The Dreamer by Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones

December 17, 2012

Visiting the stellar drawings show, Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery at the Frick Collection recently, I was struck, as most visitors are, by Michelangelo’s The Dream (c.1533)—one of the most significant drawings by the Renaissance master. The central figure is a glorious male nude, his muscles articulated in confident strokes of black chalk. He is visited by a winged figure that descends to wake the man from a vivid dream, represented by vignettes of the seven deadly sins that encircle the central pair. Though freighted with complex iconography, Michelangelo’s drawing perfectly conveys the experience of dreaming and the half-remembered visions that float through our minds as we wake.

For me—and probably only for me—this drawing brought to mind a relatively unknown painting produced more than four-hundred years later: Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones’ The Dreamer,which is on view at the Delaware Art Museum through January 2013. Whether by design or by accident, The Dreamer shares concept and composition with The Dream. In the center of the picture, Sparhawk-Jones’ dreamer—a woman—lies naked, presumably dreaming the disturbing visions that surround her. Instead of the cardinal sins, her mind conjures winged men in business suits that carry supine female nudes into the murky background. And as if this weren’t eerie enough, below her, leaning against the stone that supports her, a skeleton is propped.

1955-14The Dreamer
, c.1942
Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1885–1968)
Watercolor on linen attached to board, 24 1/2 x 28 1/2 in.
Bequest of John L. Sexton, 1955

The historian in me wanted to know if this eccentric American painter could have been inspired by the Old Master drawing, so I began to research. Michelangelo’s The Dream has been famous since just after his death. It was illustrated and debated in art magazines in the 1930s and became the subject of an important essay by Erwin Panofsky in 1939, just a few years before The Dreamer was exhibited for the first time. But more importantly, as art historian Maria Ruvoldt pointed out, Michelangelo’s drawing has been known to artists for four centuries—artists including Francisco Goya, whose Capricho 43: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799) is a far better comparison to Sparhawk-Jones’ The Dreamer.

Like Goya’s, Sparhawk-Jones’ dreamer remains asleep, and her phantoms are winged creatures that emerge from darkness. Goya’s title, inscribed on his print, may also have appealed to Sparhawk-Jones, who suffered from bouts of crushing depression. In the late1930s and ‘40s as war raged in Europe, Goya—who produced the Disasters of War series—was the subject of major books and exhibitions in New York and Chicago. While I cannot ascertain whether Sparhawk-Jones modeled her painting on Goya’s famous print, in the years just before she made The Dreamer, she could have seen The Sleep of Reason in a book or a magazine or at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Little is known about Sparhawk-Jones’ artistic interests or influences in the thirties and forties, and she is a fascinating artist in need of further study by art historians. A recent biography by Barbara Lehman Smith is the most significant publication on the artist since her memorial exhibition in 1968. One of the reasons I placed The Dreamer on view was for the excuse to research the painting and the artist.

Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art

This Curator Corner was posted on December 17, 2012

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