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Honoré Daumier’s drawing of a nightmare (1856) (via Wikimedia)

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.

Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare” (1781) (via Detroit Institute of Arts)

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,

Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare” (1802) (via Goethemuseum)

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:

Thomas Burke’s engraving of Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” (1783) (via Tate Modern)

Henry Fuseli , “The Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women” (1810) (via Kunsthaus Zürich), another take on demons tormenting young ladies

Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, “Nightmare” (1800) (via Vestjaellands Art Museum, Sorø), an arguably even creepier version of the nightmare demon

Covent Garden Night Mare (via Tate Britain), a parody that uses a gambling political figure as the tormented sleeper

Francisco Goya’s “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters” (1799) (via Wikimedia), Goya using the idea of monsters visiting in your sleep, and although Fuseli would later include an owl, the cat with eyes looking off in two directions is all Goya

The frontispiece to a book on dreams and spirits, illustrated by Friedrich Voigt Leipzig (1854) (via Wikimedia), where a demon and other creatures visit a child as a visualization of a nightmare

Eugène Thivier, “Le Cauchemar” (1894) (via Wikimedia)

Poster for the 1931 film version of “Frankenstein” (via Classic Movie Monsters), where someone had obviously been checking out Fuseli before the framing, where Frankenstein has just left Mae Clarke’s room

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...