The Nightmare is a 1781 oil painting by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741–1825). 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.
The painting depicts a sleeping woman draped over the end of a bed with her head hanging down, exposing her long neck. She is surmounted by an incubus that peers out at the viewer. The sleeper seems lifeless, and, lying on her back, she takes a position believed to encourage nightmares. Also in attendance is a horse…or at least a horse’s head, which is looming through partially parted curtains.The colour palette, applied with oil paint, consists mostly of dark colours—black, deep greys, shades of brown, and blood red—with the exception of the young woman and the bed which she is laying upon, which are made up of more heavenly whites and gold tones. It is a relatively large piece, standing three-and-a-half feet tall and just over four feet wide.
Opinion of the painting’s meaning has long divided critics but, understandably, most presume the peering horse and imp/demon on the woman’s chest are the manifestation of a nightmare she is experiencing. Others have ascribed specific meanings to the uninvited bedroom visitors, whilst others have largely ignored these aspects and frothed at the mouth at the perceived overt sexuality of the woman. Other thoughts see it as being an image of the woman’s wanton desire or simply a painting of a piece of literature read by Fuseli. The contrast of light and dark shadow, as well as the motionless imp make the picture particularly creepy, the horse’s head both bizarre and perverse. The horse could possibly be viewed as the ‘mare’ of the ‘nightmare’: more revealing is that the origins of the word mare are derived from the Old English word maere, which referred to a goblin or incubus. Another meaning of nightmare derives from mara, a Scandinavian mythological term referring to a spirit sent to torment or suffocate sleepers. The early meaning of “nightmare” included the sleeper’s experience of weight on the chest combined with sleep paralysis, dyspnea, or a feeling of dread.
When first exhibited at the Royal Academy of London in 1782, the overwhelming reaction was one of shock, the demonic aspect and the revealing of female flesh too much for many. Though the woman is not directly being attacked in any way, viewers understood the painting to portray a sexual invasion of a white, virginal innocent. The incubus would be read by many as being synonymous with nightmares. More learned students of art would have known Fuseli more for his previous paintings which tended to revolve around religious themes. Fuseli, who never revealed his personal motives for creating the image, sold the painting the same year for twenty guineas. A less valuable engraving by Thomas Burke was widely displayed in its place, accompanied by a poem:
So on his Nightmare through the evening fog
Flits the squab Fiend o’er fen, and lake, and bog;
Seeks some love-wilder’d maid with sleep oppress’d,
Alights, and grinning sits upon her breast.
The painting became so well known that it was commonly used for satirical reasons with characters in the painting being replaced by the likes of British Prime Minister William Pitt and French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in later years. Later still, the painting became a huge influence on writers. The Nightmare likely influenced Mary Shelley in a scene from her famous Gothic novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Shelley would have been familiar with the painting; her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, knew Fuseli. The iconic imagery associated with the Creature’s murder of the protagonist Victor’s wife seems to draw from the canvas: “She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by hair.”
Another literary giant also drew on the painting for inspiration: Edgar Allan Poe may have evoked The Nightmare in his short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). His narrator compares a painting hanging in Usher’s house to a Fuseli work, and reveals that an “irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm”
Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) features various interpretations of Nightmare as a central theme. Even more recently, The 2011 film The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 displays the painting in a sequence where Edward Cullen researches demon children on the Internet.
The painting is now owned and displayed by the Detroit Institute of Arts, where it is valued upwards of £4million.