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The Nightmare--Henry Fuseli
Artist: Henry Fuseli
Country of Origin: London, England
Cultural/Ethnic Affiliation: Swiss
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 40 in x 50 in (101.6 cm x 127 cm)
Museum/Collection: Detroit Institute of Arts
Accession Number: 55.5.A
Current Location: Detroit Institute of Arts
Provenance: Royal Academy of London, Detroit Institute of Arts
Artist Henry Fuseli was born in Zürich, Switzerland on February 7, 1741. Following his father's wishes, Fuseli planned to devote his life to the church until he met Sir Joshua Reynolds, who encouraged Fuseli to pursue a professional career in art. After spending nearly a decade in Italy studying, he moved to London, England in 1779 where he would spend the rest of his life. It was here that he was quickly accepted into an intellectual group of liberal writers and artists, including Mary Wollstonecraft. Their goal was to change the subjects of art and literature from those of war to those pertaining to the human mind. It was at this point in his life that Fuseli painted
With the exception of a few minor pitfalls, Fuseli continued with his artistic career successfully until his death in April of 1825.
This particular version of
the first of several
is an oil painting on canvas by Henry Fuseli. Painted in the Gothic/Romantic style, it depicts a young woman in the anguish of a bad dream. Fuseli created at least three other versions illustrating the same dark theme, however this has come to be the most well-known. The size of this piece is fairly large, standing three-and-a-half feet tall and just over four feet wide. The color palette consists mostly of dark colors
black, deep grays, shades of brown, and blood red
with the exception of the young woman and the bed which she is laying upon, which are made up of more heavenly whites and gold tones. Fuseli's chiaroscuro style in addition to the centralized contrast between light and dark give the scene an eerie glow. Dripping with scandalous sexuality and cloaked in mystery,
is undoubtedly Swiss artist Henry Fuseli's most famous
and most controversial—painting.
Formal and Contextual Analysis
It has been hypothesized by many that Fuseli's reason for painting
—as well as its other versions—was due to a rejected marriage proposal. While traveling through Europe, Fuseli met and fell in love with Anna Landholdt. Landholdt's father forbade the marriage of his daughter to Fuseli; she promptly married another. Art historian H. W. Janson proposed that Fuseli's anger led him to depict Miss Landholdt in anguish as he, the incubus, poisoned her sleep.
received at its unveiling in 1782 at the Royal Academy of London consisted almost entirely of shock and disapproval. It reeked of demonic and adulterous sexuality even though the schene did not illustrate any forthright acts of eroticism.
Countless interpretations have been made as to what each component of the painting may mean. The most prominent is the aforementioned proposal that the woman is Miss Anna Landholdt and the incubus is Fuseli himself. Regardless of who the woman is, the position not only screams passive vulnerability, it is one which was once thought to induce nightmares, or "old hag" experiences. Shrouded in white—the color that has always represented and epitomized all that is good and pure—she seems to give off a heavenly glow. Behind her is draped a blood-red curtain, a color that often symbolizes passion and lust. This creates a high contrast from that of the woman's light-colored figure, which intensifies her eminent glow. It also creates a symbolic contrast between the woman's innocence and the evil that surrounds her.
Perched on the woman's breast is the demonic incubus. Though he does not seem to be engaging in any evil deeds, his facial expression openly implies his annoyance with the viewer(s) for interrupting his scheme. The word
itself has several meanings and pictorially may symbolize any, if not all, of these definitions. Firstly, it is defined as "an imaginary demon or evil spirit supposed to descend upon sleeping persons, especially one fabled to have sexual intercourse with women during their sleep." This is the most obvious of the interpretations, epecially to those of the Fuseli-Landholdt theory. Secondly, an incubus can be "something that weighs upon or oppresses one like a nightmare." Fuseli illustrates this definition both literally and figuratively, since the incubus is sitting atop the chest of the woman as well as weighing upon her dreams. Lastly, the word
is synonymous with 'nightmare,' tying directly back into both the title and theme of the painting.
