See caption
The Nightmare, 1781
oil on canvas,
101.6 × 127 cm

Wikimedia Commons

The Nightmare is an oil painting by the Swiss-born British Romantic artist Henry Fuseli
Swiss-born British Romantic artist (1741–1825), who established a reputation for his paintings depicting the horrifying and fantastic.
, first exhibited in 1782. Like much of his work, it explores the relationship between sex and fear; the ape-like incubusDemon in male form that seeks to have sexual intercourse with a sleeping woman.Demon in male form that seeks to have sexual intercourse with a sleeping woman. crouched on the sleeping woman adds an element of demonic magic.

The painting seems to portray simultaneously a dreaming woman and the content of her nightmare. Its dreamlike and haunting eroticism made it a huge popular success following its exhibition at the 1782 Royal Academy of London.

Interpretations of the work vary, but it may be a personal portrayal of the erotic aspects of love lost, with Fuseli himself as the incubus.


The Nightmare simultaneously offers the image of a dream and a dream image, by portraying both the sleeping woman and her nightmarish vision.[1] The woman is draped over the end of a bed with her head hanging down, exposing her long neck. She is surmounted by an incubus that peers out at the viewer. The sleeper seems lifeless and, lying on her back, takes a position then believed to encourage nightmares.[2] Her brilliant coloration is set against the darker reds, yellows, and ochres of the background; Fuseli used a chiaroscuroTechnique used in the visual arts that makes use of light and shadow to define three-dimensional objects and surfaces. effect to create strong contrasts between light and shade. The interior is contemporary and fashionable and contains a small table on which rests a mirror, phial, and book. The room is hung with red velvet curtains draped behind the bed. Emerging from a parting in the curtain is the head of a horse with bold, featureless eyes.

The work was probably inspired by the waking dreams experienced by Fuseli and his contemporaries, to whom these experiences were linked with folkloric beliefs such as the Germanic tales about demons and witches that possessed people who slept alone. In these stories, men were visited by horses or hags, giving rise to the terms “hag-riding” and “mare-riding”, and women were believed to engage in sex with the devil.[3] But the etymology of the word “nightmare” does not relate to horses. Rather, the word is derived from mara, a Scandinavian mythological term referring to a spirit sent to torment or suffocate sleepers. The early meaning of “nightmare” included the sleeper’s experience of weight on the chest combined with sleep paralysis, dyspnea, or a feeling of dread.[4]

Fuseli had a broad knowledge of art history, allowing critics to propose sources for the painting’s elements in antique, classical, and Renaissance art. According to the art critic Nicholas Powell, the woman’s pose may derive from the Vatican’s Sleeping Ariadne, and the style of the incubusDemon in male form that seeks to have sexual intercourse with a sleeping woman.Demon in male form that seeks to have sexual intercourse with a sleeping woman. from figures at Selinunte, an archaeological site in Sicily.[3] A source for the woman in Giulio Romano’s The Dream of Hecuba at the Palazzo del Te has also been proposed.[5] Powell links the horse to a woodcut by the German Renaissance artist Hans Baldung or to the marble Horse Tamers on Quirinal Hill, Rome.[2][5] Fuseli may have added the horse as an afterthought, since a preliminary chalk sketch did not include it. Its presence in the painting has been viewed as a visual pun on the word “nightmare” and a self-conscious reference to folklore; the horse undermines the painting’s conceit and contributes to its Gothic tone.[1]


See caption
Thomas Burke’s 1783 engraving
Wikimedia Commons

Now in the possession of the Detroit Institute of Arts, The Nightmare was first shown at the Royal Academy of London in 1782, where it “excited … an uncommon degree of interest”,[6] according to Fuseli’s early biographer and friend John Knowles.

It remained well-known decades later, and Fuseli painted other versions on the same theme. He sold the original for twenty guineas, equivalent to more than £30,000 in terms of average earnings as at 2018,[7] and an inexpensive engraving by Thomas Burke circulated widely from January 1783, earning publisher John Raphael Smith more than £500, equivalent to about £853,000 as at 2021.[6] The engraving was underscored by a short poem by Erasmus Darwin, “Night-Mare”:[8]

So on his Nightmare through the evening fog
Flits the squab Fiend o’er fen, and lake, and bog;
Seeks some love-wilder’d maid with sleep oppress’d,
Alights, and grinning sits upon her breast.


A few years before painting The Nightmare, Fuseli was besotted by Anna Landholdt, the niece of his friend, the Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater. Fuseli wrote of his fantasies to Lavater in 1779: “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 .…”[9]

Fuseli’s marriage proposal met with disapproval from Anna’s father, and his ardour seems to have been unrequited, as she married a family friend soon after. The Nightmare can therefore be seen as a personal portrayal of the erotic aspects of love lost; the art historian H. W. Janson suggests that the sleeping woman represents Anna and that the demon is Fuseli himself. Bolstering this claim is an unfinished portrait of a girl on the back of the painting’s canvas, which may portray Anna. The anthropologist Charles Stewart characterises the sleeping woman as “voluptuous,”[4] and one scholar of the Gothic describes her as lying in a “sexually receptive position.”[10] In Woman as Sex Object (1972), Marcia Allentuck similarly argues that the painting’s intent is to show female orgasm. This is supported by Fuseli’s sexually overt and even pornographic private drawings (e.g. Symplegma of Man with Two Women, 1770–78).[3] Fuseli’s painting has been considered representative of sublimated sexual instincts.[2] Related interpretations of the painting view the incubus as a dream symbol of male libido, with the sexual act represented by the horse’s intrusion through the curtain.[11]