- Henry Fuseli
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Henry Fuseli

As painters, we've all, at one time or another, become involved in a work that turned out to be a nightmare. Whatever the case, hopefully it was something we could put behind us at the end of the day and not have plagued us in our sleep as a true nightmare. Of course dreams and nightmares have been the subject of some painters' work, principally the Surrealists. However, about a 150 years before Salvador Dali ever painted the first of his hated bugs, or Rene Magritte ever logged the first steam engine out of his fireplace, an English artist probed "his worst nightmare" so to speak, to a degree rivalling anything ever conjured up by the Surrealists.

John Henry Fuseli was a highly educated Swiss minister, not a painter when he came to London in 1764 at the age of 23. Recognised as one of the city's intellectual leaders, he twice went to Italy where he studied the classics and absorbed the wealth of knowledge the Italian Renaissance had to offer. Returning to London, he determined to make a career for himself as a painter, and although heavily influenced by Michelangelo, he seems to have developed something of a style of his own, illustrating literary works, Norse myths, Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. However his most expressive work seems to have come from his own psyche as in his The Nightmare, painted in 1781.

In it Fuseli depicts a languidly recumbent female figure clad in a sleeping gown upon whom sits an ugly, hairy creature known as an incubus, a folklore demon believed to rape women in their sleep. Entered into the 1780 Royal Academy exhibition, the painting tended to evoke nightmares for the London critics as well. One wrote that it "...ought to be destroyed", while Horace Walpole called it "...shockingly mad, mad, mad, madder than ever." Openly erotic, the painting, nonetheless was repeated in no less than six different versions. Each of them sold practically before the paint was dry. Commercial engravers loved it, and apparently so did the public. Print reproductions of it abounded. A hundred years later, one of them ended up framed and hanging in the office of Austrian psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud.

contributed by Lane, Jim

13 August 1998

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