Rest and Dreams
In this blog series, our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.
Explore the theme of Rest and Dreams in this week's blog. Discover Gabriel Metsu's An Old Woman Alseep, a snuffbox adorned by sleepy scenes after François Boucher and a highly prized tapestry housed within a French neoclassical styled fire-screen.
Gabriel Metsu, An Old Woman Asleep, 1657–c. 1662
An old woman sleeps in a kitchen, with a large Bible open on her lap. She has fallen asleep whilst reading. She holds a pair of glasses in her left hand and with her right she holds a page open.
The painting likely represents the sin of sloth or laziness. The woman’s carelessness towards her house chores and religious meditation are symbols of negligence. Under such inattentive care, a household could easily fall into disarray. This is symbolised by the greedy cat at her feet, who in absence of an attentive owner, is ready to dig into the plate of fresh fish on the floor. By contrast, the standing young maid steadfast work, preparing fish on the table provides an exemplary model of a virtuous woman.
Alonso Cano, Saint John the Evangelist’s Vision of Jerusalem, 1635–8
This scene comes from the Book of Revelation 21:10-27. In the passage, John the Evangelist describes how an angel came down from Heaven and carried him up to a great high mountain from where he saw the city of Jerusalem coming down towards him from the skies. The passage contains a detailed description of the city. It is said to be squared, with twelve gates, three on each of the walls, which are orientated to the North, East, South, and West. The doors are always open, left so to welcome all nations and people.
This painting formed part of a larger polyptych with sculptures in the church of Santa Paula in Seville. Cano’s use of vivid colours and the sculptural qualities of the scene, derived from the artist’s training as a sculptor, give it a solidity and presence which is almost tangible. Yet, this is the depiction of a vision Saint John the Evangelist had in the desert when he fainted from exhaustion and dreamed a vision of a new Heaven and Earth.
Snuffbox, Paul Robert, Paris, 1759–60
Fashionable snuffboxes were often decorated with enamel miniatures copying paintings by famous artists. Here, the anonymous enameller has taken inspiration from several prints after paintings by François Boucher, in particular the painting on the front which derives from a painting exhibited by Boucher at the Salon of 1753 called The Interrupted Sleep. In it, Boucher depicted a young shepherd tickling a pretty shepherdess under the chin with a piece of straw. Boucher set his painting in a pastoral landscape, but on the box the artist has transposed it and the five other scenes into a domestic interior.
Boucher’s painting was owned by Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, and was hung as an overdoor in her château at Bellevue along with its pendant, The Love Letter. There it would have been surrounded by rococo wood panelling, akin to the rococo frame effect that the goldsmith, Paul Robert, has created in varicoloured gold for the enamels on his snuffbox.
Writing and toilet table, attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener, c. 1780-84
Over the course of the eighteenth century, French furniture developed increasingly specialised forms to provide comfort and convenience. This writing and toilet table was made by Jean-Henri Riesener, probably between 1780 and 1784, and bears his characteristic gilt-bronze mounts. With a mirror inside, it was originally designed to be used for the toilette (an important morning ritual in eighteenth-century France, which involved dressing and applying cosmetics, often publicly), as well as writing.
However, by the time the piece entered the collection of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, it had been altered into a night table that accommodated a chamber pot. Later, Lady Wallace used it as a bedside table in her bedroom at Hertford House.
Fire-screen, French, c.1850 (incorporating tapestry, c. 1690)
In classical mythology, the poet Ovid tells the story of Mercury and Argus, in which Io is transformed by Juno into a cow, to keep her safe from the lecherous Jupiter. Argus, a shepherd with a hundred eyes, is tasked with guarding her, but is distracted by the beautiful strains of Mercury’s music which send him to sleep.
Such stories were frequently used at the royal Gobelins Manufactory as subjects for large-scale tapestries. Although the tapestry in this firescreen dates from that period, it has been cut down from a larger piece for its current use. The frame of the screen is in the French neoclassical style of c. 1770-1780, but its rather clunky carving and lack of fine detail show that it was actually made in the middle of the 19th century. At that time the tapestry would have been highly prized in its own right, and the frame made to display it.