Caliban, a character from Shakespeare's The Tempest, is an unruly, rebellious being and the son of a witch. He is also the wild, deformed slave of Prospero, the Duke of Milan who has been exiled to a desert island full of malevolent spirits. This gnome with large ears has fallen asleep at the foot of a tree, his arm leaning up against its broad, white trunk. Three small floating faces are watching him. The largest of these is enclosed in a double halo of green and yellow, the second has small wings, and the third is reduced to a splash of light. This is certainly Ariel, the spirit of the air who is in Prospero's service, and who has come with his helpers to spy on Caliban.
Branches and lightly sketched leaves, in shades of green, violet and ochre, stand out against the intense blue of the sky. The ground is a richly coloured surface of red, blue, green, violet - unreal and undefined flowers that seem to have spilled out of Caliban's dream.
This unusual work illustrates Redon's transition into colour, and the transposition of the themes of his charcoal drawings, his Noirs, into painting. His interest in representing the human body in fragments can be seen in the small, floating heads. Redon had already taken Caliban as his theme in three charcoal drawings, but this time, he uses the poetry and mystery of his flamboyant colours to reinvent Shakespeare's world, while still letting himself be carried away by dreams and imagination.