In 1770 Josiah Wedgwood and his partner Thomas Bentley paid five pounds sterling to the plaster-cast makers Hoskins & Oliver for the mold of a sleeping boy. The prototype is without question the black marble sculpture of Somnus created by Alessandro Algardi about 1630, now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Wedgwood had access to this sculpture through an engraving of it published in Bernard de Montfaucon’s fifteen-volume work “L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures,” a popular design source used by the Wedgwood manufactory. The figure was reproduced in black basalt and represents one of the largest and earliest basalt figures made by the company.
Although Wedgwood called the figure Morpheus in his sales catalogues beginning in 1773, it is today recognized as Somnus, god of sleep. Here, Somnus sleeps peacefully on a rocky base. His wings are draped casually to one side and his right arm rests comfortably above his head. His left hand clutches a bouquet of sleep-inducing poppies, a common attribute of the god of sleep. In Roman mythology Somnus is the son of Night and the twin 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 rests today in its original location.