Skip to main content

Henry Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare, is a complex piece of art that portrays an element of fear in helplessness and impotency. Emitting dark and irrational forces, this painting floods viewers with questions on posed themes, painter’s intent, and subliminal messages. The wringer that infiltrated my particular exploration of The Nightmare was the role of the apelike figure in relation to the woman’s defenselessness. In the visual analyzation to be presented, I hope to uncover the function of this animal and its association with the woman’s “nightmare.”

Upon first glance of this painting, we see a woman – covered in an airy, white dress – stretched across a bed, with her arms, neck, and head hanging off the edge of the mattress. The woman’s eyes are closed – indicating that she is asleep – while her arms are dangling off of the bed in a rather unnatural and seemingly uncomfortable way. Atop of this woman’s chest is an ambiguous animal, though its features distinctively belong to an anthropoid. The apelike figure sits crouched with its eyes wide open – expressly contrasting the sleeping woman – and a dissatisfied smirk displayed across its face. In the shadowy background is a horse with its pupil-less eyes glowing and its nostrils flared. A certain aspect of the apelike figure’s depiction produces an alive and animate representation, but the horse resembles a statue and does not seem to possess life-like qualities. There is no compellingly concrete evidence, however, that either supports or refutes any of these animals being neither alive nor inanimate.


After noting what we literally see in the painting, it is time to connect these observations with any feelings and thoughts they generate and what these perceptions imply. While the woman is sleeping, it is very likely that she is experiencing horridness that is caused, or at least heightened, by the apelike figure. The animal could, uncomplicatedly, be inducing a physical pain onto the woman in the form of chest pressure, as it is a heavy figure sitting on the woman. Adding more substance to this same hypothesis, the apelike figure could represent any demons or general negativity that is causing the woman to be in a distressing state (as reflected in her awkward position). An applicable example is the concept of male dominance. The woman’s femininity is highlighted by her fully covering, white dress (women were generally not allowed to wear revealing clothing and white is typically seen as a symbol of purity). The gown color strongly hints towards chastity, as brides traditionally wear white to symbolize virginity. This representation can be seen as a depiction of sexuality, and even rape. The virginal woman lies prone while animals dominate her. Furthermore, the animal purposefully simulates male-like characteristics. Keeping in mind that this piece was painted in 1781 when women were virtually powerless, it is tempting to see the figure as an embodiment of the difficulties and dependency that men imposed on women during this era. This could be understood as a specific occurrence, for instance – an abusive husband, or a systematic circumstance, with the impotency floating in society ultimately defeating the sleeping woman. The woman’s helplessness conveyed in multiple ways throughout the painting – her gown, the apelike figure, her bodily position – all transmit a tone of fear. The subject is in a constant state of suffering, stuck in a nightmare.

The Universal Etymological English Dictionary, first published in 1721, defines a nightmare as a “disease when a man in his sleep supposes he has a great weight laying upon him.” This denotation of the word quite literally corresponds with the painting. Understanding that the painting was created in the 18th century when this definition was society’s standard, Fuseli’s chosen title is completely appreciated. Aligning with this historical definition, is the classical importance of the apelike figure. Officially called an incubus, this male form demon was presumed to lie upon women in order to engage in sexual activities with them. This mythological tradition was universally accepted by society, as there were far too many alleged attacks to deny its existence. The incubus attacked women while they sleep. The belief of this demon has carried over into the present; Swedish folklore called the incubus a mara, the origination of the current painting title, The Nightmare.

Women are historically portrayed in media as passive characters; they often had acts done to them, instead of for them. Women were voiceless members of their community, especially in the 18th century. Their actions were decided under the authority of men, their presumed superiors. Certainly, these conditions do not continue to exist in this amplified extent. With the rise of the feminism movement, many began to recognize and appreciate the equality of men and women. Throughout both societal extremes, women have consistently had their femininity on display. Art forms frequently feel a need to emphasize a woman’s distinguishing characteristics – their hair is long, their skirts are short, or their dresses are white. The inferiority of women contributes to the fact that women’s bodies are historically and presently overlooked in medicine. As reported by Schreyer, most medical research is done on men; this discrepancy presents a huge problem. Men and women experience diseases, symptoms and pain differently and in order to avoid misdiagnoses and unsettled treatment plans, it is important to fully understand both anatomies by devoting an equal amount of time and resources.

It is fairly clear that the woman is portrayed in a dark and dramatic manner. The single light source entering in from the right illuminates only the woman and incubus. The created contrast of light and shadow magnifies the gloomy realms of the woman’s unconscious. The red drapery present at the edge of the bed falls in a way that mimics a river of blood, adding ghastly tones to the already present dark theme. While the source of “the nightmare” is not explicit, it is extremely suggestive that the incubus has a crucial position as a source of distress to the woman. The Nightmare has earned its prominence due to its powerful blend of terror, social roles, and darkness.


Ashley Ruhashya is a sophomore majoring in Biology with minors in Literature, Medicine, and Culture and Chemistry.

Comments are closed.