The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli: 3 Ways to Interpret His Most Famous Work

The complex symbolism of Henry Fuseli’s notorious painting, The Nightmare, can be interpreted in these three ways.

Jan 12, 2021By Frances Dilworth, Art Historian w/ BA Art History & Conservation
henry fuseli the nightmare
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781, via the Detroit Institute of Arts


Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) was an Anglo-Swiss painter (1741-1825) who was more well known in his lifetime for his art history lectures and writing rather than his artwork. However, The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli would gain notoriety in the art world after its exhibition in the Royal Academy in the summer of 1782. It would also become an icon to Romantic and Gothic poets, writers, and painters alike. 


The Nightmare By Henry Fuseli


The Nightmare’s focal point is the unconscious woman lying across her bed, her hair and arm falling over the side. On top of her chest is a demon, or specifically, an incubus, who stares directly at the viewer. Behind this scene is a black horse with large white eyes, who watches the two figures with apparent shock and terror. Draped behind all three figures is a deep red curtain. 


Henry Fuseli implemented the chiaroscuro technique (“light-dark,” in Italian). With this technique, the artist makes a stark and unnatural contrast between the light and dark elements of the painting by illuminating one figure or object with a really strong light source. Here, the woman’s body is in the spotlight while the rest of the scene is enveloped in heavy and dark tones. The bold, horrifying, and sublime elements of the Nightmare became so popular that Fuseli would end up making more versions of the work, including prints, that could be easily distributed to the public. So what made the painting so provocative? Here are three approaches to understanding the painting.


Method 1: Historical Context And Contemporary Reception

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Fan leaf with portraits of their Majesties at the Royal Academy by Pierre Antoine Martini, 1789, via the British Museum, London


Henry Fuseli was no stranger at the Royal Academy — throughout his life, he would be an associate, then professor, and finally the Keeper for over 20 years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, The Royal Academy was a symbol of all that was considered prestigious and significant in the art world. Every summer, students, faculty, and famous and upcoming artists would display their work in floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall exhibits which would then be critiqued by the Royal Academy superiors. The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, along with hundreds of other works, was up to the scrutiny of the art elite and the eyes of the public. Shortly after the start of the 1782 exhibition, an article in the Morning Chronicle was written about The Nightmare:

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“The Nightmare, by Mr. Fuseli like all his productions has strong marks of genius about it; but hag-riding is too unpleasant a thought to be agreeable to anyone, and is unfit for furniture or reflection – Qui bono?… Yet surely a disagreeable subject, well-executed, is preferable to the most engaging one ill-described.” 


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Engraved Copy of the Nightmare made by Thomas Burke after Henry Fuseli, 1783, via the British Museum, London


This review essentially states that Fuseli’s attempt at painting controversial subject matter was in bad taste and with poor technique. If Fuseli had managed to paint it “the right way,” it would still be controversial, but at least objectively done well. Another complaint that many people had about his work, in general, was the lack of a moral lesson that one takes away from viewing it. There was no presence of God, or Biblical mythology, not even literary moral lessons (though most of Fuseli’s work referenced Shakespeare, Keats, and Greek mythology). Fuseli’s work overall was concerned with the balance of beauty and terror, or otherwise known as the sublime: a term familiar to the Romantics. It was to these writers, painters, and poets that Fuseli’s work was most appreciated. 


However, it must be stated that even though many folks were appalled at the painting and Fuseli’s boldness, Fuseli went on to land his esteemed positions within the Academy after this exhibition. Additionally, those that loved the painting simply couldn’t get enough of it. The 1782 Royal Academy exhibition saw 12,533 more visitors than the previous year. Even after the exhibition concluded, the public desire to see and possess this painting was so great that not only did Fuseli make another version of it, he also had prints made. 


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Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers by Henry Fuseli, ca. 1812, via Tate, London


In late 18th-century England, this was exciting for many, as the cost of a small copy print was affordable to most. At the same time, in the eyes of the prestigious Royal Academy fellows, the decision to “cheapen” his work made Fuseli less of an artist. This perspective would follow him even after death, where elite art circles generally viewed his art history writings and lectures as a genius, but his artwork and even personality as slightly eccentric. 


