Sources from the first half of the twentieth century tend to date The Dream of the Shepherd to 1893 (see, e.g., Loosli 1922). More recently, the painting has been dated to 1896, the year it was first shown at the Swiss national exhibition in Geneva. Hodler was a considerable presence at the exhibition: he worked on the painted decoration for the Palais des Beaux-Arts; showed five pictures in the main venue; and contributed The Dream of the Shepherd and another oil, Towards the Ideal (unlocated) to the Exposition Fantaisiste, held in the Théâtre du Sapajou, a theater on the grounds of the national exhibition used for light entertainment. The two "decorative panels," as they were described in the catalogue, flanked the entrance to the theater.
The Dream of the Shepherd similarly conjures an otherworldly realm, suffused with strains of erotic desire. The canvas is divided into two zones: in the lower, terrestrial zone, a young shepherd—a popular character in Swiss folklore—kneels amid a rocky landscape dotted with small red flowers. He buries his head in his left hand, which covers his entire face, while with his right arm he holds a long shepherd’s staff. His flock is nowhere in sight. The life-size figure, painted from a local model, relates to Hodler’s earlier, realistic depictions of peasants, warriors, and beggars, but displays a new psychological intensity; the deeply expressive and powerful pose is highly reminiscent of the damned souls in Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
In the upper zone of the canvas, above the horizon of the distant hill, appear what Hodler described in a sketchbook as "white women on a white sky, which is crossed horizontally by blue clouds". The stylized gestures of the eight naked women evoke the nascent modern dance movement, while the decorative, frieze-like arrangement of the figures recalls the work of Puvis de Chavannes, which was much admired by Hodler. The women’s pale, ethereal forms mark them as apparitions, in stark contrast to the shepherd’s muscular body, rendered with naturalistic detail.