The Sleep of Endymion
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Arty Fact

More about The Sleep of Endymion

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The Sleep of Endymion was Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson’s big deal painting debut.

It was met with adoration from the public and admiration from other artists. And it was no secret that this was one sexy painting. The work depicts the myth of Endymion, a hot shepard, who caught the eye of Selene, the chaste virgin goddess of the moon. She was so smitten she asked Zeus to grant him eternal youth to match hers, and here’s where it gets WEIRD. She was so into his beautiful sleeping face that she had Zeus keep him in eternal sleep. She had 50 daughters by him over the years. Yikes.

This version of the myth is especially unique due to its exclusion of Selene. In most mythical paintings, the gods and goddesses central to the myth are present in the work. Girodet’s version shows the sleeping Endymion, but instead of Selene, we have moonlight falling on the sleeping figure’s skin. The moonlight falls with the help of Zephyr, the west wind, who moves the branch to give Selene a full frontal view. While the work certainly shows off Girodet’s painterly skills in the successful rendering of moonlight on Endymion’s skin, the misty moonbeams purposefully communicate something else. The diffusion of light against Endymion shows the interaction of the two main characters without explicitly having a toga-clad goddess in the work. 

This absence of Selene and the presence of the saucy little Zephyr has struck up quite a debate among art historians and art lovers in general. The Sleep of Endymion in the last century has been largely read as, well, gay. And there’s a cute dog in it. Finally, a painting of a Greek goddess we can actually care about. From the androgyny of Endymion’s body, and how he’s posed like many feminine nudes, to that firm butt on Zephyr this work has given people lots to talk about. Some believe it hints at Girodet’s own sexuality, but I’ve never been one to assume orientation.

In fact, a lot of neo-classical art depicts homoerotic desire, because a lot of ancient Greek society was wrapped up in the male homo-erotic or the pedophilic. Eighteenth century France itself was neo-classical, and the laws and views on sodomy changed a lot during the second half of it, although it can’t really be argued that it was a safe time and place for gay men. Of course, we have to remember that the LGBTQIA+ classifications we have now are contemporary - sexual orientation was just not thought of in the same way.

At the time, the female nude was slowly becoming the more popular subject for the ideal nude. The female body was supposed to be rendered almost like they had no skeleton or muscle, just kind of round and amorphous. One more unrealistic beauty standards women had to live up to! Endymion himself is rather soft, without a lot of muscle tone, which was definitely a purposeful rendering given how knowledgeable Girodet was on the human form.

In this version of the Endymion myth, the male Endymion is posed and rendered like a female, Selene is absent in form but is the one expressing desire, and they’ve brought in a third to their rendez-vous, the Zephyr. In one work Girodet has flipped traditionally male desire, switched traditional renderings to show the male subject as feminized, excluded a sexualized female body, and added in a third person to facilitate a nightly sexual visitation. To summarize, this painting is queer AF!

Girodet was a neurotic and focused artist, and we know from his letters he wanted to do something spectacularly different for his debut. We don’t know if he was trying to make a queer masterpiece, but he definitely accomplished his goal to paint an old myth in a completely new way. And in that effort, he gave us this gorgeous (and gay) painting.



  1. Fumaroli, Marc, and Bruno Chenique. Girodet, 1767-1824. Edited by Sylvain Bellenger. Paris: Gallimard, 2006.
  2. "Girodet: France's Romantic Rebel.(Museums Today)." USA Today (Magazine) 135, no. 2736 (2006).
  3. Smalls, James. "Making Trouble for Art History: The Queer Case of Girodet." Art Journal 55, no. 4 (1996): 20-27. doi:10.2307/777650.
  4. Stafford, Barbara. "Endymions Moonbath: Art and Science in Girodet’s Early Masterpiece." Leonardo 15, no. 3 (June 1982): 193-98. doi:10.2307/1574677.

Comments (2)


Just here to say that I chose Selene to do my Goddess report/presentation on in 6th grade before finding out about the 50 kids and explained this ,,, to Mrs. Pimenta's class,,,,,, regardless I love reading your writing! Especially about this beautiful one :~) !!!!!


thank you for this queer content written in a way that makes it easy to understand and feel accessible! of COURSE the moon had some big ole' crushes :)