The Nightmare

Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare, oil on canvas, 755×65 mm, 1790 (Frankfurt am Main, Goethemuseum); Photo credit: Snark/Art Resource, NY


Henry Fuseli was a Swiss-born painter and writer. Fuseli was born in Zurich into the intellectual household of his father, a successful portrait painter. The Nightmare (1781; Detroit, Inst. of Art), exhibited in 1782, an archetypal image of horror, ensured his fame as an imaginative and original painter.

Fuseli’s work is unique in English painting for its compositional drama, psychological intensity, and implicit eroticism. Almost all his works, whether heroic like The Vision of the Deluge (1796-1800; Winterthur, Kunstmus) or poetic, Titania and Bottom (1780-90; London, Tate), contain undertones of cruelty and sexual subjugation which may partly explain Victorian neglect and 20th-century rediscovery (David Rodgers). 

The Nightmare and the Nineteenth Century

Because of its popularity Fuseli reproduced the image of The Nightmare a number of different ways. The most common images associated with the text are the versions in which a demon or incubus is posed in a rigid sitting position over the abdomen of a pale, supine, lifeless female figure. The incubus and the woman form the visual center of the image, and there is often a grotesque equine peeking through a curtain in the background. The most direct correlations between the image and the text are seen in the language of Elizabeth’s murder scene:

She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair.

I happened to look up. The windows of the room had before been darkened…the shutters had been thrown back; and, with a sensation of horror not to be described, I saw at the open window a figure the most hideous and abhorred. A grin was on the face of the monster; he seemed to jeer, and with his fiendish finger he pointed towards the corpse of my wife.  (Shelley 154)

Thus it can be seen the correlation between the imagery of the painting and the language of the text. The image of The Nightmare, however, holds significance in the shaping of Frankenstein far beyond the obvious connections to the above scene. In the nineteenth century, literary reception is often influenced by painting; or the other way around: the perception of artistic imagery is influenced by literature—the distinction between the two artistic forms being intentionally obfuscated by artists of both media (Andres 257-258). Sophia Andres calls this phenomenon “the intersection between painting and narrative” (259). Examining the pervasiveness of The Nightmare in the social and political contexts of Shelley’s life can expose routes by which the painting affected the psyche of Shelley and coincidentally the text of Frankenstein

The Nightmare and Frankenstein

Fuseli was part of the circle to which Shelley’s parents—William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft—belonged. There is evidence of a, if not sexual, certainly platonic relationship between Fuseli and Wollstonecraft. Love letters are documented between the two. At some point in Shelley’s life she worked with Godwin to retrieve those love letters written from Wollstonecraft to Fuseli in order to “rehabilitate her mother’s reputation” (Ward 22). Fuseli’s reputation was that of a philander, a radical, depraved. After their deaths, the reputations of Shelley’s parents suffered from Fuseli’s scandalous life and his documented connections to the family. The Nightmare was used as a political device and affront to their—especially Godwin’s—radical political ideologies. Shelley was not only familiar with the artist due to the “labyrinthine interweaving of lives, texts, and images” through both her own circle and that of her parents’, but the specific image of The Nightmare held “iconic significance in her life” (Ward 21-22).

Nightmare achieved success as a product of parody as early as 1816, “and its parodic uses allude to problems central to Mary Shelley’s life” (Ward 24). An early parody appears in a 1799 cartoon depicting the powerful political figure—Whig leader Charles James Fox—in bed with a “French Jacobin monster riding a horse across his chest.” The parody lies in the catalyst of Fox’s nightmare: his “bedtime reading,” which is Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. The book lies on the floor in the actual cartoon. The implication is that Godwin’s writing was a “monster that had to be stamped out.” Conservative responses to Godwin’s radicalism were often depicted by images of monsters and the grotesque (Ward 27). Some Shelley scholars align these early rejections and parodies of her father’s politics to Shelley’s eventual conservative leanings (relative to her radical upbringing at least). These appear in Frankenstein as parody themselves: Lee Sterrenburg writes that “Shelley parodies…heroic hopes in the quest of Victor Frankenstein…utopianism is parodied through Victor Frankenstein’s self-centered creation of a new Adam of ‘gigantic stature’” (qtd. in Ward 28). The legacy of The Nightmare was its own sort of monster for Shelley, fostering an atmosphere of hostility toward the circumstances of her upbringing. The image has potentially manifested in Shelley some of the critical aspects of the text’s interpretations, the above example being that of Victor’s unyielding, unreasonable ambition, which is a theme throughout the text and a highly problematic character flaw according to Shelley.

The Nightmare in historical documents and contexts fits the area that Andres explores: the space in history where social, artistic, and biographical narratives meet and intersect. This approach can help frame some of Frankenstein’s textual claims within Shelley’s psyche in order to explicate critical receptions of the text. The narrative intersection of The Nightmare’s afterlife and Shelley’s own life is complex. Some of it is lost in conjecture and history, but the parallels exist. There is much more space for readings and more room for connections to be made between texts and an image that would have impacted an impressionable Shelley, who eventually “sides with the parody of The Nightmare which mocked her father as it had helped to destroy her mother” (Ward 29).

Works Cited

Andres, Sophia. "Narrative Challenges to Visual, Gendered Boundaries; Mary Shelley and Henry Fuseli." Journal            of Narrative Theory. Vol. 31 No. 3 (Fall, 2001). pp 257-282. Web.

Rodgers, David. "Henry Fuseli." The Oxford Companion to Western Art. 2007 Oxford Art Online. Oxford University            Press, Web. 27 September 2013.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.

Ward, Maryanne C. "A Painting of the Unspeakable: Henry Fuseli's 'The Nightmare' and the creatio of Mary                   Shelley's 'Frankenstein'." The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. Vol. 33. No. 1 (Winter,               2000), pp. 20-31. Web.