Henry Fuseli. The Nightmare (1781)

Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches. The Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, Michigan.

This is the first version on the subject of dreams, succubi and nightmares executed by Fuseli. A later version (1790-91) appears below. On the back of the 1781 painting is the portrait of a woman who critics suggest may be Anna Landolt; Fuseli fell in love with Anna, but his marriage proposal was rejected and he seems never to have reconciled himself fully to losing her. In one letter he describes how he dreamed he made love to her, and the paintings may suggest that he haunts her as a dream in the form of the succubus who crouches on the woman's stomach. The horse with its head through the curtains is the nightmarish steed upon which the creature rides. Dreams and succubi are commonplace in Romantic literature, and Lord Byron, for one, knew Fuseli's painting and expressed his admiration for it.

Fuseli certainly understood and depicted the darker, sinister aspects of dreams, and this understanding perhaps influenced his work on A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Nightmare (second version, 1790-1)

Readings: Tomory, pp. 92-3; Henry Fuseli, pp. 122-3.