Spotlight on the Collection

June 2014: Somnus

Somnus, about 1774. Wedgwood (est. 1759), Staffordshire, England. Stoneware (black basalt). 11 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 14 inches. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc., at the Birmingham Museum of Art; The Buten Wedgwood Collection, gift through the Wedgwood Society of New York, 300.2008.

Somnus, about 1774. Wedgwood (est. 1759), Staffordshire, England. Stoneware (black basalt). 11 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 14 inches. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc., at the Birmingham Museum of Art; The Buten Wedgwood Collection, gift through the Wedgwood Society of New York, 300.2008.

Somnus, Wedgwood, about 1774

The prototype for this figure is the sculpture by Alessandro Algardi, now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Wedgwood had access to it through an engraving in Bernard de Montfaucon’s work L’antiquité expliquée, a popular design source. Made of black basalt, a kind of stoneware, the figure is one of the largest and earliest produced by Wedgwood.

Although Wedgwood called the figure Morpheus, it is today recognized as Somnus, god of sleep. Here, Somnus slumbers peacefully on a rocky base. His wings are draped to one side and his right arm rests above his head. His left hand clutches a bouquet of sleep-inducing poppies. In Roman mythology Somnus is the son of Night and brother of Death. He was considered a benefactor to man, giving the weary rest and sufferers alleviation of their pain.

While this figure was once apparently in serial production, today there are only two extant examples known. In addition to this figure, there is one in Wörlitz Palace in Dessau, Germany. Commissioned in 1774 by Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau, it still rests in its original location.

Check it out!

In the collection database and in the ArtsBMA highlights app

Sleeping Cupid, Alessandro Algardi, ca. 1635

In the Museum’s Clarence Hanson Library: Montfaucon, Bernard de. Antiquity Explained and Represented in Sculptures. New York: Garland Publishing, 1976.

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