Eye Candy for Today: Fuseli’s Nightmare

The Nightmare, Henru Fuseli
The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781; The Nightmare, engraving after Fuseli by Thomas Burke; The Nightmare Henri Fuseli, 1791; The Nightmare, engraving after Fuseli by Thomas Halloway

Images are from Wikimedia Commons; original of the first version is in the Detroit Institute of Arts

This 18th century painting by English-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli has become one of those famous and familiar images that is hard to see with fresh eyes — as a painting rather than a cultural icon.

The painting achieved almost immediate notoriety in its time, critics found it scandalous and improper due to the sexual nature of the work. An engraving by Thomas Burke was widely popular, and the image became the subject of cartoons and other mention in popular culture.

Though the painting appears to depict both dream and dreamer, it may be more likely that it is the artist’s nightmare — one of unrequited love, representing a young woman with whom Fuseli was in love and proposed marriage to, but whose father disapproved and who married another not long after. Perhaps the demon is a stand-in for the woman’s eventual husband.

The painting was so popular that Fuseli painted several other versions. The most famous of the three surviving alternative versions was done in 1870 or 1871, for which there was an engraving by Thomas Halloway.

See my post on Henry Fuseli.

4 Replies to “Eye Candy for Today: Fuseli’s Nightmare”

  1. The demon lying on the woman’s chest is an Incubus popularly believed to be the cause of nightmares. Incubus is derived from Latin incubo (a nightmare induced by such a demon) from incub(are) (to lie upon.)

  2. Hi, Charlie

    My local fine art museum – ‘Les Augustins’ here in Toulouse has a sculpture which, I would imagine, is inspired by the Fuseli painting – it’s by Eugène Thivier (1894)

    Or on the Augustins site :


    A Parisian sculptor barely known otherwise, Eugène Thivier (1845-1920) dealt with a subject close to the Symbolist movement. This allegorical sculpture (the representation of an abstract idea by a living being) presents a naked reclining woman suffering a nightmare. However, the theme of dreaming is above all the pretext for a voluptuous feminine nude, in the fin-de-siècle spirit – both morbid and erotic at once.

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