The Nightmare

Since its creation, The Nightmare has remained Fuseli’s best-known work. It was first shown at the Royal Academy of London in 1782, where according to Fuseli’s early biographer John Knowles, it “excited … an uncommon degree of interest.”  Fuseli painted other versions on the same theme and an inexpensive engraving by Thomas Burke circulated widely beginning in January 1783.

The engraving was underscored by a short poem by Erasmus Darwin, "Night-Mare":

So on his Nightmare through the evening fog
Flits the squab Fiend o’er fen, and lake, and bog;
Seeks some love-wilder’d maid with sleep oppress’d,
Alights, and grinning sits upon her breast.

H.P. Lovecraft says of Fuseli, “Pickman’s Model,” 1926:

“Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sorts of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh.”

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Henry Fuseli was a British painter, draughtsman, and writer on art, of German-Swiss origin.