Fuseli’s Nightmares

I’ve had a little bit of insomnia lately. It hasn’t been too bad, but substantial enough to be annoying. Last night, as I was twisting and turning in bed, I wryly thought of how much I envied the woman in Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781, shown above). Despite being surrounded by nightmarish figures, at least she was getting some sleep.

I’ve liked this painting ever since my first art history class in high school. It’s just so bizarre and compelling. I especially like the distorted proportions of the woman’s body (it reminds me of Mannerist art) and the burning eyes of the spooky horse.

It’s possible his interest in this subject matter was due to his romantic attachment to a woman named Anna Landolt. Anna’s uncle rejected Fuseli as a suitor, which really embittered the artist. This nightmare theme was created relatively soon after his rejection, “perhaps [as] an attempt to exorcise Fuseli’s bitterness against Anna Landolt by punishing her with a dream.”1

In total, Fuseli made four versions of this nightmare theme. There is a woodcut version (n.d.) and pencil/watercolor version (1810) that aren’t very interesting (they are a little too ridiculous and suggestive for my taste), but I do like this one on the right (1790). I’m really drawn to the small still-life of a glass bottles and small jar on the table; the 1781 painting also has a variant of this still-life. Although the bottles and jars might not contain any significance to the nightmarish theme, I can’t help but think of the romantic aspects of tonics and potions. Even if they don’t mean anything, I think they add a nice touch to the composition and give Fuseli a chance to show off his painting skills.

Anyhow, there you have it. I thought about Fuseli’s The Nightmare while lying in bed last night. It’s no wonder that when I actually do fall asleep, my dreams often revolve around art history…

1 Georg Paula and David Blayney Brown. “Füssli.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T030261pg3, accessed 2 October 2009.

  • phin says:

    Or maybe the bottle is some kind of sleeping potion causing the woman to dream of scary things! Like Nighttime Formula!!! Oh no!

    I always thought that this was also a representation of a rape. Isn't that why the horse is there? Or something like that? I can't remember.

  • heidenkind says:

    I've never even noticed that still-life of the bottles! Good eye. 🙂

    Isn't there a sketch/letter to Anna on the back of The Nightmare? I remember reading a few of Fuseli's remarks about her, and let me tell you, the guy was a total stalker! I wouldn't have married him, either. 😛

  • M says:

    Ha! Nighttime Formula! You crack me up, Buddy. And yeah, you're right about the rape thing. The scary little demon sitting on her stomach is an incubus; in folklore incubuses were known for raping and molesting women in their sleep. Scary!

    Don't worry, I wasn't envying the woman because of the incubus! 🙂 I just wanted to get some shut eye.

    Heidenkind, I actually didn't know about the sketch until I read your comment. I read a little bit about it here and on some other sites. Apparently, there is an unfinished portrait of a woman on the back of the canvas, which many think is a picture of Anna.

    And yeah, Fuseli seems like a really obsessive, controlling guy! There is an interesting quote by Fuseli in the Wikipedia entry on "The Nightmare." He talks about Anna and you can totally get a feel for his obsessive/stalkerish personality. Creepy! If anyone is interested, the quote is listed right after the "Interpretation and Legacy Section," about halfway down the page.

  • M says:

    I forgot to mention one other thing I like about Fuseli's paintings. It's clever that the horse is also a play on words, because it's a "night" "mare." He hee!

    In truth, there is a little bit of disagreement about the origin of the word "nightmare" and if it actually is related to "mares" (horses). "Nightmare" actually might derive from the word "mara," which ties into evil spirits, and more specifically, to the incubus (see here).

    Anyhow, you can see how the inclusion of Fuseli's horse is clever and significant on several levels. Plus, it's just a spooky addition to the composition.

  • e says:

    I didn't even notice the horse!

    I think it is a beautiful painting though. What specifically makes her body distorted? I'm missing it somehow.

    I also have a question for you. You read Stuff White People Like, don't you? You know his latest post on Banksy? Well, I think you should write a post on him! I know almost nothing about him other than a few of his more famous pieces. You always have a way of looking at art from such an interesting perspective that sheds new light on it.

    Just a thought … 🙂

  • M says:

    e, I was mostly talking about the elongated proportions of the woman's body. If you look closely, you'll see that she has really, really long legs and practically no torso at all. She also has really long arms.

    You know, I'd never heard of Bansky until I read your comment. I guess I'm out-of-the-loop with with current trends for white people. 🙂 I'll have to look more at his stuff. J thinks he's crazy, but I want to form my own opinion.

  • ctemate says:

    Hi friends! Ran into this lovely site today while looking for some "The Veiled Christ" images (gonna see it in Naples soon: by the way, I live in Rome). So, I just take the chance to say thanks for all the curious, interesting posts you wrote – I had a great time reading it during the whole afternoon!
    As a funny association to this article, I leave this little joke here
    It is the link to a TV spot on air in Italy, which I like and which I actually happened to think of while reading "Fuseli's Nightmares". Don't you think it could have inspired the creative guys?!? Great job. I added you to my favourites 😉 Bye! Cat.

  • M says:

    Hi Cat! Thanks for your comment and the funny YouTube clip. I got a kick out of that. I'm glad that you enjoy my posts, and it's fun to have another reader in Italy. Stai bene.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.