Titania Sleeping

Titania Sleeping by Richard Dadd, 1817-1886. 1841. Oil on canvas. 23 1/2 x 30 1/2 inches. Provenance: H. Farrer, who bought the painting from the Royal Academy exhibition of 1841; Samuel Ashton, (in 1857); Thomas Ashton; Col. C. H. Wilkinson, of Worcester College, Oxford; Col. Wilkinson's sale, Sotheby's, 25 May 1960, lot 69; Miss V. R. Levine.

Commentary by Christopher Newall

Dadd's painting illustrates Act II scene 2 of Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Titania is lulled to sleep by her fairy attendants. Oberon, whose figure is almost hidden in the shadows of the cave, prepares to squeeze juice from the magic flower on Titania's eyelids. The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841 with the quotation in the exhibition catalogue: 'There sleeps Titania sometime of the night Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight". The present picture, and its companion at the Royal Academy, Puck,' were enthusiastically reviewed at that exhibition; the acclaim with which they were received served to establish Dadd's reputation as a fairy painter. Patricia Allderidge has analysed the composition of the painting in the following words:

[It] is conceived as a spiral snail's shell shape, set slightly obliquely to the surface plane of the picture, arching round from the left-hand side of the cave's mouth and swirling across the foreground through the trail of toadstools which are scattered over the grass, until it meets up with the dancing figures on the left. The tightness of the structure and the complete 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.

While Dadd has created in this painting something unique which anticipates the complex and highly-wrought masterpieces of the years of his incarceration, its conception depends on various sources, and demonstrates Dadd's knowledge and understanding of the history of painting. As Patricia Allderidge has pointed out the painting owes something to the iconography of Christ's Nativity in the isolation of the central group of figures, and in the placing of the attendant figures. The fixing of this group in a central recess was a device borrowed from Maclise; the framing of the subject within an arch consisting of a monster flanked by bats, a variety of proscenium arch for this subject taken from the theatre, had been previously tried by Fuseli.'

A Midsummer Night's Dream proved one of the most potent sources of subjects and inspiration to Romantic painters. Daniel Maclise had previously treated the far more disturbing subject of The Disenchantment of Bottom Act IV, scene 2 (ex Iveagh collection, Elveden Hall), a painting with something of the same dynamic force and luminous colour scheme as Dadd's Titania Sleeping.


Newall, Christopher. A Celebration of British and European Painting of the 19th and 20th Centuries. London: Peter Nahum, nd [1999?]. Pp. 10-12.

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Last modified 27 June 2020