"The Nightmare"

Henry Fuseli

external image fuseli_nightmare.jpg

"The Nightmare"

The title of this piece of work is a homograph and contains 1) the literal meaning, and 2) the figurative meaning. The first definition implies the actual act of having a nightmare: to have a terrifying dream in which the dreamer experiences fear and anxiety. The second term connects the horse in the painting as a 'mare'. The suffix 'mare' is derived from the word 'maren' which means to crush. Therefore the night-mare in its original sense means night crusher, which does not imply bad dreams, but instead, sleep paralysis with drowsiness or hypnopompic (semi-conscious state before wakening) hallucinations. Therefore we have vivid images which are fantastic and utterly imposible.


The painting is an ironic combination of the intimate, disarrayed boudoir interior, which is not unusual for the time, and a dank, claustrophobic setting. The theme is of erotic play, which is displayed by the woman's position, deranged by monstrous sexual violation. It was also meant to bring confusion to the viewer, over the content of the painting being applied to the title. Many explanations have been brought up to explain this painting including one that is based on Fuseli's love life. After Fuselie came back to England from Rome he was rejected by a friends niece who chose another man over him. This picture then may represent the vengeance the artist wants against the niece with the demon taking his place over the girl.

The Woman

The woman on the bed is based on an ancient sculpture but is still in the form of a modern woman of the eighteenth century. Other figures like this woman, which are models of antiquate forms of art that have been modernized, can be found in other illustrations of the era; they are called, 'fancy pictures'. She is meant to contrast the small dark room with her light feature/clothes and sprawled body. She is obviously the main focus of the painting and thus our interpretations should originate with her, or what she is trying to portray. Whether she is in the middle of a nightmare or writhing in pleasure, is up to the viewer to decide. What is important is the fact that her body is, in what appears to be, a natural position. This idea of casual/natural nature is one of the staples of the Romantic era and should be taken into account.

The Demon/Imp

This character is known to be a supernatural being derived from ancient myths, literature, and folklore. There are two different interpretations of the overall picture. The first being that the imp the image, is the source of the woman's nightmare. This is derived from ancient stories in which a 'mara' was a spirit in northern mythology that came to sleeping women, and either suffocated or molested them. There are other stories involving this character in which women are impregnated by these creatures, and then give birth to abnormal, half-human beings. The second interpretation would be that the imp is actually the inner evil, or possibly the id, of the woman being expressed. Since the romantic era dealt with the idea of accepting the inner truth of one's nature, this interpretation is highly plausible.

The Horse

The second interpretation of the picture is that the dark horse is a the real cause of horror for the woman. This black horse is seen pushing its head through the curtain, and it is possible that this horse was the imp's means of traveling through the night. The fluster between 'mare' and 'mara' is the cause of the horse to be identified as the actual nightmare. However, Fuseli most likely intended this confusion as a desired result from viewing the painting. The horse is based on a ghostly figure in Salvator Rosa's "Saul and the Witch of Endor" combined with "The Horse Tamers" from Piazza Quirinale, Rome.

Atmosphere and the Room

The room is dark and contains many warm color tones. The most prominant of these tones is red. This may cause the viewer to interpret the painting as erotic, since red is the color most closely related to passion and intimacy. On the other hand, one might interpret the red as a representation of hell, which would explain the demon. Despite its specific meaning, the dark room sets a great contrast between the atmosphere of the room and the image of the woman. The table top, in the far left corner, has bottles which could be a number of things, ranging from perfume, to medicinal drinks, to Laudanum (A drug containing Opium that was largely used in this time period).

Romanticism of the Work

Romanticism reveres individualism, subjectivism, irrationalism, imagination, emotions and nature. This period focused primarily on emotion over reason and senses over intellect. Artists were intrigued by passions, inner struggles, and mood. It gave a sense of struggle and ever-present dark forces which can be related back to the imp and horse harassing the young woman. One might also notice how the painting was done in a manner which seems vague and indistinct. This style of creating an image with edges that blend is characteristic of the Romantic era.