The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli
Interpretation of of 18th-Century Romantic Surrealist Painting

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The Nightmare
By Henry Fuseli.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Nightmare (1781)


Analysis of The Nightmare
English Romanticism
Interpretation of Other 18th-Century Paintings


Name: The Nightmare (1781)
Artist: Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Subject painting
Movement: Romanticism
Location: Detroit Institute of Arts

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).


One of the most innovative Romantic artists of his day, the Swiss-born Johann Heinrich Henry Fuseli - son of the portraitist Johann Caspar Fussli (1706-82) - developed an early talent for drawing before moving to London in 1764 at the age of 23. Here, encouraged by Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) who was shortly to be elected the first president of the newly formed Royal Academy of Arts, Fuseli took up painting. This led him to spend most of the 1770s in Italy, studying the figure painting of Michelangelo (1475-1564) which became a major influence on his art. Other influences included 16th-century Mannerism and literary sources, notably Shakespeare. Later appointed a professor of painting at the Royal Academy, he became one of the best English painters of the eighteenth century and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral. Like his younger contemporary William Blake (1757-1827), Fuseli's strength as a painter lies in his imaginative intensity, and The Nightmare (1781) - which he sold for 20 guineas - remains his greatest and most baffling masterpiece. Overlooked after his death, Fuseli was 'rediscovered' by 20th-century Expressionists and Surrealists who greatly admired his creativity. For more background, see: English Figurative Painting (1700-1900) and English Landscape Painting (1700-1900).

Analysis of The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

Painted shortly after his return from Italy, The Nightmare was first shown to the public in 1782 at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy. An instant success, it established Fuseli's reputation as one of the most creative artists in London. To exploit the painting's popularity a low-priced engraving of the picture was rapidly completed by Thomas Burke, and widely distributed. Fuseli himself later produced three other versions of the painting, including a smaller one now in the Goethe Museum, Frankfurt. The Nightmare was the first of a string of surrealist compositions which included: Titania Caresses Bottom with Donkey's Head (1794, Kunsthaus Zurich) and The Night-Hag visiting the Lapland Witches (1796, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).



The Nightmare was one of the first paintings to depict an idea rather than an event, a story or a person. Indeed, it may even be a complicated visual pun on the word "nightmare". Thus, the canvas shows a sleeping woman - draped helplessly over the end of her bed - as well as the content of her "nightmare" - namely, an ape-like incubus squatting on top of her. In addition, the image of a horse protruding from the shadows may illustrate a second meaning of the picture's title - "night-mare". Thirdly, the demon may be intended to represent a "mara" - that is, a spirit sent to torment and/or suffocate innocent sleepers. The point is, the word "nightmare" derives from "mara" the Old English word for "incubus". [Source: Concise Oxford English Dictionary.]

However, the exact meaning and symbolism of these images remains elusive, as the artist never revealed his precise intentions. The many questions raised include: What is the meaning of the woman's helpless pose, for instance? Is there a sexual significance of some kind, in the placement of the incubus on top of her? Some art critics believe that the painting was inspired by Germanic legends about demons who possessed people as they slept. In these tales, men were visited by horses or witches, while women were believed on occasion to have sex with the devil. Others believe that The Nightmare illustrates the artist's unrequited love for Anna Landholdt, a woman he met a few years before, while travelling in Europe. In this interpretation the sleeping woman is Landholdt, while he is the incubus. Cited in support of this theory is an unfinished portrait of a girl (believed to be Landholdt) which is on the back of the canvas.

We do know that Fuseli used 'sleep' and 'dreams' as regular themes in his paintings and pen-and-ink drawings. One of his earliest pictures is Joseph interpreting the Dreams of the Pharaoh's Baker and Butler (1768, Private Collection), and others included The Shepherd's Dream (1798, Tate Collection) and Richard III Visited by Ghosts (1798, drawing, British Museum).

Fuseli's choice and style of imagery was influenced by the art of classical antiquity (incubus, horse), the Italian Renaissance (dreaming woman), and the German Renaissance (horse), while his 18th century colour palette - the brilliance of the shroud-like white against the sombre reds, yellows and ochres of the other elements - is reminiscent of Titian and Venetian Colour Painting (1500-76). But its powerful mixture of horror, sexuality, and surrealism is entirely down to Fuseli himself.

English Romanticism

Fuseli was painting during the height of the so-called "Age of Reason", at a time when many if not most people had stopped believing in witches and other darker, irrational forces. And yet he, and several other painters in England, used these supernatural themes in many of their Romantic paintings and drawings. Some of the best known of these Romantic works include:

The Three Witches (1768) by John Runciman.
National Gallery of Scotland.
Samuel Appearing to Saul with the Witch of Endor (1777) by Fuseli.
Kunsthaus, Zurich.
The Ghost of Clytemnestra Awakening the Furies (1781) by John Downman.
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.
The Mandrake: A Charm (1785) by Fuseli.
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.
Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head (1794) by Fuseli.
Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC.
The Night of Enitharmon's Joy (Hecate) (1795) by William Blake.
Private Collection.
The Witch and The Mandrake (1812) by Fuseli.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Interpretation of Other 18th-Century Paintings

Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) by Jean-Antoine Watteau.
Louvre, Paris; Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

Wurzburg Residence Frescoes (1750-3) by Tiepolo.
Wurzburg Palace.

The Swing (L'Escarpolette) (1767) by Jean-Honore Fragonard.
Wallace Collection, London.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby.
National Gallery, London.

Oath of the Horatii (1785) by Jacques-Louis David.
Louvre Museum, Paris.

The Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David.
Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels.


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