The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

The Meaning of Dreams

There have been many forms of meaning behind dreams throughout history. The Ancient Egyptians believed dreams were messages from the Gods and many would induce dreams for this reason. In the late nineteenth century, famous psychologist Sigmund Freud reintroduced the significance of interpreting dreams and claimed that they symbolised the fears and desires of the unconscious part of the mind. Dreams are not always positive experiences; nightmares can grip a person with fear in a situation unimaginably terrifying for them. This concept spread to artistic interpretations and gothic horror, with a well-known painting embracing the concept of nightmares by Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781).

Fuseli’s Nightmare

Unlike many paintings that were popular at the time, Fuseli’s The Nightmare details a concept rather than an event or person. It was first presented at the Royal Academy annual exhibition in London in 1782. Biographer John Knowles discussed in Fuseli’s biography in 1831 the original black chalk drawing of this painting, claiming that there was no mare which can be seen in the final version displayed in London in 1782. The presence and originality of the painting would have shocked viewers and critics at the exhibition, and this began its increasing popularity, now considered one of the greatest artistic representations in the genre of gothic horror.

The painting depicts a sleeping woman draped over a bed. She is prone, lying on her back, with a demon ape-like figure known as an incubus placed on top of her body. The woman is bathed in light which the eye is naturally drawn towards, with the creature on top of her sharply contrasting against shadow and darkness. The mare, which was later added in from the original drawing, emerges from the dark background. The etymology of the word “nightmare”, however, does not relate to horses or mares. Rather, the word comes from ‘mara’, which is a Scandinavian mythological term referring to a spirit sent to torment or suffocate sleeper.


It is hard to know for certain what the subject and meaning behind this painting truly was, as Fuseli intended for the painting to intrigue its viewers. Many interpretations have been taken from it and it continues to interest viewers in modern times. Sigmund Freud allegedly was said to have a reproduction of this painting on his wall in his apartment in Vienna, and therefore some have thought it was a lead into the psychoanalytical theories that emerged surrounding dreams in the nineteenth century. One of the most popular poets at the time, Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, was intrigued by the painting and wrote a poem, “Night-Mare”, describing it.

Freud’s theories argued that dreams were signs, in this case fears, of the unconscious part of the mind. Fuseli strategically composed the painting with a stark juxtaposition between the light and the dark of the image, this has been interpreted as considering the dark realms of the unconscious mind. The incubus creature positioned on top of the chest of sleeping woman, has been interpreted by some to encompass the physical effects of nightmares whilst asleep, such as chest pains.

Fuseli intended for his painting to shock viewers and it was this painting than helped the artist begin making a name for himself. This aim was achieved and continues to be interpreted two-hundred years on.

To find out more about the history of dreams listen to our podcast!

By Amy Stokes.

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