Fuseli’s Nightmare


The Nightmare (1781).

Christopher Frayling’s Nightmare: The Birth of Horror (1996) opens with a prologue examining Henry Fuseli’s most celebrated painting:

Henry Fuseli, who later wrote that “one of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams”, and who was said to have supped on raw pork chops specifically to induce his nightmare, made his name with this painting. And engraved versions, produced in 1782, 1783 and 1784, distributed the image across Europe, until Fuseli’s masterpiece became the way of visualising bad dreams.

Although The Nightmare was painted just before the Romantic craze in Western Europe—which revelled in peeling back the veneer of rational civilisation to reveal the “natural” being or the raw sensations beneath, sometimes through the gateway of dreams—it was well-known to the writers and painters of the early nineteenth century. One of them wrote that “it was Fuseli who made real and visible to us the vague and insubstantial phantoms which haunt like dim dreams the oppressed imagination”.

The Nightmare was fascinating—and scary—because it operated at so many different levels at once. It was set in the present (the stool and bedside table are “contemporary” in style), and it was concerned not so much with an individual’s nightmare—the usual subject-matter of dream paintings, often involving famous individuals and their prophecies—as with nightmares in general. It was not A Nightmare, but The Nightmare; not a vision but a sensation. This gave it a direct impact, unmediated by history, which put a lot of critics off.


The Nightmare (1791).

Later generations of critics have had no such problems, of course, nor have the legions of artists and cartoonists who’ve plagiarised and parodied this memorable scene. I had a vague notion of collecting some of the derivations but a quick image search reveals an endless profusion of squatting figures and thrusting horse heads. Wikipedia did provide two of the engraved versions, however. Of the two paintings above I’ve always preferred the later one: the incubus, or “mara” as Frayling calls it, looks more sinister, and the horse head has become an almost unavoidable sexual symbol. No wonder that Siegmund Freud had a copy of The Nightmare on the wall of his waiting room.


Engraving by Thomas Burke (1783).

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