The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

The Nightmare by Henri Fuseli (1781)

I can sum up My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today in one word – disturbing.  I have featured many paintings in the past which could be described as erotic, maybe even pornographic.  I have described some paintings as being very violent and bloodthirsty but what is disturbing about this painting is the combination of both these elements in one work of art.  The painting is entitled The Nightmare and the artist who painted the work was Henry Fuseli.

Henri Fuseli was born Johann Heinrich Fussli in Zurich in 1741.  Although Swiss born, he spent almost fifty years living in England.  He came from a very large family, the second child of eighteen!  His father, Johann Caspar Fussli was a portrait and landscape artist as well as an author.  His father encouraged some of Henry’s siblings to become artists but for Henry he wanted him to study theology and enter the church.  Henry followed that chosen path and went to Caroline College in Zurich where he received a first-class classical education.  Eventually he took orders and at the age of twenty was ordained a Zwinglian clergyman.  The following year Henry Fuseli, angered by the corruption of a local politician, Felix Grebel, produced a pamphlet condemning him.  This angered the politician and his powerful family vowed retribution and in consequence Henry had to hurriedly leave the city and take refuge in Germany.

Fussli was an accomplished linguist and after spending some time in Berlin, he moved to London where he was employed as a translator, translating French, German and Italian books into English. He spent a lot of his leisure time sketching and writing but had little success in getting any of his writings published. Whilst in London he got to know the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds and on showing the English artists some of his sketches was encouraged to devote more of his time on his art and so in 1768 Henry Fussli decided to become an artist.    In 1770, at the age of twenty nine, Fussli went along the well-trodden path taken by artists and would-be artists – an artistic pilgrimage to Italy and he remained in that country for eight years.  Fuseli was a self-taught artist and whilst in Italy copied many of the works of the Renaissance Masters and spent much time in the Sistine Chapel copying the frescoes of Michelangelo.  During his eight year sojourn In Italy he also changed his surname to the more Italian-sounding Fuseli.  In 1779 he returned to Zurich.

If we wind the clock back to the time when he was studying theology in Zurich we know that the young Fuseli came across a man who was to become his lifelong friend – Felix Lavater.  It is the meeting of these two, twenty years earlier which has, in a roundabout way, a connection with today’s painting for through his friendship with Lavater, he met Lavater’s niece Anna Landolt.   Fuseli was besotted with the young woman and had fallen passionately in love with her.   In Maryanne Wards book, A Painting of the Unspeakable: Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare she quotes a passage of a letter written by Fuseli to his friend Lavater about an erotic dream he had about Anna:

“…Last night I had her in bed with me—tossed my bedclothes hugger-mugger—wound my hot and tight-clasped hands about her—fused her body and soul together with my own—poured into her my spirit, breath and strength. Anyone who touches her now commits adultery and incest! She is mine, and I am hers. And have her I will….”

However, sadly for Fuseli, it was a one-sided love affair and it came to nought but this failed romance played on his mind and art historians believe that today’s featured painting was all about his passionate affair with and the erotic dreams he had about Anna Landolt.

In the painting we see a woman, lying on her back on a bed.  See how Fuseli has contrasted the very bright colour of the woman herself and her nightdress with the dark red, yellows and ochres of the background.   Her position has been described as “lying in a sexually receptive position”.   She looks almost comatose with her right hand placed behind the back of her head which is hanging down exposing her long pale neck.  Her left arm also dangles over the side of the bed.  Sitting atop of her abdomen with its feet positioned over her heart is an incubus.  The creature looks out at us.  An incubus is a male demon which lies upon sleepers, especially women, in order to have intercourse with them.   It has been suggested that the sleeping woman in this painting is Anna Landolt and Fuseli himself is the incubus.  Strangely enough, on the rear of the painting is an unfinished sketch of a girl which is thought to be Anna and that in some way supports the conclusion that Anna is the woman in Fuseli’s picture.   In the left background we see a horse’s head with leering phosphorescent eyes push its way through the parting of the dark red velvet curtains.  In some quarters this depiction is considered to be the sexual act itself.

Fuseli did not comment on his painting and never gave any indication as to the symbolism, if any, that could be derived from the work.  So why did he choose such a subject?  Many believe it is all down to his jealous passion and unfulfilled longing for the woman he wanted but could not possess.  Fuseli painted other versions of The Nightmare following the success of the first.  The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782 and created quite a stir.  Critics of the time were shocked by the unconcealed sexuality of the painting

So what happened to Henri Fuseli after this?  Fuseli eventually found his “true love”, Sophia Rawlins and married her in 1788.  She posed for him in many of his later paintings which were often a mixture of the macabre and the erotic.  Two years later he was appointed professor of painting at the Royal Academy and in 1804 was appointed the Keeper of the Academy.  This very prestigious appointment gave him the responsibility for the Royal Academy Schools which are located at the Royal Academy.  Whilst in this position he oversaw the artistic tuition of such well known artists as Landseer, Turner, William Etty and John Constable.  Fuseli was well respected as a teacher despite his eccentric ways.  He died in 1825, aged 81 and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral close to Sir Joshua Reynolds, the man who set Fuseli on his artistic journey.

Fuseli was fascinated with the darker side of human nature and this is probably the reason that many of his works focus on suppressed violence, fears people have which are illogical and often foolish and sexual perversity.  There is something very disturbing about this painting and I would love to know what had been going through the artist’s mind when he started to paint this scene we see before us today.

The painting is currently at the Detroit Institute of Arts.