Tag Archives: The Nightmare

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.

Henri Fuseli – The Romantic Nightmare

22 Oct

“One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams.” – Fuseli

1781. The Nightmare - Henry 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.