Spooky Art: The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth by Henry Fuseli (Interpretation and Analysis)

The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth
Source: Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)

I love drama in art. That’s why I find myself drawn time and time again to the art of Henry Fuseli. His work is extreme and theatrical, capturing moments of horror, pain, and intense human emotion on the canvas. Although his work encompassed a variety of topics, his most memorable pieces touch on the liminal space between ordinary life and the world of supernatural horrors. Simply put, Fuseli’s art revels in the weird and dramatic.

The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth is a particularly spooky (perfect for Halloween) example of Fuseli’s dark and dramatic art. The painting depicts a key moment from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Here, we see Lady Macbeth-having previously killed the king-bemoaning her guilt as she sleepwalks through the castle. While asleep, she tries obsessively to wash her hands convinced that they are stained by blood. A doctor and attendent in the background look on in surprise, puzzled by her strange behavior. In the play, the doctor explains her behavior in the following words:

Foul whisperings are abroad. Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles; infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets;
More needs she the divine than the physician.
God, God forgive us all! Look after her;
Remove from her the means of all annoyance,
And still keep eyes upon her. So, good-night:
My mind she has mated, and amaz’d my sight.
I think, but dare not speak.

The expression of horror on the face of Fuseli’s Lady Macbeth is the perfect illustration of the psychological disturbance the doctor describes. She strides through the castle with wild energy. The flame of her candle tells the viewer that she is moving quickly, almost as though she is being pursued by her victims. However, as the viewer knows, it is impossible for Lady Macbeth to escape her own intangible guilt.

Fuseli uses color and contrast to highlight Lady Macbeth within the piece. While the background is very dark, she is dressed in a light-colored nightgown. Her pale face and hands also draw the viewer’s attention. It’s almost like Fuseli is using theatrical lighting in his own little private performance of the play.

Unlike John Everett Millais’ painting The Somnambulist -another famous depiction of sleepwalking-there is a lot of activity in this painting. One of Lady Macbeth’s arms is held outstretched, giving her figure additional dominance over the piece. The angle of her body suggests additional motion and energy, furthering the impression that the viewer is watching an actual performance play out on the canvas.

Fuseli has a particular affinity with Shakespeare. Throughout his career, Fuseli painted many scenes and characters from the Bard’s plays, often basing his art on real-life theatrical performances (which can be seen quite clearly in this painting). Fuseli seemed to be drawn to the plays’ energy, drama, and fantastical storylines. The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth is no exception. The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth captures the dark magic that surrounds Macbeth perfectly. It is a memorable and entertaining piece of art.

Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on October 28, 2021.

Music, Art, and Pop Culture