Lot 71
  • 71

John William Waterhouse R.A., R.I.

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  • John William Waterhouse, R.A., R.I.
  • Sleep and His Half-Brother Death
  • signed J.W. Waterhouse (lower right)
  • oil on canvas


George Rowney & Co., London

Sale, London, Sotheby's, October 1, 1979, lot 37, illustrated


London, Royal Academy, 1874, no. 1402


J. A. Blaikie, "J W Waterhouse, ARA," The Magazine of Art, 1886, pp. 2-3 

Anthony Hobson, The Art and Life of J W Waterhouse, RA, New York, Rizzoli, 1980, no. 10, pl. 11, pp. 21, 179-180

Anthony Hobson, J W Waterhouse, London, Phaidon, 1989, no. 10, p. 18, illustrated

Peter Trippi, J W Waterhouse, London, Phaidon, 2002, pp. 28-30, 41, illustrated

Catalogue Note

Sleep is a death, O make me try
By sleeping, what it is to die,
And as gently lay my head
On my grave, as now my bed.

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), Religio Medici II

Sleep and his Half Brother Death was Waterhouse's first painting exhibited at the Royal Academy (1874).  The subject was unusually allegorical for Waterhouse at this point in his career and the ambitious theme was most likely envisioned as a tribute to the recent death of his two younger brothers.  The painting is a superb early example of Waterhouse's debt to Alma-Tadema, shown by the windowed composition, the classical themes and the truncated statuary at the far right.

Few Victorians chose to depict the Greek twin gods Sleep (Hypnos) and Death (Thanatos), though Goethe and Shelley had both written interpretations of the myth.  The narrative held great sensual possibility as an embodiment of dormant and living beauty brought to life by the musical instruments, rich fabrics and steam rising from the background (see Trippi, p. 29).