The Nightmare: Fuseli and the Art of Horror

This room introduces Fuseli’s infamous masterwork The Nightmare. This has been an icon of horror ever since it was first exhibited to the public at the annual Royal Academy exhibition in London in 1782. The painting draws on folklore, science and classical art to create a new kind of sexually-charged image. Fuseli wanted the painting to shock and intrigue, as well as to make a name for himself. In this he succeeded triumphantly. The work has been copied and lampooned many times.

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare exhibited 1782

Henry Fuseli The Nightmare exhibited 1782

Henry Fuseli
The Nightmare exhibited 1782
Oil on canvas, 1210 x 1473 x 89 mm

Lent by the Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase with funds from Mr and Mrs Bert L. Smokler and Mrs Lawrence A. Fleischman

This painting created a sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782. What is the subject of this painting? We may never be sure; Fuseli wanted his picture to intrigue us. The leering imp may embody the physical effects of a nightmare, or be an emblem of sexual desire. Is this picture an allegory, an illustration of a literary source, or something more personal?

Henry Fuseli, The Changeling 1780

Henry Fuseli The Changeling 1780

Henry Fuseli
The Changeling 1780
Black chalk, grey wash and watercolour on paper

© 2006 Kunsthaus, Zürich. All rights reserved

A child is shown being stolen from its crib by a witch who disappears into the moonlight through a window. While the bent and elderly nurse sleeps on, the child’s mother recoils at the discovery of her child’s monstrous replacement. Like The Nightmare, this design draws on folklore and literature. The idea of a swapped baby is a deeply-entrenched tale, which has persisted from ancient texts through to modern tabloid stories and horror movies.

Henry Fuseli, An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women (Der Alp verlasst das Lager sweir shlafender Frauen) 1810

Henry Fuseli An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women 1810

Henry Fuseli
An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women (Der Alp verlasst das Lager sweir shlafender Frauen) 1810
Pencil and wash on paper, 318 x 408 mm

© 2006 Kunsthaus, Zürich. All rights reserved

An evil imp has visited two naked young women, and is shown departing on a demonic horse through the window. One of the women stretches as she wakes, her face indicating she has been troubled (or perhaps exhausted) by the night’s activities. The composition may suggest a kind of addled fairy-tale, with the sleeping beauties awakened by the departure of the beast. It evokes the themes of erotic arousal and sexual initiation that underlie many classic stories.

Thomas Burke, after Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, published by John Raphael Smith, 30 January 1783

Thomas Burke, after Henry Fuseli The Nightmare

Thomas Burke, after Henry Fuseli
The Nightmare, published by John Raphael Smith, 30 January 1783
Stipple engraving

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

This is the official engraved reproduction of Fuseli’s painting. Prints like this meant that art could be seen and collected by a large section of the Public. They helped make Fuseli’s The Nightmare one of the most famous paintings of the age. The ‘stipple’ engraving technique used here creates delicate tonal effects. It was generally used to reproduce light, romantic subjects. Its use in this context may be ironic.

… on his Night-Mare, 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.
— Such as of late amid the murky sky
Was mark’d by FUSELI’s poetic eye;
Whose daring tints, with SHAKESPEARS’s happiest grace,
Gave to the airy phantom form and place

Erasmus Darwin The Loves of the Plants 1789

Thomas Rowlandson, Study for The Covent Garden Night Mare c.1784

Thomas Rowlandson Study for The Covent Garden Night Mare around 1784

Thomas Rowlandson
Study for The Covent Garden Night Mare around 1784
Pencil on paper

City of Westminster Archives Centre

This is the original drawing by Rowlandson for his caricature print, ‘The Covent Garden Night Mare’, shown nearby. Rowlandson has based his design on Fuseli’s The Nightmare. He may have seen the painting at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1782, or copied it from a printed reproduction.

Thomas Rowlandson, The Covent Garden Night Mare 1784

Thomas Rowlandson The Covent Garden Night Mare 1784

Thomas Rowlandson
The Covent Garden Night Mare 1784
Coloured etching

Westminster Library and Archives

This was among the earliest satirical designs to be based on The Nightmare. It shows the famously portly and dissolute Whig politician Charles James Fox (1749–1806) in the role of Fuseli’s maiden, here in a sleep troubled by his gambling debts – referred to by the dice and dicebox on the low table – and the forthcoming election in Westminster.

James Gillray, Duke William’s Ghost, published by Hannah Humphrey, 7 May 1799

James Gillray Duke William's Ghost, published by Hannah Humphrey, 7 May 1799

James Gillray
Duke William’s Ghost, published by Hannah Humphrey, 7 May 1799
Hand-coloured etching and aquatint

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

George, the Prince of Wales (1762–1830) lies in a drunken, sweaty stupor. William Augustus, Duke of York (1721–1765) appears as an unpleasantly nude spectre shown, mercifully, from the rear. His presence is meant to offer a warning about the evil effects of drink and an excessive diet, for which the Prince, and the Duke formerly, were notorious. The pose of the Prince is lifted directly from The Nightmare.

William Blake, Plate 33 from Jerusalem (copy ‘A’), printed c.1820

William Blake Plate 33 from Jerusalem

William Blake
Plate 33 from Jerusalem (copy ‘A’), printed around 1820
Relief etching, uncoloured

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

This print shows the motif of The Nightmare being stretched and reinterpreted in the most radical and complex way. It is from the original ‘illuminated’ version of Blake’s poem Jerusalem. The lower scene shows the female figure of Jerusalem laying flat, with the ‘insane and most deform’d’ Spectre evoked by the text hovering over her.

Unidentified artist (‘M.G’), Fatal Effects of Gluttony: A Lord Mayor’s Day Night Mare, published by Thomas McLean 4 November 1830

Unidentified artist (‘M.G’) Fatal Effects of GluttonyA Lord Mayor's Day Night Mare, published by Thomas McLean 4 November 1830

Unidentified artist (‘M.G’)
Fatal Effects of Gluttony: A Lord Mayor’s Day Night Mare, published by Thomas McLean 4 November 1830
Hand-coloured lithograph

Lent by the Guildhall Library, Corporation of London

A city merchant suffers the ill effects of his indulgence in rich food and booze. The list on his side-table documents the extent of his carnivorous greed. The effect of diet on the imagination was the source of considerable medical and critical speculation in this period. Fuseli was subject to a recurring rumour that he would eat raw pork before going to bed to stimulate his dark dreams.