“One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams.” – Fuseli
Henry Fuseli painted ‘The Nightmare‘, which remained his best-known work, in 1781. and the most interesting thing about this painting is that it simultaneously portrays a sleeping woman and the content of her nightmare. At the time it was painted, the overt sexuality repelled the critics. Later, however, the subject of the painting was interpreted as anticipating Freudian ideas about the unconscious.
The Nightmare was first exhibited in 1782. at the Royal Academy of London, and it instantly became famous. Painted in chiaroscuro, the painting depicts a woman stretched on the bed and sleeping. The sleeper seems lifeless, lying in a pose that was believed to encourage nightmares, and her face expression indicates the nightmare she has. The interior is contemporary and fashionable, and so are the sleeper’s clothes. While the foreground is light, elegant and rational, the background is darker, painted in deep reds, yellows and ochers, and it’s where the nightmare resides; both the mare (horse) and the incubus peek on the sleeper from the background. That conflict between the light, clean, formal and rational; the foreground, and the mysterious, imaginary, dreamy and wild background marks the contrast between Classicism and Romanticism.
The subject itself is ‘Romantic‘; sleep and dreams, mysteries and the unknown; something very appealing to artists in Romanticism. The painting was likely inspired by Fuseli’s waking dreams, which were experienced by his contemporaries as well. Fuseli considered those dreams to be related to folkloric beliefs like the Germanic tales about demons and witches that possessed people who slept alone. The early meaning of ‘nightmare’ included the sleepers experience of weight on the chest, along with sleep paralysis and a feeling of dread. This painting includes many of the ideas associated with these folkloric tales and beliefs; a demon is crouched on woman’s chest and a horse is peeking through the curtain.
The image of a woman on the painting, and her very expressive pose, especially for those times, was inspired by Fuseli’s unrequited love, a young woman named Anna Landholdt whom he wanted to marry but whose father strongly objected. Also, Fuseli was known to have had numerous erotic prints in his possession. However, in the twentieth century, the painting was interpreted as anticipating Freudian ideas about the unconscious. Sigmund Freud believed that the purpose of dreams is to look in to unconscious urges and seek to fulfill them subconsciously.
The Nightmare inspired many other artists ever since it was painted, most notably Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe; both of them Romantic authors. A scene in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus where the Creature murders Victor’s wife Elizabeth, and she’s seen lying death on the bed – “She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by hair.” Also, the story in the novel has some similarities with Fuseli’s life; just as Fuseli’s incubus is infused with the artist’s emotions in seeing his beloved Anna marrying another man, Shelley’s Creature promises to revenge on Victor on the night of his wedding.
Edgar Allan Poe mentions Fuseli’s work, or style of painting, in his story The Fall of the House of Usher (1839.) Story’s narrator compares one of the paintings in the Usher House with Fuseli’s painting, and reveals that “irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm.” Both Fuseli and Poe shared an unusual interest in the subconscious; the land of dreams, death and imagination.