If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare

By Dr. Noelle Paulson
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, oil on canvas, 180 × 250 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Shocked, titillated, and frightened

Working during the height of the Enlightenment, the so-called “Age of Reason,” the Swiss-English painter Henry Fuseli (born Johann Heinrich Füssli) instead chose to depict darker, irrational forces in his famous painting The Nightmare. In Fuseli’s startling composition, a woman bathed in white light stretches across a bed, her arms, neck, and head hanging off the end of the mattress. An apelike figure crouches on her chest while a horse with glowing eyes and flared nostrils emerges from the shadowy background.
The painting was first displayed at the annual Royal Academy exhibition in London in 1782, where it shocked, titillated, and frightened exhibition visitors and critics. Unlike many of the paintings that were then popular and successful at the Royal Academy exhibitions, Fuseli’s The Nightmare has no moralizing subject. The scene is an invented one, a product of Fuseli’s imagination. It certainly has a literary character and the various figures demonstrate Fuseli’s broad knowledge of art history, but The Nightmare’s subject is not drawn from history, the Bible, or literature. The painting has yielded many interpretations and is seen as prefiguring late nineteenth-century psychoanalytic theories regarding dreams and the unconscious
allegedly kept a reproduction of the painting on the wall of his apartment in Vienna).

Incubus or mara

Incubus (detail), Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, oil on canvas, 180 × 250 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts)
The figure that sits upon the woman’s chest is often described as an imp, or an incubus, a type of spirit said to lie atop people in their sleep or even to have sexual intercourse with sleeping women. Fuseli’s painting is suggestive but not explicit, leaving open the possibility that the woman is simply dreaming. Yet, her dream appears to take frightening, physical form in the shapes of the incubus and the horse. According to Fuseli’s friend and biographer John Knowles, who saw the first drawing Fuseli made for the composition in 1781, the horse was not present in the drawing but added to the painting later.
Although it is tempting to understand the painting’s title as a punning reference to the horse, the word “nightmare” does not refer to horses. Rather, in the now obsolete definition of the term, a mare is an evil spirit that tortures humans while they sleep. As Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) defined it, a mare or “mara, [is] a spirit that, in heathen mythology, was related to torment or to suffocate sleepers. A morbid oppression in the night resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast.” Thus, Fuseli’s painting may in fact be understood as embodying the physical experience of chest pressure felt during a dream-state.

Dark themes

Through his use of composition and
, Fuseli heightened the drama and uncertainty of his scene. However, unlike the slightly earlier painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, which utilized chiaroscuro to symbolize the enlightening power of rational observation, Fuseli’s The Nightmare instead shows the futility of light to penetrate or explain the darker realms of the unconscious.
Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture at the Orrery, c. 1766, oil on canvas, 147.2 x 203.2 cm (Derby Museums and Art Gallery, England)
In The Nightmare, the single light source coming in from the right, the curtains and tassels in the background, and the shortened, stage-like foreground also add to the work’s theatricality. The red drapery falling off the edge of the bed even suggests a river of blood as it might be symbolically enacted on stage in a play or an opera, adding morbid undertones to the painting’s already dark themes. Throughout his career, Fuseli painted and illustrated scenes from Shakespeare and Milton, and his art has a consistent sense of literary, at times even erudite drama that reveals his classical education (after completing his studies, Fuseli had been ordained as a pastor in the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church before his political activities in Zürich effectively forced him into exile in 1761).
Thomas Burke, The nightmare after Fuseli, published in London by R. J. Smith, 1783, stipple engraving in sepia, 22.7 x 25 cm (The British Museum)
The Nightmare’s stark mixture of horror, sexuality, and morbidity has insured its enduring notoriety. In January 1783, The Nightmare was engraved by Thomas Burke and distributed by the publisher John Raphael Smith. The relatively low price of this reproduction, following on the heels of the attention the work received at the Royal Academy, helped to distribute the image to a wider audience. Fuseli later painted at least three more variations with the same title and subject.
The Nightmare became an icon of Romanticism and a defining image of Gothic horror, inspiring the poet Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) and the writers Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe among many others. From the start, caricaturists also adopted Fuseli’s composition, and political figures from Napoleon Bonaparte to President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all been lampooned in satirical versions of Fuseli’s painting.
Additional resources
Learn more about artists on the heals of the Enlightenment in "Empires and their endings in the late 18th and 19th centuries," in Reframing Art History.
Essay by Dr. Noelle Paulson

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Quinn McLeish
    I have heard a theory that idea of an incubus crouched on the chest originated from the age old hallucination sometimes known as "The Old Hag", namely waking up to find a figure crouching next to you, or even sitting on your chest. It is said to be terrifing, and is often accompanied by temporary paralysis. Perhaps Fuseli or one of his friends suffered from hallucinations, which may have inspired this disturbing painting? Is there any way we can find out?
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Does an "incubator" that a baby stays in when born have the same root origin as "incubus"?

