A Pictorial Counterpart to "Gothick" Literature: Fuseli's the Nightmare

By Moffitt, John F. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2002 | Go to article overview

A Pictorial Counterpart to "Gothick" Literature: Fuseli's the Nightmare


Moffitt, John F., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Painted in 1781, then often reproduced, Fuseli's The Nightmare became widely influential. Its real context is the "Demonism" current in contemporary "Gothick" literature, and the key to this is Fuseli's haunting "incubus," first described in the Malleus Maleficarum.

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It has been argued in various monographs (see: Antal; Schiff, 1741-1825; Schiff et al.; Schiff and Viotto; and Tomory) that, among the many artists working in eighteenth-century Britain, perhaps it was Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) who was the most inventive and most formidably endowed intellectually. Clearly, his works, known practically everywhere through engravings, did leave their distinctive mark on artists as diverse as William Blake and Eugene Delacroix. In any event, it is unquestionable that Fuseli's most renowned painting is The Nightmare, about which, accordingly, there is much modern scholarship (Chappell; Janson; Kalman; Moffitt, "Malleus"; Powell; Schneck). Painted in 1781, it quickly became immensely popular after being exhibited at the Royal Academy in London the following year. Fuseli subsequently made other close variations on what proved to be for him a most profitable theme, and engravings copying its distinctive composition (Powell 97-100) further spread the fame-and increasing influence-of Fu seli's The Nightmare throughout continental Europe (77-82).

Specifically citing Fuseli's The Nightmare, literary historian Philip W. Martin places this famous image in its wider cultural context, as establishing a defining motif in the contemporary "Gothick" novel:

The common meaning of nightmare (a frightening dream) is frequently evoked in the use of such dreams in [eighteenth-century] Gothic fiction where they are often prescient. [...] In its sense of a distressing or disturbingly prescient dream, the nightmare is a common device in Gothic fiction, where it also refers to a state between sleeping and waking, or indeed, death and life [and] nightmares have a particular place in what might be called the mythology of the Gothic imagination, for alongside the nightmares in the text, there are those which mark its beginnings. Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), for example, had its origins in a dream the author experienced at Strawberry Hill, his Gothic residence. [...l Mary Shelley, perhaps most intriguingly of all, marks the moment of the monster's creation in Frankenstein (1818) with a nightmare [of] the demon of [Dr.] Frankenstein's creation which is to haunt him: "He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside. [...]I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. [...]I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me."

(qtd. in Mulvey-Roberts 164-65)

As I hardly need to add, the "dream-motif" per se is a standard literary motif, having prestigious classical precedents--Apuleius, Boethius, Cicero, Homer, Lucian, Macrobius, Nonnus, for example--and many adaptations since the Renaissance, many of these belonging to the strictly visual arts (see Gandolfo).

In his Life of Fuseli, John Knowles listed all the pictures by Fuseli exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1774 and 1825 (see Janson 73), and--except for The Nightmare--all these sixty-nine paintings were then known to have had a familiar literary source, including Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Spenser, Milton, and Shakespeare. A modern case study of one of Fuseli's Shakespearean adaptations, his illustrations for A Midsummer Nights Dream, now stresses the painter's emphasis on the supernatural elements, above all, Hexenwesen 'witchcraft,' including an incubus in the context of a Nachtmahr or Traumhexen 'nightmare,' or 'bewitched dreams,' also Damonen 'demons,' Feen 'fairies,' Phantome 'phantoms,' Kobolden 'goblins,' for example (Schiff, Sommernachtstraum). …

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