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The Nightmare 1781 Analysis Essay

Gothic Nightmares explores the work of Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) and William Blake (1757–1827) in the context of the Gothic – the taste for fantastic and supernatural themes which dominated British culture from around 1770 to 1830. Featuring over 120 works by these artists and their contemporaries, the exhibition creates a vivid image of a period of cultural turmoil and daring artistic invention.

The central exhibit is Henry Fuseli’s famous The Nightmare 1781. Ever since it was first exhibited to the public in 1782, this picture has been an icon of horror. Showing a woman supine in her boudoir, oppressed by a foul imp while a ferocious-looking horse glares on, the painting draws on folklore and popular culture, medicine, concepts of imagination, and classical art to create a new kind of highly charged horror image. This is the most extensive display of Fuseli’s art seen in Britain since 1975 and includes around sixty of his most important canvases and drawings including Titania and Bottom c1790, The Three Witches 1783 and The Shepherd’s Dream.

A selection of works by Fuseli’s contemporaries and followers, dealing with themes of fantasy, horror and perverse sexuality, complement his work. This includes over twenty-five exceptional watercolours and paintings by the visionary artist William Blake, among which will be The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, The House of Death c.1795; his vampire-like Ghost of a Flea, The Whirlwind: Ezekial’s Vision c.1803–5; The Witch of Endor Raising the Spirit of Samuel 1783 and Death on a Pale Horse c.1800.

The exhibition is further enriched with works on Gothic and fantastic themes by, among others, Joseph Wright of Derby, George Romney, James Barry and Maria Cosway, John Flaxman and Theodore von Holst, and features a large group of caricatures by James Gillray, whose satirical works incorporate some of the most inventive cosmic and fantastic imagery of the era. A special section of the exhibition presents a recreation of a ‘Phantasmagoria’ show – a kind of animated slideshow with sound effects and shocking images – giving visitors to the exhibition a chance to experience at first hand the same chills and thrills as their forebears in the 1800s.

As a literary phenomenon, the Gothic has had an enduring influence. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and the novels of Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, William Beckford and Ann Radcliffe are still widely read. Modern Gothic novelists including Angela Carter, Patrick McGrath and Toni Morrison are highly regarded, and the Gothic continues to influence film and TV – from classics like Nosferatu (1922) through to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2002) – and visual artists like Glenn Brown and the Chapman brothers. This exhibition is the first to explore the roots of this phenomenon in the visual arts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

The exhibition is curated by Martin Myrone and accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring essays by Professor Sir Christopher Frayling on The Nightmare and the heritage of horror, and Professor Marina Warner on Fuseli’s fairies.

The Nightmare was one of the first paintings to depict an idea rather than an event, a story or a person. Indeed, it may even be a complicated visual pun on the word "nightmare". Thus, the canvas shows a sleeping woman - draped helplessly over the end of her bed - as well as the content of her "nightmare" - namely, an ape-like incubus squatting on top of her. In addition, the image of a horse protruding from the shadows may illustrate a second meaning of the picture's title - "night-mare". Thirdly, the demon may be intended to represent a "mara" - that is, a spirit sent to torment and/or suffocate innocent sleepers. The point is, the word "nightmare" derives from "mara" the Old English word for "incubus". [Source: Concise Oxford English Dictionary.]

However, 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.

We do know that Fuseli used 'sleep' and 'dreams' as regular themes in his paintings and pen-and-ink drawings. One of his earliest pictures is Joseph interpreting the Dreams of the Pharaoh's Baker and Butler (1768, Private Collection), and others included The Shepherd's Dream (1798, Tate Collection) and Richard III Visited by Ghosts (1798, drawing, British Museum).

Fuseli's choice and style of imagery was influenced by the art of classical antiquity (incubus, horse), the Italian Renaissance (dreaming woman), and the German Renaissance (horse), while his 18th century colour palette - the brilliance of the shroud-like white against the sombre reds, yellows and ochres of the other elements - is reminiscent of Titian and Venetian Colour Painting (1500-76). But its powerful mixture of horror, sexuality, and surrealism is entirely down to Fuseli himself.

English Romanticism

Fuseli was painting during the height of the so-called "Age of Reason", at a time when many if not most people had stopped believing in witches and other darker, irrational forces. And yet he, and several other painters in England, used these supernatural themes in many of their Romantic paintings and drawings. Some of the best known of these Romantic works include:

The Three Witches (1768) by John Runciman.
National Gallery of Scotland.
Samuel Appearing to Saul with the Witch of Endor (1777) by Fuseli.
Kunsthaus, Zurich.
The Ghost of Clytemnestra Awakening the Furies (1781) by John Downman.
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.
The Mandrake: A Charm (1785) by Fuseli.
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.
Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head (1794) by Fuseli.
Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC.
The Night of Enitharmon's Joy (Hecate) (1795) by William Blake.
Private Collection.
The Witch and The Mandrake (1812) by Fuseli.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Interpretation of Other 18th-Century Paintings

• Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) by Jean-Antoine Watteau.
Louvre, Paris; Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

• Wurzburg Residence Frescoes (1750-3) by Tiepolo.
Wurzburg Palace.

• The Swing (L'Escarpolette) (1767) by Jean-Honore Fragonard.
Wallace Collection, London.

• An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby.
National Gallery, London.

• Oath of the Horatii (1785) by Jacques-Louis David.
Louvre Museum, Paris.

• The Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David.
Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels.

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