    I certainly hope not!
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user amateur
      I've checked in the Oxford English Dictionary, and both "incubator" and "incubus" ultimately derive from the same Latin word, namely "incubare" (to lie in or upon). A rough schematic of each word's evolution:

      * Latin "incubare" (to lie in or upon) --> Latin "incubator" --> English "incubator"
      * Latin "incubare" (to lie in or upon) --> Latin "incubo" (nightmare) --> Medieval Latin "incubo" (nightmare, often represented as a malignant demon that lay upon sleeping men and women) --> English incubus
      (9 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Kurt Soucek
    The printing process used by Thomas Burke is referred to as "stipple engraving". How does this differ from aquatint as used by Francisco Goya for his Caprichos at about the same time?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops seed style avatar for user Daenerys Targaryen
      Stipple engraving is when several indents (stipples) are made with a burin into a plate to create the print, similar to the stippling style we see in some cartoons/illustrations today. Aquatint is also an intaglio technique but a bit more complex, and is more like what we would consider etching or engraving today. i'd suggest looking into that for better information than I can offer, though.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Elizabeth Kane
    The text says "the various figures demonstrate Fuseli’s broad knowledge of art history;" how so? I'd like to understand more.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops seed style avatar for user Daenerys Targaryen
      by that I believe they mean that the use of symbolism shows Fuseli knew what he was doing and had studied the use of figures and symbols in art history (indeed he had). i also see in his skill, personal style/technique, and his use of chiaroscuro and color that he knew quite a bit about painting and about how art could move viewers (or had moved viewers in the past).
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user codybevilacqua05
    There is an incubus in Doom 2
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Carol Colyer
    Does anyone else think the woman is not lying on a mattress, but a corpse? It looks rather like a torso and leg with a draping over it.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops seed style avatar for user Daenerys Targaryen
      she is intended to be sleeping, not dead, indicated by her carefully chosen position and other factors taken at the time to mean she was asleep, almost inviting morbid nightmares. i tend to agree that she looks corpse-like, and while that resemblance is probably intentional (her being drained of life, that is), she isn't supposed to actually be dead.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Ann Pickard
    Is there any information about the small glass bottle on the table on the left? I wonder if it is a reference to Laudanum, a liquid tincture of opium (was often used by women for menstrual pain, and was/is highly addictive). This painting reminds me of old depictions of opium dens.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      "...the exact meaning and symbolism of these images remains elusive, as the artist never revealed his precise intentions. The many questions raised include: What is the meaning of the woman's helpless pose, for instance? Is there a sexual significance of some kind, in the placement of the incubus on top of her? Some art critics believe that the painting was inspired by Germanic legends about demons who possessed people as they slept. In these tales, men were visited by horses or witches, while women were believed on occasion to have sex with the devil. Others believe that The Nightmare illustrates the artist's unrequited love for Anna Landholdt, a woman he met a few years before, while travelling in Europe. In this interpretation the sleeping woman is Landholdt, while he is the incubus. Cited in support of this theory is an unfinished portrait of a girl (believed to be Landholdt) which is on the back of the canvas."

      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user lilidialom
    Hello, my name's Liliana and i'm actually preparing my thesis about this painting (1790-1791 version), and i wanted to know if there's any specialized more extensive work you've done about Fuseli and his paintings? or, if you know about some other work from other person that could help me with this specific thematic
    (i'm heading this investigation to the precise element of the horse that appears on the 1790-1791 painting)
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • starky seedling style avatar for user day LA.
    How long did it take him to make it?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin seed style avatar for user Jocie
    So,it says that the painting had a mixture of horror, morbidity and sexuality. How is there anything sexual about that?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user kathryn vm
      It is considered sexual not because the human mind is "too sexual" or our world it corrupt or whatever nonsense others are saying. The demon sitting on her chest could be one from mythology that is known to strangle or even molest women in their sleep. Another reason could be that based on implications from her stunningly white dress, we are supposed to imply that she is pure and virginal.
      (1 vote)