How does this painting affect you?


I’m sure many have seen this 1781 painting, “The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli. I encountered it in Art school a long time ago, and needless to say, it is unforgettable. Disturbingly unforgettable.

It tells a story of unrequited passion. Henry Fuseli had fallen madly in love (lust?) with a woman by the name of Anna Landholdt who is supposedly the woman in the painting, while the demon represents Fuseli himself.  He had written the following about his feelings for Anna:

“Last night I had her in bed with me—tossed my bedclothes hugger-mugger—wound my hot and tight-clasped hands about her—fused her body and soul together with my own—poured into her my spirit, breath and strength. Anyone who touches her now commits adultery and incest! She is mine, and I am hers. And have her I will.…”
(Ward, Maryanne C. “A Painting of the Unspeakable: Henry Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’ and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein'”)

Yes, this painting supposedly inspired Mary Shelley to write the scene in which the wife of Dr. Frankenstein was found dead: “She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by hair.”

And it inspired the writing of Edgar Allan Poe in “The Fall of the House of Usher”: “irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm”.

The woman’s father refused to give his approval for the union and married his daughter off to someone else. Goodness, Mr. Fuseli. No wonder her father refused your proposal. Can such devouring passion be good for anyone? It speaks to me of a highly disturbed personality, confirmed by the painting. Would anyone want their child to marry an individual who wrote and painted like this? I wouldn’t. Of course if my child made that decision herself, or himself since I have a son, my opinions would be irrelevant. Too bad for us parents who live in the 21st century and can’t shackle our children to our way of thinking! Too bad for us but not for them I suppose!!! And would we really want to in the end?

Why is this painting so disturbing? I love Gothic literature like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, but this is different. I think it evokes a fear of literal monsters, not the human kind, which puts it in the realm of fantasy. Or does it? People like to read about monsters: dinosaurs, giants, ogres, etc. Is it because these things do not really exist, and we are safe in the fear evoked by these stories because they could never really take place? Or is it because in some primal way these monsters are familiar? Yikes, going into forbidden territory here. Sure, they don’t look like us humans…on the outside anyway. But might they embody thoughts that we have all had, and suppressed? Nightmares that we put aside so we can function in our daily lives? Thoughts that we identify in other people and shudder to think they might exist in our minds?

I invite you to share your thoughts on this. How does this painting affect you? Why do people enjoy reading about monsters, watching monster movies? Those of us that do anyway. And they don’t have to be ogres and giants; think Marvel’s Apocalypse, Venom, Mystique from X-Men, DC’s Poison Ivy. Think Aliens, King Kong, oh and all the vampires and werewolves out there! Why are we so fascinated by monsters?



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