“The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli is a striking painting in the Romantic Era that, at the time, awe-struck the population. Viewers of this work were left terrified. The incubus’ eyes that could almost burn through their own, was engrained in their minds far after they left its canvas. And though just the appearance of such a creature was terrifying enough, it was the underlying, mysterious message that heightened such fears. In an era where women were not only forced into submission (despite their increasing equality[?]), but extremely sexualized through any and all forms of media, it is hard to overlook the terrifying themes that Fuseli portrays through gender stereotypes.
To begin, before one can even cross eyes with the chilling creatures, they are immediately drawn to the woman flung across and hanging off the side of the bed. However, it is not her face that is the brightest focal point in the painting – it is her breasts.
The viewer can be said to almost be made to look at the body in sections, due to the way that Fuseli casts the light on the woman. And though she is supposedly having a nightmare, she is delicately draped across the bed, her leg’s shaped in a way almost resembling that of a mermaid’s: delicate and beautiful, emphasizing her curves. Though it can be said that the erotic portrayal of the woman (and even the incubus) could be a way to pull the viewer in as a way of appeal(?) regardless of gender, it is still a fetishization of women regardless.
They were not allowed to be portrayed the same way a man would in this situation – destressed, sweaty, and truly terrified. Instead, as shown above, they must still be attractive for the viewer to see, beautiful and gentle on the eyes.
In fact, though there was a rising movement in woman’s rights that greatly shifted the perception of gender roles in the romantic era, many still opposed such virtues and upheld the sexist, traditional views – including Henry Fuseli. If one were to look through the series of his illustrations, they would see them “…employ didactic satire to critique female cunning and unnecessary ornamentation, evidence that the relationship between femininity and corruption was of interest to the artist prior to the nineteenth century.” He truly believed that society was falling to that of an irreversible decline – and woman were to blame. Fuseli even conveys emphasis that “…woman do not consider their subordinate position to men and aspire to be above themselves.” Therefore, we can note that Fuseli was not only a sexist, but also greatly immortalized his misogynistic views through his art.
Moreover, if we take an even closer look at not only the symbolism portrayed in this painting, but Fuseli’s life/lifetime as well, we can uncover rather truly concerning sexism. To begin, the creature that is sitting upon the bust of the woman is that of “…an incubus, a type of spirit said to lie atop people in their sleep or even to have sexual intercourse with sleeping women.” Though this may not need to be emphasized, but still worth noting, people can not consent to sex while unconscious – thus such depiction would be one of molestation or rape.
During this era, rape was not only a widely shared societal taboo, but it was a medical and political one as well. Women had to not only jump through hurdles to prove the fact that they were raped, but they also had to debate with actual doctors and courtrooms that it was not impossible. One of the most widespread and practitioner-used books, Elements of Medical Jurisprudence by Samuel Farr, was used for doctors to testify the supposed illegitimate testimonies of woman rape victims. It not only stated the many ways that a woman’s vagina must look like to prove that she was indeed raped, but also how she may actually had enjoyed the “intercourse” if she fell pregnant as rape through pregnancy was not possible. Consequentially, due to this, it was also noted that they must have wanted it “for a woman always possesses sufficient power, by the drawing back of her limbs, and the force of her hands, to prevent the insertion of the penis into her body.”
Thus, in an era where not only marital rape is deemed as impossible, but rape in general – it would not be surprising to liken this painting to one of Fuseli’s fantasies. As a matter of fact, it is widely known that his own work is a repertoire of just that. It is said that the “…ideas distilled into his art are the emotional experiences which haunted him, the feelings of physical passion, dreams, fear, human frailty, [and] nameless desires.” Thus, if we take this into account (specifically narrowed down to nameless desires), it is rather alarming, yet believable that a wide-spread theory is that Fuseli symbolizes the incubus as himself (even the creature’s facial features look to be similar to that of his own) and the woman to be one that he had fancied in his past that rejected him, Anna Landholt. “This painting, in its many forms, is a sublimation of the artist’s erotic passion for [her], a work of supernatural retribution to punish her for not requiting his love.” And to further cement such belief, Fuseli even includes a portrait of a woman on the back of The Nightmare – the Anna Landholt. Thus, a cementing reminder that a woman is not that of her own anatomy and being, but of that of men.
In conclusion, though the Romantic Era was that of a notably remarkable period for woman’s rights, it still had cementing gender stereotypes. Such stereotypes were immensely noted in Henry Fuseli’s works – specifically The Nightmare. And while even courtrooms shared his notions, Fuseli emphasized and even mocked the fragility of woman through his media. Thus, it is important to look beyond what is merely the surface of a painting as it’s hidden symbolism can be a truly terrifying statement.