As an artist, we might never really know the full effects of the fruit of our imagination. Creative endeavors are like marriages, there can be mixed results. Then again, there are those situations that turn more complex than we could ever imagine.

If you could stroll through the halls of the 1782 exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art, none of it might strike you as particularly earth turning. Portraits, landscapes, historical scenes, more portraits — but wait, what’s this?

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, this is unusual. It’s a bit shocking actually, and slightly erotic. But keep that under your hat will you, this place is full of art snobs above that kind of thing. It would please the artist, Henry Fuseli, to know it has affected you, however. After all, he painted The Nightmare just for this purpose.

Psychoanalysis Anyone?

Determined to make a name for himself, Fuseli understood shock and awe sells, and he was right. His painting was hugely successful. Lithographs were made in order to have cheap copies available for the average Joe wanting to hang it in his living room. Over the years it was reworked by other artists and even reused as political satire.

Besides being a painter, Fuseli was also an accomplished intellectual. In fact, he moved in a circle of friends that included botanist, physicians, poets, and artist. What he and his friends discussed over scotch and soda surely found its way into his painting. Maybe that’s why Freud loved it so much. Look at the thing after all — there’s a nearly naked woman with an ape-like ogre sitting on her chest. It’s like a winning lottery ticket for a psychoanalyst. Most people interpret the ape as an Incubus, a male demon said to have sex with sleeping females. Not a good thing to happen repeatedly because the side effects of such encounters are a decline in physical and mental health and possibly even death.

The Incubus certainly wasn’t unique to Fuseli’s time, it goes back as far as Mesopotamia. In fact, Gilgamesh’s dad was said to be an incubus named Lilu. Even Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church, talked about these fellows saying there were too many attacks to deny them, although you have to wonder how many offspring of adulterous affairs were conveniently blamed on the Incubus. “Honest honey, it wasn’t Bob — it was an incubus!”

Fuseli loved Shakespear calling him “The supreme master of passions.” Here he depicts Titania and Bottom from a Midsummer Night’s Dream (Wikimedia Commons) 

Lust is in the Air

There’s another theory historians hold, however, in which the Incubus is Fuseli himself. He was madly in love with the soon-to-be-married Anna Landolt who didn’t give a hoot about him. He couldn’t get her off his mind, however, and then he had a dream:

“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 comments adultery and incest! She is mine and I am hers. And have her I will”

Add to that he drew a portrait of her on the back of the canvas and the odds are looking pretty good that Fuseli, as the incubus, was hoping to forestall any wedding night activities for his beloved.

Boy that Henry, he was kinda an erotic guy wasn’t he? In fact, it was known that he enjoyed talking and writing about sex so it’s no surprise his paintings took on such an erotic nature. Maybe that’s why he got the attention of another woman who traveled in his circle of friends. A writer named Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary fell for his fiery eyes, thick Swiss accent and sexually arousing conversation. So what if he was married? After all, Mary claimed he was just a friend. I guess she wrote multiple letters a day to all her acquaintances — and received hot steamy ones in return.

Then one day in a volcanic eruption of passion, Mary went to Fuseli’s house. “How about you, me and your lovely wife engage in a friendly ménage à trois?” She asked.

An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Girls, Fuseli

It didn’t go over as well as she hoped.

Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave

That might have been the end of it if Mary hadn’t married William Godwin, yet another member of Fuseli’s circle, in 1797.

Now Mary was quite the feminist, marriage as an institution really wasn’t her thing. However, when she found out she was pregnant she decided it was a better alternative than having an illegitimate child and convinced William to marry her. Unfortunately, she died shortly after giving birth, leaving William with a little girl, also named Mary.

 As little Mary grew, she became well acquainted with Fuseli. She knew of his famous painting, the lustful story behind it, and his relationship with her mother. Over the years the image of The Nightmare sunk deep into her subconscious. She married Percy Shelley in 1816 and two years later began her famous novel, Frankenstein. Fuseli’s painting and all it stood for came back to haunt her. In the book, the monster gets highly annoyed with Victor Frankenstein because he won’t make him a mate. He, therefore, takes revenge on Victor’s wedding night. Victor walks in right at the crucial moment:

“She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair. Everywhere I turn I see the same figure — her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier.”

 Sounds a lot like Fuseli’s Nightmare, doesn’t it?

Not only is the scene set up like the painting, but the monster’s intention to stop any wedding night bliss also has an eerie similarity to Fuseli’s dream of intervention between Anna Landolt and her soon-to-be-husband.

Of course, it probably wasn’t just the effects of the painting that seethed into Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The relationship with the artist and the negative effects it had on her mother certainly played into the plot as well. Yet it all goes back to Fuseli and his style of painting. If he had painted poodles and portraits of the queen Mary Wollstonecraft might have found him to be a terrible bore. Instead, his art sparked her imagination — and her lust — ultimately creating of one of the most popular gothic tales ever written. Certainly, Fuseli never imagined that.


Ward, Maryanne C. “A Painting of the Unspeakable: Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 33, no. 1 (2000): 20–31. doi:10.2307/1315115.,%20item%203%20-%20press%20release.pdf

After falling asleep during too many history lessons, Nicol Valentin decided to do something about it. You can find her freeing history from the bonds of boredom at her website or on MediumNicolValentinon Medium.
After falling asleep during too many history lessons, Nicol Valentin decided to do something about it. You can find her freeing history from the bonds of boredom at her website or on MediumNicolValentinon Medium.

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