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Job’s Evil Dreams, by William Blake (1805)

The World of Dreams in Painting and Literature


“All art is perhaps a form of dream,” Borges said. This is a selection of paintings and texts that came straight from that great kingdom of the night.

Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly flittering and fluttering around as he pleased. Suddenly he woke up and realized that he was Chuang Tzu. But he did not know whether he was Chuang Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was

–“Dream of the Butterfly,” Chuang Tzu.


“Literature is full of dreams that we remember more clearly than our own,” Francine Prose wrote in the New York Review of Books in an article regarding the theme. And yes, there is the unforgettable dream of Gregory Samsa in “Metamorphosis,” the dream of Alice in Wonderland, the dreams in the works of Shakespeare or the fabulous turn of the screw in the dream of Anna Karenina. And there are, of course, the prophetic dreams of the East and the allegories of the Middle Ages. But painting is also full of memorable, disturbing, persuasive dreams in which we often see the body itself that dreams with the element of the dream incorporated in a variety of ways.

To translate into literature or painting something as intangible as a dream, in which the mind is both a theater, the actors and the auditorium (and the author of the fable that we see) has been a seductive exercise for the greatest writers and artists. “Coleridge wrote that the images of wakefulness inspire feelings, while feelings inspire images,” Borges said in his prologue to the wonderful Book of Dreams that compiles dreams in the history of universal literature. Art is permeated by dreams: the night penetrates the doings of the day.

The following is a brief selection of literary and pictorial works of that “art of the night” that has influenced so many artists to create some of the best works we have.


The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli (1781).

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli (1781)

Book of Dreams, Jorge Luis Borges (1976)

A magnificent compilation of dreams and nightmares. “This book of dreams that readers will once again dream includes dreams of the night – such as those that I wrote, for example – daydreams, which are a voluntary exercise by our minds, and others of lost roots: let’s day the Anglo Saxon dream of the Cross,” Borges says in its prologue.


The Dream, Odilon Redon (1878 – 1882).

The Dream, Odilon Redon (1878 – 1882).


Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman (1993)

The author creates a fictional collage of stories dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905, when he worked in a patents office in Switzerland. Imagine what the scientist dreamed of while he created his theory of relativity, his new concept of time.


The Artist’s Dream, George H. Comegys (1840).

The Artist’s Dream, George H. Comegys (1840).


Sandman, Neil Gaiman

Sandman has become a legendary character in northern European folklore who, by sprinkling sand in the eyes of the dreamer, brings them pleasant dreams while they sleep. In the fascinating series of graphic novels by Gaiman, the Dream character, also known as Morpheus, is both the king and the personification of all the dreams in history, of all that is outside reality.


Header image: Job’s Evil Dreams, by William Blake (1805).

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