Johann Heinrich Füssli - The Nightmare

by Alexandra Tuschka


The first glance at Füssli's famous painting leaves the modern viewer astonished. A blonde beauty lies motionless on the bed in a gesture of absolute devotion. In contrast to the limp upper body, the right leg is still erect. The two bare feet are presented to the viewer on the right. Admittedly, the naked neck, the defenselessness of the woman and her open posture also serves a male fantasy. The little devil-like creature on the woman's belly, on the other hand, laughs maliciously down at her and seems to have nothing good in mind. On top of all this, a horse seized by madness has found its way into the picture and is pushing its head through the heavy curtains into the center of the picture. Thus, the front scene is also deprived of any possible intimacy. The strong contrasts of light and dark used by the artist are also particularly evident here. The horse - matching the light coat - also has white eyeballs, its mane appears permeable and reminiscent of smoke. On the right of the picture on a small table are a few contemporary objects such as a mirror, an ampoule and a book. What on earth is going on here?

We can be glad that the painting title of the "Nachtmahr" brings us a little closer to the whimsical horned creature. This creature comes from Germanic mythology and was responsible for people's nightmares. For this purpose, it sat on the chest of the sleeping person and thus also provoked a feeling of pressure in this area. The Nachtmahr was usually on a horse, and also accompanies it in all three versions of the theme at Füssli. An obsolete name of the creature is "Incubus"; however, he was sometimes also called the "Night Vale", in which case the association of the word with "nightmare" becomes clear.


What made the painting so famous in its time was the fact that an idea was expressed here. At that time, concrete pictorial themes from history painting, biblical themes or those from mythology were highly regarded, and allegories were also recognized; however, this mixture of fantasy, eroticism, folk beliefs and influences from mythologies was something brand new. For this reason, the work also caused a bright sensation at the Royal Academy's annual exhibition in 1782, where it was shown publicly for the first time. On the one hand, the subtly erotic content and creepy figures made viewers uncomfortable; on the other hand, the pictorial theme was highly creative and a novelty. In this picture two dimensions blur: Dream and reality. On the one hand we see the woman sleeping and dreaming, on the other hand the dream creatures take real shape.


What motivated Füssli to create this work? "The wild swiss," as he was called in society, was a maladjusted spirit. Trained as a pastor, he had to go out of the country because of a pamphlet against a bailiff. During his trip to Europe, he also studied the old masters in Italy. There he also fell in love with Anna Landholdt, who is possibly also to be seen on the unfinished portrait on the back of the canvas. Some art historians assume that the unrequited love for the girl is subtly channeled here. He described in a letter - preserved to this day - "wet dreams" with this girl; however, his marriage proposal was unsuccessful. Anna soon married a friend of the family. If one follows this interpretation of H. W. Janson, the demon represents Füssli himself. However, the theme of "dream" and "sleep" is often found in Füssli's ouevre and seems to refer not only to women. Nevertheless, this work gave its name to a subsection of an entire epoch: black romanticism.


Johann Heinrich Füssli - The Nightmare

Oil on wood, 1790, 77 x 64 cm, private collection, Goethehaus, Frankfurt a. M.