In his painting The Nightmare (1781), Henry Fuseli tapped into a region of art that had often been neglected and left unexplored by artists. Interpretations of the painting’s content run the gamut, from a metaphor of sexual violence and rape to a representation of the artist’s longing for an unrequited love. Still others have found the painting to represent the artist’s sublimated sexual interests being made manifest, in addition to some finding the title to be a pun: Night-Mare (as in a female horse), referring to the belief that women engaged in sex with the devil at night. Yikes!
Whatever the case may be, Fuseli exhibited the painting in 1781 at the London Royal Academy and it was met with serious interest and speculation. William Blake, a friend and fellow “Romantic" painter defended the painting’s "innocent and vulnerable madness and insanity and fury, and whatever paltry, cold-hearted critics cannot, because they dare not look upon…" Spend some time looking closely at the painting and then read more below to see a later version.
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit
Here’s a detail of the incubus up close.
And here’s a later version from 1802 with an even creepier and more menacing incubus. And notice that both versions show a night stand with a glass pitcher and a mirror. Thus, the overall painting presents something the illusory, that realm between the seen and the unseen.
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1802, oil on canvas. Freies Deutsches Hochstift, Goethemuseum
What’s your reaction to the painting?