Emerging from the background is the wild, obtrusive horse bursting through the curtains, eyes bulging and mouth open; one can almost hear its possessed and rabid neighing. Its form is blurred as though in motion, while its mane swirls around its head in an unruly manner. At first glance, it may seem out of place symbolically, but contrary to this opinion, it is indeed the third component of Fuseli's nightmarish triangle. The most obvious link has to do with the semantics of the word
, a female horse, from night
. The origins of the word
are derived from the Old English word
, which referred to a goblin or incubus. Thus, the horse and the incubus share similar names. One theory also suggests that the incubus traveled at night on a wild mare, ergo
Regardless of his intent, Fuseli successfully managed to capture the essence of a nightmare and the opression each one is capable of causing. No one is immune to the occasional bad dream which makes
a timeless and haunting image that leaves a lasting impression on any who gaze upon it.
Cheyne, A. (n.d.),
Fuseli: The Nightmare (circa 1782)
, viewed June 7, 2009, from
the University of Waterloo Psychology, Culture, & Evolution Website:
Detroit Institute of Arts, The, (2004),
, viewed June 7, 2009, from
the Detroit Institute of Arts Website:
Henry Fuseli, (2009), viewed July 5, 2009 from Wikipedia:
Incubus, (2009), viewed June 7, 2009, from Dictionary.com:
Lienhard, J.H., (1997),
No. 462: Fuseli's Nightmare
, viewed June 7, 2009, from
Engines of our Ingenuity Website:
Lubbock, T. (2006), Fuseli, Henry: The Nightmare (1781), viewed June 7, 2009,
Nightmare, The, (2009), viewed June 7, 2009, from Wikipedia:
What is the Origin of the Word Nightmare?
, (2009), viewed July 5, 2009, from WikiAnswers:
LESSON PLAN (NIU FORMAT)
Identifying The Elements and Principles of Art
Analyze and evaluate the effective use of elements, principles and expressive qualities in visual arts.
After looking at Henry Fuseli’s
, students will effectively demonstrate their knowledge of the elements and principles of art by participating in an online critique using Blogspot.com.
Students will be able to correctly describe the work in terms related to the elements and principles of art.
- Student demonstrated knowledge of elements and principles by responding to each blog post with evidence from art to support their answers.
- Student understood concept of elements and principles but struggled with evidence and support from artwork.
1 - Student lack understanding of elements and principles did not supply evidence and support from artwork.
Instruct students to visit Blogspot.com and set up an account.
Discuss elements and principles to refresh students before they begin.
Development: 1-2 hrs
Instruct them to use their knowledge and address the posts with references to the artwork.
Instruct students to comment on classmates responses.
Conclusion: 20 mins
Add assessment comments once students have completed assignment.
Hold class discussion to go over questions and answers from all students.
Go to website, set up account and explore the blog.
Listen carefully and ask any questions if unsure of elements and principles.
Study image and brainstrom with detailed examples of the elements and principles of art.
Responds to other students with evidence from image to support.
Listen carefully and ask questions if needed pertaining to the assignment.
Teaching Resources Needed to Support the Lesson
Note: All background information, theory content, and handouts should be listed below and included as attachments.
Teacher needs to have prior knowledge of the art work displayed (research?) and set up the blog space before the lesson
Art Materials Necessary for the Lesson:
Computer, projector, some type of pointer or cursor to highlight the elements seen in the artwork, internet connection
Critical Comments and Reflections:
(Problems, successes, and what to think about for next lesson)
I think teachartwiki is a good resource to get feedback on individual lesson plans. The lesson went well. The students already had knowledge of the elements/principles and how to use a blog. For the next lesson I would have more conversation with students and among students. Rather than being behind them talking, I would be infront discussing with them examples of the elements and principles in other artworks.
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