Oil on canvas
70 cm × 91 cm (28 in × 36 in)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sleep and His Half-Brother Death is an oil on canvas painting completed by John William WaterhouseEnglish artist known primarily for his depictions of women set in scenes from myth, legend or poetry. He is the best known of that group of artists who from the 1880s revived the literary themes favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites. in 1874. The subject matter, an allegory, was a deviation from Waterhouse’s previous representations in his career; it was also his first piece of artwork displayed at the Royal Academy. According to a review in The Illustrated London News, it was influenced by George Frederic Watts.[1]

Tuberculosis caused the death of Waterhouse’s mother IsabellaEnglish portrait painter; mother of John William Waterhouse in 1857,[2] and subsequently his two younger brothers, so it is likely the emotional devastation kindled by those events was the stimulus for the painting.[3][a]Waterhouse’s younger brother, Charles, died 4 December 1871, aged 15 years;[4] Edwin died earlier when he was an adolescent.[5] The work depicts two youths gradually blending into the shadowy background.[6] Bathed in light, the figure in the foreground characterises the Greek god, Hypnos, personifying sleep; lying next to him but receding into the shadows is another god, his twin brother Thanatos, symbolising death.[7][8]

The painting received favourable reviews in the 1874 exhibition; although its early provenance is uncertain, the likelihood is that it was immediately bought by John Aird.[9][b]Aird, a civil engineer who is remembered for building the Aswan Dam in Egypt and the dismantling and repositioning of Crystal Palace, became a well known art collector; it is documented that he purchased at least four works by Waterhouse during the 1870s.[10]




Hobson, Anthony. J. W. Waterhouse. Phaidon, 1989.
Hobson, Anthony. The Art and Life of J.W. Waterhouse, RA, 1849–1917. Studio Vista/Christie’s, 1980.
Horst, Pieter Willem van der. “Hypnos.” Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible DDD, edited by K. van der Toorn et al., 2nd extensively rev. ed, Brill ; Eerdmans, 1999.
Krahn, Lois E., et al. Atlas of Sleep Medicine. CRC Press, 2015.
Trippi, Peter. J. W. Waterhouse. Reprinted in paperback, Phaidon Press, 2010.
Trippi, Peter. “Waterhouse, John William.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2009.