Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare

23 May
“Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.—I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles?…..”
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni, 1814)

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Henry Fuseli’s masterpiece “The Nightmare” has been haunting the imagination of everyone who saw it ever since it was first exhibited in the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1781. The popularity of the painting even then was so immense that Fuseli painted a few versions of the same theme and then one I’ve chosen for this post is the one painted in 1790-91. I somewhat prefer that version because of the colours, blue and grey tones as oppose to the warmer colours in the original 1781 version, and the composition.

A few days ago I awoke on a rainy morning after a nightmare and I thought of this painting, and ever since that moment I cannot get it out of my mind. The painting is charged with eroticism and a feeling of sublime which both unsettle and excite the imagination. I adore the expressive, exaggerated and slightly melodramatic mood of the painting. The woman’s pose alone is unforgettable; there she is, the poor Gothic heroine suffering from a nightmare, trapped in the world of slumber while in reality her body is lying stretched in a vulnerable position and visions of a remoter world are indeed gathered around her bed. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. The eighteenth century physicians such as Dr John Bond saw the menstruation as the cause of such disturbing nightmares; “such dreams, suggested both by the pressure against the chest and the supine position of the sleeper, are usually about a violent sexual assault – the kind of dreams that gave rise to rumours of intercourse with the devil” (Vaughan, Romantic Art), or perhaps the true cause are all the suppressed desires and thoughts that such a young maiden dares not even think of in the waking hours. The horse’s head staring with mad eyes which resemble a lightning, may symbolise masculine principle.

Fuseli admired the muscular, dynamic figures of Michelangelo and he painted the figures in his painting in the same manner. The girl in this painting has beautifully shaped and pale, but rather muscular and strong arms that are stretched as much as it’s possible and reach the floor, making her overall position a very expressive and convulsed one. The pale lady in the painting experiencing the nightmare is not dead, she is merely asleep, though if we look at the two worlds of sleep and death as twin-sisters, as the Romantics would have seen them, then the difference isn’t so vast. My interest in Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” which I read years ago sparked again these days for many reasons, one of them being the fact I watched the film “Mary Shelley” (2017) again, and this passage reminded me so much of Fuseli’s painting. After Victor Frankenstein refused to create a female companion for the Monster, the Monster had a revenge and on the wedding night of Victor and Elizabeth he strangled the poor Elizabeth:

She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair. Everywhere I turn I see the same figure– her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier. Could I behold this and live? Alas! Life is obstinate and clings closest where it is most hated. For a moment only did I lose recollection; I fell senseless on the ground.

When I recovered I found myself surrounded by the people of the inn; their countenances expressed a breathless terror, but the horror of others appeared only as a mockery, a shadow of the feelings that oppressed me. I escaped from them to the room where lay the body of Elizabeth, my love, my wife, so lately living, so dear, so worthy. She had been moved from the posture in which I had first beheld her, and now, as she lay, her head upon her arm and a handkerchief thrown across her face and neck, I might have supposed her asleep. I rushed towards her and embraced her with ardour, but the deadly languor and coldness of the limbs told me that what I now held in my arms had ceased to be the Elizabeth whom I had loved and cherished. The murderous mark of the fiend’s grasp was on her neck, and the breath had ceased to issue from her lips.

2 Responses to “Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare”

  1. spooksoul 24th May 2020 at 9:42 pm #

    There is a copy of this painting in one of the rooms of the reimagined Diodati mansion in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) which becomes a bizarre tableau vivant in Mary Shelley’s dreams. I want to see the Mary Shelley film from 2017 you mention! My goal is to see every Shelley/Byron film made. So far have viewed Gothic and Rowing with the Wind. Haunted Summer is another one on my list to see. Do you know of any others?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 25th May 2020 at 9:33 pm #

      I have heard good things about the film “Gothic” from a few people and I would like to see it, but I am not a huge film-fan. I would rather re-watch the same film ten times than watch new ones all the time. I guess I prefer books. I think you should totally check out the new Mary Shelley film and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have! And thank you for reading the post and commenting 🙂

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: