet Sees the Ghost of His Father.

Exceptionally, the first chapter, “Biblical and Medieval Dreams,” is organized by topic as well as period. Jacob’s dream, with its ladder, appears early in illuminated manuscripts. From pre-Renaissance painters come dreams of Solomon, Jacob, and Joseph, the last portrayed not only as dreamer himself but also interpreter for the Pharaoh. Thus one can enjoy two layers of oneirocriticism: Joseph interpreting in the biblical scene, and Joseph interpreted by the artist. 

The New Testament Joseph is shown as well, eyes closed, in the Annunciation dream and in scenes connected with the flight into Egypt and the return. Saints whose dreams belong to hagiography are featured likewise. Among secular subjects are Charlemagne’s prophetic dreams, recounted in La Chanson de Roland, illustrated in late-medieval illuminations.  The Arthurian romances and Le Roman de la Rose, an important allegory, similarly inspired artists.

Even in the remaining chapters, chronological by period, biblical topics are found along with legendary, literary, and personal dreams. A moving scene by Rembrandt shows an angel visiting Joseph and Mary asleep. The Arthurian corpus furnishes material for canvasses such as Edward Burne-Jones’s Lancelot’s Dream at the Chapel of the Holy Grail.

In the 19th century, one notes a return, especially among Symbolist painters, to allegory. Another trend of the period is the romantic opposition between dream and reality, increasingly emphasized in artistic renderings. Bergez’s chapter “Realism, or the Dream Disappointed” highlights paintings illustrating the opposition.  The midpoint between the two states, reverie, acquired new value in artists’ imaginations and vocabulary, the word appearing frequently in titles of paintings and musical compositions.  Meanwhile, the connection between the dream and death, seen centuries before in Holbein the Younger and Bruegel the Elder, regained prominence.

The increased personalization of the arts since Romanticism encouraged intimate, experiential viewing, different from theological or simply literary understanding—viewers could be drawn into the artist’s psyche. Bergez remarks that in the images of Odilon Redon’s noir period, “there is perfect overlap between the vision in the painting and the vision of the painting by the viewer, who finds himself truly ‘in the dream.’” John Austen Fitzgerald’s The Artist’s Dream (1857) invites viewers’ identification with its process and dynamic experience; the observer becomes a middle term. A different approach to drawing viewers into the subject as process is Paul Emmanuel Legrand’s In Front of Detaille’s “The Dream” (1897), showing schoolboys at an art dealer’s stall studying J.B.E. Detaille’s graphic nocturnal battlefield scene, which depicts soldiers asleep, their weapons stilled but ready, below a translucent sky. The gloss was a patriotic gesture, directed toward “La Revanche!,” or vengeance, after the Franco-Prussian War.

While connoisseurs may identify artists and even recognize many illustrations, even they, like general readers, will still make new discoveries here. Among the artists are three women. Yes, Virginia, there were 19th-century female painters; prima facie evidence shows that Bergez’s selections were made on grounds of worth.  To give a sampling of famous painters represented would be otiose. One figure worth noting for his violon d’Ingres (the painter Ingres also played the violin very well) is Victor Hugo, who, in addition to his other talents, was a skilled draftsman. His Jersey (1855; pen, brown ink, and charcoal, on paper) expresses what Bergez calls “a realism of dreams,” the ink on the grain of the paper creating a ghostly scene; his Fantastic Castle at Twilight (pen, brown and black ink, and wash with white opaque watercolor over black chalk) is nightmarish, its plausible architectural details yielding to the phantasmagoric blurring of forms and threatening sky. “Our dreams in sleep are the apparitions of the possible,” he wrote.

Both reading and leafing through give great pleasure. Recurring subjects allow readers to compare cultural assumptions and artistic temperaments. A legend or myth, that of Endymion, for example, takes on different character in illustrations from three periods, thus showing, with the artists’ interpretations, different period styles.  

Themes and motifs circulate, not quite “as if in dream,” but imparting a pleasing eeriness or frisson to the book. Landscapes, genre paintings, portraits, interiors, dramatic re-enactments—dream can take on any guise. Apollo, the Muses, Cupid, a satyr, a nymph: All are present. Paris, the Trojan, became a topos in late medieval and early Renaissance writing, his story having metamorphosed into dream. He is depicted, for example, by Pieter Coecke van Aelst as a young knight asleep by a fountain. Three fleshy young women gesturing to him are a “dream phenomenon.”  The future founder of Rome appears in Anchises Appearing in a Dream to Aeneas, by Denys Calvaert.

In the background to modern notions of dream, for both artists and critics, lurks Freud, whom Bergez acknowledges, undogmatically. Previously William James, French psychologists, and others had already written about the unconscious mind; in 1888 Redon spoke of his submission to its visitations. But Freud’s 1899 treatise on dream interpretation galvanized the notion for the Surrealists and kindred spirits. Whereas dream tableaux of the classical period displayed narrative rationality, the Surrealists subordinated sense to free association or other manifestations of the imagination. Classical nudes—Venus or the Graces, sculptural, contained—were succeeded by figures charged with eroticism, often symbolically, such as in the phallic shape in The Dream by Picasso.

Long before Freud, painters themselves were oneirocritics, as Bergez’s study demonstrates. To imagine, then paint, as in Raphael’s workshop, the scene of Joseph before the Pharaoh means to shape it, giving it the tones, coloring, dimensions, and feeling that one wants—that is, to bestow one’s slant. How much more revealing for artists to invent dreams from whole cloth or express their own! Whether it draws on the rational or the irrational, art provides authentic and eloquent understandings of the dreaming mind.


[Painting the Dream: From the Biblical Dream to Surrealism, by Daniel Bergez, translated by Kate Deimling (New York and London: Abbeville Press) 256 pp., $50.00]