The horror of what your brain can do when you give it up to sleep is universal, yet the heyday of the nightmare in art seems to have passed. However, back in the late 18th century nightmare paintings were all the rage, with conflicting images that had prone ladies tormented by demons and even horses.
Last week, we brought you old photographs of a child disturbed by some DIY bogeymen, but to really get at the root of the modern depiction of tormented sleep, you have to go back to the 18th century.
When artist Henry Fuseli debuted his painting “The Nightmare” in 1781, it was a turning point for Romanticism in all that folkloric influence and high gothic drama was openly embraced. The unsettlingly sexual nature of the painting where a demon waits on the beautiful woman’s chest while a wild-eyed horse disturbs the scene through the curtain, of course helped in attracting attention. It ushered in the theatrical nightmare of art, and was so popular, that Fuseli created another three versions, as well as affordable prints. This made it the most popular painting of the day, and up to his final months he was working on yet another version of it. It even inspired a poem, that was once sold along with a print of the Fuseli, by Erasmus Darwin called “The Botanic Garden” that begins:
So on his Nightmare through the evening fog
Flits the squab Fiend o’er fen, and lake, and bog;
Seeks some love-wildered maid with sleep oppressed,
Alights, and grinning sits upon her breast.
—Such as of late amid the murky sky
Was marked by Fuseli’s poetic eye,
The Romantic arts had been embracing images of witchcraft, ghosts, and especially dreams, and they continued through the 1800s, although faded away with real horrors like war taking the place of the psychological.
While the vision of the woman tormented by the creatures of the night permeated for years through tributes and parodies, what’s not as well-known is that the original painting actually had a reverse. On the other side was a portrait of a woman named Anna Landholdt, with whom Fuseli was infatuated, but who turned down his proposals. This dashed love is probably more Fuseli’s real nightmare, just as the nightmares of our dreams are rarely demons or other monsters, but the nightmares of our consciousness and terror that is often indescribable or incomprehensible in the morning hours.
Here are a few of the iterations of “The Nightmare” in art: