Spooky Art: The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

As spooky season continues, I want to share with you a painting that both fascinated and horrified eighteenth and nineteenth century viewers: Henry Fuseli’s masterpiece The Nightmare.

Although much of his work tends to be moralizing, Fuseli was a painter who reveled in the weird and dramatic. Fuseli was often inspired by plays and other literature, giving many of his paintings a theatrical air. His work tended to be dark and color and peopled with dramatic figures in moments of physical or psychological crisis. The Nightmare, his most famous painting, is no exception. Although, it is unique in that it doesn’t present a clear message or moral.

The piece portrays a woman in a white nightgown sprawled asleep on a bed. A squat, grimacing demon sits on her chest, while, behind the bed, a black horse pushes its head into the scene. Traditionally, the scene is interpreted as a literal depiction of the young woman’s nightmare, with the demon representing the creature that haunts her dreams and the horse representing the nightmare itself. However, many eighteenth century viewers found the painting scandalously sexual, interpreting the demonic creature as an incubus. In my opinion, however, the piece truly represents emotional and spiritual turmoil, the psychological darkness inside the mind.

This interpretation fits the Romantic movement, which Fuseli was a follower of. As a movement, Romanticism was a reaction against the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Romantic art is known for drama and focuses on emotion and the inner life of the artist, which might be why the exact meaning of The Nightmare is a bit of a mystery.

In fact, the uncertainty surrounding the piece is probably what made it so interesting to contemporary viewers. The painting became an instant success the moment it was unveiled at the Royal Academy of London in 1782. In fact, it became so popular, that Fuseli painted several more versions of The Nightmare over the years. Yet, is it the first version that is the Fright Night classic this Halloween.

Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on October 16, 2020.



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