"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 1, 2013

"The Nightmare" by Henri Fuseli (Stories behind paintings)

The Nightmare is a Gothic painting made in 1781 by the Swiss-English artist Henri Fuseli (1741-1825), now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

This painting has been called "an icon of horror" since it was first exhibited in 1782. It is a haunting image that leaves a lasting impression on those who view it.

What do we see?

A young woman, dressed in a white nightgown, the color of purity, is lying on her bed. Her head and arms are hanging limply down, making it obvious that this is no normal sleep, but rather a state bordering on unconsciousness, perhaps even paralysis. Her mouth is slightly open. We see her exposed white neck, and her long blond hair that also hangs down. On the bedside table sits - besides a book and a mirror - an empty flask - was there a potion inside she has imbibed?

On the woman's stomach squats a foul imp, or demonic incubus, staring at the viewer with his bulbous eyes, as if he has been interrupted in some devious plan. Behind the bed is a red curtain - the color of passion - and through a slit in that curtain, a ferocious horse glares with white-hot eyeballs at the supine woman. A horse can be a mare, and a mare at night is literally a nightmare!  Or not? Contemporary critics were shocked by the overt sexuality of the painting.

  • Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1741 – 1825) was a Swiss painter who spent most of his life in England. He first visited England in 1765 and settled down for good in 1779 after a decade long art pilgrimage to Italy in the 1770s. Fuseli became a member of the Royal Academy and had a long and successful career. He also knew Mary Wollstonecraft, of Gothic Frankenstein-fame, whose portrait he painted. But he married another of his models, Sophia Rawlins. He left 200 paintings and 800 drawings, often based on Shakespeare, Milton and Greek mythology, and infused with a grotesque humor.
  • A few years after settling down in England, The Nightmare made Fuseli famous when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. Fuseli made several versions of it. The painting has often been parodied.
  • No, the "mare" in "nightmare" has nothing to do with a female horse! "Nightmare" comes from the Old English "maere," which means goblin or incubus. The word nightmare was coined around 1300 and referred to an evil spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation, in other words a bad dream caused by an incubus. In the 19th c. the term achieved its present meaning of "a bad dream" in general. 
  • An incubus is a male demon that has sexual intercourse with sleeping women - the word stems from the Latin verb "incubare" which means "to lie upon" (the female variant of this same demon was called "succubus"). Folk tradition believed that such intercourse might result in the deterioration of health, or even death. In the painting, the incubus not only sits on top of the woman, but he also weighs down upon her with the oppression caused by a bad dream.
  • One hypothesis has it that Fuseli painted this strange work to give vent to feelings of frustrated love. While traveling through Europe, Fuseli fell in love with one Anna Landholdt. However, her father forbade their marriage, upon which Anna promptly married someone else. Was it Fuseli's anger that led him to depict his lost love lying unconscious on her bed, while he, as an incubus, squats on top of her, poisoning her sleep?
  • The wild and excited horse bursting through the curtains can be the mount of the incubus, but it can also be a symbol for sexual passion - perhaps the passion Fuseli still felt for the lover who had jilted him.
  • Of course, this painting does not loose any of its interest when we leave out the autobiographical interpretation and see it as a generalized Gothic vision of irrepressible, causeless horror.