Method 2: The Gothic

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Victor Frankenstein Observing the First Stirrings of His Creature by Theodor Holst, W. Chauvelier, 1831, via the Wellcome Collection, London


Henry Fuseli’s work is often described within the genre of Romanticism, falling under that it is what some scholars name as one of its subgenres: the Gothic. While Romanticism pushed to explore deeper emotional themes, such as humanity’s place within nature, the Gothic took that a step further, plunging into often dark and taboo subjects. 


So what makes The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli Gothic? Most prominently is the use of the concept of the sublime, meaning so utterly breathtaking in a beautiful and terrifying way. Similar to the feeling of modern-day horror movies, in which they can make the viewer want to avert their gaze but find themselves unable to look away, The Nightmare evoked this same sensation in the Royal Academy guests. Perhaps the viewer stares out of concern for the woman – is she just sleeping or is she injured, or even dead? What are the motives of the demonic incubus? 


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The luxury of a frightened imagination over the pages of Udolpho by C.E. Brooks, 1907, from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey


The Nightmare does not hide behind subtle symbolic niceties: its subject is clear and intense. This surface-level shock value is shared in Gothic writing, which is scary, violent, and distressing. This is a device used by the author to bring up personal or societal concerns that in other genres would likely not be mentioned. While the viewer gazes at this painting and perhaps becomes concerned for the wellbeing of the woman, Fuseli manages to tease out subjects such as domestic violence and sexual assault. This possibility is further cemented when one realizes that by definition, an incubus is a male sexual demon who preys on innocent women. 


Method 3: Psychoanalysis

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Self Portrait of Henry Fuseli by Henry Fuseli, via Art Fund


Another method for understanding this work is investigating Henry Fuseli’s own intentions in creating it. Why did he paint such a confrontational and controversial image? Some scholars suggest it could be to cope with romantic rejection. At the time Fuseli was painting the Nightmare, he was dealing with a long unrequited romance with a woman in his social circle, Anna Landolt. Landolt was engaged to be married to another man and did not love Fuseli. In a letter to a close friend, Fuseli writes about a dream he had about Anna, and his (subconscious) desire to be with her romantically and sexually. He writes:


“Last night I had her in bed with me-tossed my bed clothes 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.”


Now, if one were to couple the Gothic implications surrounding the incubus on the woman with Henry Fuseli’s sexual and romantic frustration with Anna, his motive becomes clearer. In the dream, Fuseli wishes to prevent the consummation of the marriage between Landolt and her fiancé in order to sexually “possess” her in the eyes of society. 


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Portrait of a Young Lady (possibly Anna Landolt) by Henry Fuseli, late 18th century, via the Detroit Institute of Arts


The viewer could ask, is Henry Fuseli projecting himself onto the incubus? Does he truly have malicious intentions and is he using this work as an outlet for his problem? Or is Fuseli the dark horse in the corner, watching the scene unfold in horror just like the viewer? If Fuseli is the horse, is he viewing a subconscious and malicious version of himself within the incubus and trying to contain those violent impulses? Or does he view Anna’s fiancé and marriage as monstrous as the demon, and he an innocent bystander?


What makes the possible psychological motives and symbols of this painting even more compelling is the fact that on the back of the 1781 Nightmare painting there is another painting: a portrait that art historians have guessed to be Anna Landolt herself


Legacy Of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare


The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli was written off as wild and scandalous by many artistic elites in his lifetime. Simultaneously, it resonated with the Gothic and Romantic art and literary movements, solidifying Fuseli’s place in art history. Decades after his death, copies of The Nightmare could be found in the homes of Sigmund Freud and Mary Shelley and would be used as inspiration for political cartoons in the newspapers. To this day, his work continues to shock, amaze, and puzzle art historians in all its visual complexity. 

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By Frances DilworthArt Historian w/ BA Art History & ConservationFrances graduated from Rutgers University with a major in art history and a minor in English. Among their many interests, medieval art history comes to the front. They are currently researching the symbolic, cultural, and practical meanings of the medieval garden in their thesis, Gardens of the Arts and Crafts Movement and Their Medieval Roots; which explores the many ways in which medieval art and culture were adopted by the artists of the 19th century. As a non-binary scholar, they are also passionate about researching and writing about underrepresented groups throughout history, such as the LGBTQIA+ community. One day, Frances hopes to publish a book that examines a more inclusive and cross-cultural perspective of medieval art.