The Nightmare  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
reclining Venus

The Nightmare[1] 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 Nightmare.

Contents

Overview

Being in the grips of a nightmare is a common occurrence that we can all relate to, but we may never experience one exactly as a particular artist depicts it. Here Fuseli conjures up a terrifying image filled with mystery, panic, and yet with a vague and disturbing familiarity. It suggests the way the woman feels in the grip of a demonic nightmare, not what she sees.

Fuseli's Nightmare reverberated with twentieth-century psychological theorists. In 1926, American writer Max Eastman paid a visit to Sigmund Freud and claimed to have seen a print of The Nightmare displayed next to Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson in Freud's Vienna apartment. Psychoanalyst and Freud biographer Ernest Jones chose another version of Fuseli's painting as the frontispiece of his book On the Nightmare (1931), however neither Freud nor Jones mentioned these paintings in their writings about dreams. Carl Jung included The Nightmare and other Fuseli works in his Man and His Symbols (1964).

Tate Britain held an exhibition titled Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination in 2006 with Fuseli's Nightmare as the central exhibit. The catalog indicated the painting's influence on films such as the original Frankenstein (1931) and The Marquise of O (1976). Among modern artists, Balthus appears to have incorporated elements of The Nightmare in his work (e.g., The Room, 1952–54).

Description and history

The Nightmare simultaneously offers both the image of a dream—by indicating the effect of the nightmare on the woman—and a dream image—in symbolically portraying the sleeping vision. It 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. Her brilliant coloration is set against the darker reds, yellows, and ochres of the background; Fuseli used a chiaroscuro effect to create strong contrasts between light and shade. The interior is contemporary and fashionable, and contains a small table on which rests a mirror, phial, and book. The room is hung with red velvet curtains which drape behind the bed. Emerging from a part in the curtain is the head of a horse with bold, featureless eyes.

For contemporary viewers, The Nightmare invoked the relationship of the incubus and the horse (mare) to nightmares. The work was likely inspired by the waking dreams experienced by Fuseli and his contemporaries, who found that these experiences related to folkloric beliefs like the Germanic tales about demons and witches that possessed people who slept alone. In these stories, men were visited by horses or hags, giving rise to the terms "hag-riding" and "mare-riding", and women were believed to engage in sex with the devil. The etymology of the word "nightmare", however, does not relate to horses. Rather, the word is derived 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. The painting incorporates a variety of imagery associated with these ideas, depicting a mare's head and a demon crouched atop the woman.

Sleep and dreams were common subjects for the Zürich-born Henry Fuseli, though The Nightmare is unique in his canon for its lack of reference to literary or religious themes (Fuseli was an ordained minister). His first known painting is Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of the Butler and Baker of Pharaoh (1768), and later he produced The Shepherd's Dream (1798) inspired by John Milton's Paradise Lost, and Richard III Visited by Ghosts (1798) based on Shakespeare's play.

Sources

Fuseli's knowledge of art history was broad, allowing critics to propose sources for the painting's elements in antique, classical, and Renaissance art. According to art critic Nicholas Powell, the woman's reclining pose may derive from the Sleeping Ariadnes, and the style of the incubus from figures at Selinunte, an archaeological site in Sicily. A source for the woman in Giulio Romano's The Dream of Hecuba at the Palazzo del Te has also been proposed. The horse can be linked to the Bewitched Groom woodcut by the German Renaissance artist Hans Baldung or to the marble Horse Tamers on Quirinal Hill, Rome. Fuseli may have added the horse as an afterthought, since a preliminary chalk sketch owned by his biographer did not include it. Its presence in the painting has been viewed as a visual pun on the word "nightmare" and a self-conscious reference to folklore—the horse destabilizes the painting's conceit and contributes to its Gothic tone.

Exhibition

The painting was first shown at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1782, where it "excited … an uncommon degree of interest", according to Fuseli's early biographer John Knowles. it remained well-known decades later, and Fuseli painted other versions on the same theme. Fuseli sold the original for twenty guineas, and an inexpensive engraving by Thomas Burke circulated widely beginning in January 1783, earning publisher John Raphael Smith more than 500 pounds. The engraving was underscored by a short poem by Erasmus Darwin, "Night-Mare":

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.

Darwin included these lines and expanded upon them in his long poem The Loves of the Plants (1789), for which Fuseli provided the frontispiece:

—Such as of late amid the murky sky
Was mark'd by Fuseli's poetic eye;
Whose daring tints, with Shakspeare's happiest grace,
Gave to the airy phantom form and place.—
Back o'er her pillow sinks her blushing head,
Her snow-white limbs hang helpless from the bed;
Her interrupted heart-pulse swims in death.

