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.
The painting was first shown at the Royal Academy of London in 1782, where it “excited … an uncommon degree of interest” .
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.
Okay forget the poem. 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.