The evocative title of this work is a quotation from William Ernest Henley’s poem Margaritae Sorori, which describes night falling upon an “old, gray city.” The significant passage reads as follows:
“In the valley / Shadows rise. The lark sings on. The sun, / Closing his benediction, / Sinks, and the darkening air / Thrills with a sense of the triumphing night / Night with her train of stars / And her great gift of sleep. / So be my passing! / My task accomplish’d and the long day done, / My wages taken, and in my heart / Some late lark singing, / Let me be gather’d to the quiet west, / The sundown splendid and serene, / Death.”
Sentimentalized by its widespread use on merchandise, the painting’s literary inspiration reveals a darker aspect, for “the figure of night bringing sleep,” writes curator Victoria Jean Osborne, “is thus also a personification of Death bringing oblivion, and the child she cradles in her arms represents the departing soul. She scatters poppies from her hand, reinforcing the association between sleep, oblivion and death…Hughes’s personification of Night/Death is enigmatic yet reassuring, holding the sleeping child tenderly to her breast and smiling a soft, mysterious smile.”
Edward Robert Hughes was associated with the Pre-Raphaelites through his uncle, Arthur Hughes, and through William Holman Hunt, for whom he worked as a studio assistant.