Seasons screamings ghouls and ghosts of Los Angeles, it is I, Astor, lifting the lantern from the steps of Speakeasy Tattoo to exhume art history before your glowing eyes. In honor of the month of October, or as I like to call it Goth Pride Month, we will be examining a particular piece of spooktacular art history every week this month— because what’s scarier than short form art historical essays?
So to start things off we are going to take it back to a very scary year indeed… well a very scary year if you happened to be a member of the British nobility. It’s 1782 and the loss at the Battle of Yorktown has seen the end of British Colonial rule in what would become the United States. It’s the end of what historians call the “First” British Empire, and Parliament is gathering steam to oust the Prime Minister by a motion of no confidence. The King, though popular, is unpredictably stricken by bouts of mania caused by an unknown disease. Elsewhere in Europe, an Age of Enlightenment is spreading, but English philosophers remain comparatively conservative, and His Majesty’s doctors still apply poultices to “draw out ill humours”. If you are an English aristocrat, things must seem very strange and confusing, surrounded as you would be by all these vast external changes. Amid all that uncertainty, at the Royal Academy of London, Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli unveils his opus, The Nightmare.
Depicting a tenebrist dream-space, the canvas’s subject is that of a sleeping woman, beset by a glowering imp or incubus. Her head and arms are thrown back in an ecstatic sprawl, arrested mid-entropic slump as she tumbles from the bed, her nightclothes nearly translucent and twisted about her so as to cleave to her slumbering form. To the left of the woman, coyly emerging from behind a bit of stage-like red drapery, a shadowy horse voyeuristically observes the scene. It’s a bit of an Inception situation, as the image follows a sort of dream logic— horse in a bedroom, demon perched on a woman’s chest, while her night table remains upright and undisturbed. However, the woman herself is also dreaming, tossing fitfully in her sleep, so that what we are shown is a dream within a dream, and we are thus intruding not only upon the sanctity of her bedchamber, but also upon the recesses of her mind. In contrast with the sleeping woman, the demon— small, hunched, and grotesque as opposed to her stretched, languid beauty— challenges the viewer with its hateful stare. Much could be and has been said about this creature. Firstly, it references the Mare, an evil creature which exists within the folkloric traditions of Germanic, Slavic, and Scandinavian Europe. The Mare rides your horses by night, exhausting them. It tangles your trees and mats your hair, and worst of all it sits on your chest and brings you night terrors. The name is thought to derive from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root mer-, which means “crushing or oppressing”. It is also the origin of the word “nightmare”, itself. Fuseli has, however, also included a horse, a literal mare in the night, as sort of a visual pun, or else an allusion to the belief that the Mare would ride a horse ragged. Is he suggesting also that the woman is to be ridden to her end? This could be, as the creature also exhibits the attributes of an incubus, a male demon which lies upon a sleeping woman in order to take advantage of her body. The word “incubus” comes from “incubare”, which means “to lie upon”, and this creature has very obviously taken his seat upon the woman’s sleeping form. I would not be the first to point out the suggestive elements in this painting. Critics at the time of its display at the RA were disquieted by the imagery, with one reviewer in the Morning Chronicle saying that it “has strong marks of genius about it; but hag-riding is too unpleasant a thought to be agreeable to anyone”. There exists a play between intrigue and revulsion here, which is often the case with works employing oblique sexual themes. There is the arch of the woman’s back, her knee canted into an open pose, and her flimsy night dress. Also, the motion in the piece, the way light leads the eye, begins at her exposed throat, traces her body over her breast, down to her knee where the eye then jumps to the highlight on the horse’s nose, which then points straight toward the apex of the woman’s thighs. Only then is the eye drawn to the crooked little imp, and to its wide-eyed grimace, its finger pressed rudely to its cheek in a gesture which seems accusatory, acknowledging the path that the viewer’s eyes have taken. Whereas Fuseli’s other work often referenced Shakespeare or Greek Myth, and thus borrowed from those subjects a moral lesson, this work did not, and left viewers shocked, but also titillated. According to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where the painting now hangs, Sigmund Freud had an etching copy of this painting hanging in his office in Vienna. A copy was also found in the home of Mary Shelley. Jung referenced it in his work on the unconscious, and there have been multiple Jungian analyses of the painting, interpreting the woman as his unrequited lost love, Anna Landolt, and the demon either as Fuseli himself, trapping her and thus keeping her, or else, as her husband, an interloper on the object of his covetousness. In The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe describes a painting which bears a striking similarity to the work by Fuseli, though it is not explicitly named. The painting is also the header image for the Wikipedia article on sleep paralysis. Almost since its first exhibition, it has been an icon of psychosexual analysis, and of horror, and of the sultry shadows where those two meet. It is emblematic of fear and lust at once.
With all this heavy allegorical symbolism, one would think it would have been shunned outright, given the conservative moralism of England, and the “Age of Reason” blossoming elsewhere. On the contrary, it has been reproduced and referenced and parodied countless times in the past 239 years. For a while, it served as a sort of visual shorthand for satirists looking to either point out the trysts of political figures by depicting them as the incubus, or in other cases, to poke fun at them for other weaknesses, by caricaturing leaders and lawmakers as the sleeper. The painting was so popular even in Fuseli’s own lifetime that he painted several iterations on the same theme. Today, too, it finds its way into art which walks the line between sex and terror. See for example Cecily Brown’s Black Painting I. The artist states that the inspiration for it was a book of Victorian erotica, but given the influence and ubiquity of The Nightmare, it’s likely that volume bears the sweaty fingerprints of Fuseli’s infamous work. Like desire, or like a nightmare, the painting is hard to escape.