Titania Sleeping

RICHARD DADD (1817-1886) Biography

Titania Sleeping (England, c.1841)

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Oil on canvas


64.80cm high
77.50cm wide
(25.51 inches high)
(30.51 inches wide)
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H. Farrer, bought from the Royal Academy 1841
Samuel Ashton 1857; by descent to
Thomas Ashton
Colonel C. H. Wilkinson to 1960
Miss V. R. Levine to 1985
Peter Nahum Ltd
Private Collection USA


Richard Greysmith, Richard Dadd - The Rock and Castle of Seclusion, London 1973, pages 75, 76, 169, illustrated plate 25
Patricia Allderidge, Richard Dadd, London 1974, pages 15, 98, illustrated colour double page spread pages 66 & 67
Patricia Allderidge, The Late Richard Dadd 1817-1886, London 1974, pages 16, 36, 59, 61, 68, 116, 119, 147, illustrated in colour page 60
Isaure de Saint Pierre, Richard Dadd - His Journals, France 1980, page 188
C. Wood, Fairies In Victorian Art, Antique Collectors' Club, 2000, p. 10 (illustrated)

Exhibition History

London, Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition, 1841, number 207
Manchester, Art Treasures of the United Kingdom, 1857, number 477
London, Tate Gallery, The Late Richard Dadd 1817-1886, 1974, number 57

Description / Expertise

The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy with the quotation in the catalogue:

There sleeps Titania sometime of the Night
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.
The scene in which Titania is sung to sleep by her attendants is Act II scene 2 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, though the quotation from Puck's words is found in the preceding scene. The figure of Oberon can just be made in the shadows of the cave, preparing to squeeze juice from the magic flower on Titania's eyelids. A Midsummer Night's Dream was among the most popular of Shakespeare's plays, and frequently illustrated.

This picture and its companion Puck were the two works, which helped to establish Dadd's reputation as a fairy painter. Of Titania Sleeping, when it was shown at the Academy, the reviewer of the Literary Gazette wrote:

A small production and near the ground, but one that promises greater efforts, to the clever young artist. The conception of fairy circle boasts of originality, even after the hundreds of times it has been painted; and we are glad to take this opportunity of noticing the merits of a pencil to which we owe a grateful compliment.

The Art Union's reviewer found:

A volume of poetry in this beautiful work; the production of an accomplished mind, and the result of matured thought and study.

It was spoken of in 1843 as:

The work which may now even be considered his most successful.

The picture makes a good foil to the spectacular dazzle of Puck with its more tender luminosity, but still depends for much of its effect on highly dramatic lighting. The composition, conceived as a snail's-shell spiral set obliquely to the surface plane of the picture, arches round from the left-hand side of the cave's mouth and swirls across the fore-ground through the trail of toadstools scattered in the grass, finally to meet up with the dancing figures on the left.

The tightness of the structure and the integration of the figures with the natural world of their surroundings creates, as in all Dadd's fairy paintings, the feeling of a self-contained microcosm, existing entirely on its own terms and in its own context. In this instance, however, the group of dancers is moving down a hill, and so intensely is the scene realised that they take with them the slightly chilling sense that they are moving out into the void of another dimension. Though the total picture is completely his own, Dadd has borrowed for it from several sources.

The basic structure, with the main group framed in a central recess, is a device learnt from Maclise who uses it often; and the framing arc of hobgoblins itself derives from the circle of putti in Maclise's Choice of Hercules. Titania and her attendants are seen as a nativity group, the kneeling fairy on the left being given the pose of a shepherd from Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherds (known as The Beaumont Adoration or The Allendale Nativity): while Titania herself must surely count Venus among her antecedents, and perhaps Giorgione's Dresden Venus.

The strange and inventive proscenium arch, by which Dadd confirms that this is truly a theatrical work, incorporates the shape of a central monster flanked by bats and owes much to similar shapes in the work of Blake and Fuseli. A particularly close parallel is found in a drawing by Fuseli for his Vision of the Madhouse, in which just such a figure with outstretched arms and batwing outline dominates the top of the composition; but Dadd is unlikely to have seen this as the figure is omitted from the engraved version. However, it is just possible that the painting of the same subject in Fuseli's Milton Gallery, now lost, included this figure and was seen by Dadd before its disappearance. Titania Sleeping, like Come Into these Yellow Sands, was sufficiently successful to be very heavily used by Huskisson in his own version of the subject a few years later.