Born in Zurich as Johann Heinrich Füssli, the artist known as Henry Fuseli moved permanently to London in 1779 after a ten-year sojourn in Rome. He aroused striking public interest on presenting this soberly titled painting, The Nightmare, at the Royal Academy show of 1782. He depicted a young woman lying on a bed in a room with contemporary furniture reflecting a stylized Antique taste. Although dressed in virginal white, the sleeping—or swooning—woman is tormented in her sleep by a little demon who crouches heavily on her belly. That is the mara—spirit or hag—who gives its name to the painting, because “nightmare” originally meant not a bad dream but an incubus. According to a marginal Christian belief in the late Middle Ages, an incubus was a spirit that came to trouble women’s dreams with its sexual ardor. The horse whose head emerges from the left is clearly the fantastic spirit’s steed yet also an allusion to a passage in Romeo and Juliet that refers to a being who “gallops night by night through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love.” Fuseli’s painting was immediately engraved by Thomas Burke and swiftly became famous, indeed so popular that it spurred a great number of forgeries and caricatures. Fuseli himself produced painted and drawn replicas. Today this painting is certainly one of the most studied “Romantic” or “pre-Romantic” works of European art, henceforth presented as emblematic of the movement.
The Nightmare – 1781-82 – Oil on canvas – Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit (55.5.A)