O'er her fair limbs convulsive tremors fleet,
Start in her hands, and struggle in her feet;
In vain to scream with quivering lips she tries,
And strains in palsy'd lids her tremulous eyes;
In vain she wills to run, fly, swim, walk, creep;
The Will presides not in the bower of Sleep.
—On her fair bosom sits the Demon-Ape
Erect, and balances his bloated shape;
Rolls in their marble orbs his Gorgon-eyes,
And drinks with leathern ears her tender cries.

Interpretation and legacy

Contemporary critics often found the work scandalous due to its sexual themes. A few years before he painted The Nightmare, Fuseli had fallen passionately in love with a woman named Anna Landholdt in Zürich, while he was traveling from Rome to London. Landholdt was the niece of his friend, the Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater. Fuseli wrote of his fantasies to Lavater in 1779:

Last night I had her in bed with me—tossed my bedclothes 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.…

Fuseli's marriage proposal met with disapproval from the woman's father, and in any case Fuseli's love seems to have been unrequited—Landholdt married a family friend soon after. The Nightmare, then, can be seen as a personal portrayal of the erotic aspects of love lost. Art historian H. W. Janson suggests that the sleeping woman represents Landholdt and that the demon is Fuseli himself. Bolstering this claim is an unfinished portrait of a girl on the back of the painting's canvas, which may portray Landholdt. Anthropologist Charles Stewart, in his study of erotic dreams and nightmares, characterizes the sleeping woman as "voluptuous," and scholar of the Gothic Richard Davenport-Hines describes her as lying in a "sexually receptive position." In Woman as Sex Object (1972), Marcia Allentuck similarly argues that the painting's intent is to show female orgasm. This is supported by Fuseli's sexually overt and even pornographic private drawings (e.g., Symplegma of a Man with Three Women). Fuseli's painting has been considered representative of sublimated sexual instincts. Related interpretations of the painting view the incubus as a dream symbol of male libido, with the sexual act represented by the horse's intrusion through the curtain. Fuseli himself provided no commentary on his painting.

The Royal Academy exhibition brought Fuseli and his painting enduring fame. The exhibition included Shakespeare-themed works by Fuseli, which won him a commission to produce eight paintings for publisher John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. One version of The Nightmare hung in the home of Fuseli's close friend and publisher Joseph Johnson, gracing his weekly dinners for London thinkers and writers. The Nightmare was widely plagiarized, and parodies of it were commonly used for political caricature, by George Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, and others. In these satirical scenes, the incubus afflicts subjects such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis XVIII, British politician Charles James Fox, and Prime Minister William Pitt. In another example, admiral Lord Nelson is the demon, and his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton, the sleeper. While some observers have viewed the parodies as mocking Fuseli, it is more likely that The Nightmare was simply a vehicle for ridicule of the caricatured subject.

Fuseli painted other versions of The Nightmare following the success of the first; at least three other versions survive. The other important canvas was painted between 1790 and 1791 and is held at the Goethe Museum in Frankfurt. It is smaller than the original, and the woman's head lies to the left; a mirror opposes her on the right. The demon is looking at the woman rather than out of the picture, and it has pointed, catlike ears. The most significant difference in the remaining two versions is an erotic statuette of a couple on the table.

Influence on literature

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." The novel and Fuseli's biography share a parallel theme: just as Fuseli's incubus is infused with the artist's emotions in seeing Landholdt marry another man, Shelley's monster promises to get revenge on Victor on the night of his wedding. Like Frankenstein's monster, Fuseli's demon symbolically seeks to forestall a marriage.

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". Poe and Fuseli shared an interest in the subconscious; Fuseli is often quoted as saying, "One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams".

In the twentieth century

Fuseli's Nightmare reverberated with twentieth-century psychological theorists. In 1926, American writer Max Eastman paid a visit to Sigmund Freud and claimed to have seen a print of The Nightmare displayed next to Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson in Freud's Vienna apartment. Psychoanalyst and Freud biographer Ernest Jones chose another version of Fuseli's painting as the frontispiece of his book On the Nightmare (1931), however neither Freud nor Jones mentioned these paintings in their writings about dreams. Carl Jung included The Nightmare and other Fuseli works in his Man and His Symbols (1964).

Tate Britain held an exhibition titled Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination between February 15 and May 1, 2006, with Fuseli's Nightmare as the central exhibit. The catalog indicated the painting's influence on films such as the original Frankenstein (1931) and The Marquise of O (1976). Among modern artists, Balthus appears to have incorporated elements of The Nightmare in his work (e.g., The Room, 1952–54).





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