John Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781.
The Nightmare is a 1781 oil painting by Anglo- Swiss artist Henry Fuseli. Since its creation, it has remained Fuseli’s best-known work. With its first exhibition in 1782 at the Royal Academy of London, the image became famous; an engraved version was widely distributed and the painting was parodied in political satire. Due to its fame, Fuseli painted at least three other versions of the painting.
Interpretations of The Nightmare have varied widely. The canvas seems to portray simultaneously a dreaming woman and the content of her nightmare. The incubus and the horse’s head refer to contemporary belief and folklore about nightmares, but have been ascribed more specific meanings by some theorists. Contemporary critics were taken aback by the overt sexuality of the painting, which has since been interpreted by some scholars as anticipating Freudian ideas about the unconscious.
Contemporary critics often found the work scandalous due to its sexual themes. A few years before he painted The Nightmare, Fuseli had fallen passionately in love with a woman named Anna Landholdt in Zürich, while he was travelling from Rome to London. Landholdt was the niece of his friend, the Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater. Fuseli wrote of his fantasies to Lavater in 1779:
"Last night I had her in bed with me—tossed my bedclothes hugger-mugger—wound my hot and tight-clasped hands about her—fused her body and soul together with my own—poured into her my spirit, breath and strength. Anyone who touches her now commits adultery and incest! She is mine, and I am hers. And have her I will.…"
Fuseli’s marriage proposal met with disapproval from the woman’s father, and in any case Fuseli’s love seems to have been unrequited—Landholdt married a family friend soon after. The Nightmare, then, can be seen as a personal portrayal of the erotic aspects of love lost. Art historian H. W. Janson suggests that the sleeping woman represents Landholdt and that the demon is Fuseli himself. Bolstering this claim is an unfinished portrait of a girl on the back of the painting’s canvas, which may portray Landholdt. Anthropologist Charles Stewart, in his study of erotic dreams and nightmares, characterises the sleeping woman as “voluptuous,” and one scholar of the Gothic describes her as lying in a “sexually receptive position.” In Woman as Sex Object (1972), Marcia Allentuck similarly argues that the painting’s intent is to show female orgasm. This is supported by Fuseli’s sexually overt and even pornographic private drawings (e.g., Symplegma of Man with Two Women, 1770–78). Fuseli’s painting has been considered representative of sublimated sexual instincts. Related interpretations of the painting view the incubus as a dream symbol of male libido, with the sexual act represented by the horse’s intrusion through the curtain. Fuseli himself provided no commentary on his painting.
The Royal Academy exhibition brought Fuseli and his painting enduring fame. The exhibition included Shakespeare-themed works by Fuseli, which won him a commission to produce eight paintings for publisher John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. One version of The Nightmare hung in the home of Fuseli’s close friend and publisher Joseph Johnson, gracing his weekly dinners for London thinkers and writers.
Fuseli painted other versions of The Nightmare following the success of the first; at least three other versions survive. The other important canvas was painted between 1790 and 1791 and is held at the Goethe Museum in Frankfurt. It is smaller than the original, and the woman’s head lies to the left; a mirror opposes her on the right. The demon is looking at the woman rather than out of the picture, and it has pointed, catlike ears. The most significant difference in the remaining two versions is an erotic statuette of a couple on the table.