France 1840 – 1916
The sleep of Caliban
[Sommeil de Caliban] 1895-1900
oil on wood
panel 48.3 (h) x 38.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Mrs Arï Redon, according to the wishes of her husband, the artist’s son 1982
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Christian Jean
In Odilon Redon’s painting The Sleep of Caliban a strange creature sleeps perched against the trunk of a massive, ancient tree. Three faces float above the figure and seem to be connected to it in some way. A colourful landscape with a carpet of flowers forms the setting for this mysterious narrative.
Caliban is an alien being who exists somewhere between human and animal form in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In a series of earlier drawings of Caliban, Redon depicted the character as a sombre, pixie-like creature perched in the fork of a tree, looking pensively out at the viewer. In this painting, a richly coloured surface creates a dream-like landscape and a feeling of otherworldliness.
Redon was inspired by the natural world as well as literature and mythology. The Tempest takes place on an island with the banished sorcerer Prospero as the main protagonist. Caliban and another local inhabitant, Ariel are central figures in the story. The floating heads in this painting may represent Ariel and other spirits on the island. Notice how two of the faces look towards Caliban and the third head with closed eyes is surrounded by a golden halo.
Redon’s combination of muted and glowing colour where under colours show through creates a feeling of drifting between reality and dreams. His approach was a great inspiration to the Post-Impressionists and in particular, the Nabis group.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From audio tour Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay