Mary Shelley’s Nightmare: Fuseli and the Aesthetics of Frankenstein

By: Hannah Moss, University of Sheffield


Painted in 1781, The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli has gone on to become an iconic image of Gothic horror. So frequently has it been alluded to, reproduced, satirised and plagiarised over the last two centuries that this strange painting is now familiar to many of us. That is to say it has become instantly recognisable, whilst the precise interpretation of what this woman is experiencing remains somewhat elusive.

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Figure 1: Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)


Whether the painting constitutes a visual representation of a nightmare, or whether the woman is actually being preyed upon by supernatural visitors is subject to debate, as is the influence Fuseli’s work had on Mary Shelley whilst she was writing Frankenstein (1818). It is the similarities, and indeed, the contrasts between Fuseli’s painting and Mary Shelley’s depiction of monstrosity in Frankenstein that I will be exploring in this paper.

To take a closer look at Fuseli’s painting, the sleeping woman with arms sprawled recalls Classical statuary, such as The Sleeping Ariadne, but here the woman lies on her back – a position traditionally thought to induce nightmares. The demonic horse leering through the parted curtains seems to provide a visual pun on the word ‘nightmare’. However, the etymology of the term has no actual link to horses, with ‘mare’ deriving from ‘mara’. The mara is a spirit which appears in both Scandinavian and Germanic folklore that is sent to torment sleepers with bad dreams or even suffocate them, and Christopher Frayling dates the confusion between ‘mare’ and ‘mara’ from the appearance of Fuseli’s painting[1]. The creature crouched on the woman’s chest here does appear to restrict her breath as a mara would, but it is usually described as an incubus. An incubus, from the Latin for ‘to lie upon’, being a mythological sexual predator who preys upon sleeping women.

Ever since the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782 it has puzzled the public and displayed the power to attract and repel in equal measure. Fuseli’s friend and biographer, John Knowles recorded that The Nightmare ‘excited an uncommon degree of interest’[2], whilst William Hazlitt was more direct in his criticism, describing Fuseli’s work as ‘a nightmare on the breast of British art.’[3] The image was not shocking for its depiction of sexual terror so much as for the fact that it unconventionally lacked a precedent or identifiable narrative. Art historians and literary critics alike have searched in vain for Classical references to the sleeping woman depicted, but she came straight out of Fuseli’s imagination, inspired by a combination of folklore and unrequited love – although rumours would attribute it to consuming raw pork and opium.

Fuseli later wrote that ‘one of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams’[4] and The Nightmare was certainly unlike anything that had been seen before. His oil on canvas did not fit into the established hierarchy of history painting, scenes from literature, portraiture and landscapes, and it must have jarred amongst the various scenes from Shakespeare and the society portraits which invariably lined the walls of the Academy. At a time when the population of London was about 750,000 the Royal Academy exhibition of 1782 attracted in excess of 55,000 visitors[5]. An engraving of The Nightmare made the following year meant that the print could reach an even wider audience. Its fame was duly acknowledged by imitation, and the 1784 Westminster election elicited this response from Thomas Rowlandson…

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Figure 2: Thomas Rowlandson, The Covent Garden Night Mare (1784)


The Covent Garden Night Mare (1784) depicts a gratuitously naked Charles James Fox adopting the pose of damsel in distress, tormented by an incubus just as in Fuseli’s painting. With Fox tormented by both the election race and his ever-increasing gambling debts, The Nightmare becomes the perfect vehicle for political satire, and remains so to this day. Once you start looking for parodies of The Nightmare, you’ll see them everywhere. A quick Google image search shows that it has even been reimagined with My Little Pony in place of the horse, but one of the best examples is by The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell who visualised the 2011 Eurozone crisis as Angela Merkel being tormented by Silvio Berlusconi[6]. The visual parallels are clear to see when you have a sprawling figure with a small creature crouched on the chest, but the scene depicted in The Nightmare has inspired literary incarnations as well as visual.

Since Gerhard Joseph first noted Mary Shelley’s allusion to Fuseli in his 1975 publication ‘Frankenstein’s Dream’[7] many critics have gone on to identify similarities between The Nightmare and Elizabeth Lavenza’s death from the following description:

“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. Every where I turn I see the same figure – her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier.”[8]

Elizabeth has been left sprawled across the bed with her arms and head flung back recalling the very pose of the woman depicted in Fuseli’s painting. The proliferation of the image and its continued use for satirical prints through into the nineteenth century means that Shelley is more than likely to have been familiar with The Nightmare, especially given that Fuseli had been a close friend of her parents.

Hollywood film adaptations of Frankenstein have certainly assumed that there is a link between the description of Elizabeth’s death and Fuseli’s Nightmare and often allude to the painting during this scene. Even though James Whale’s 1931 adaptation is only very loosely based on Shelley’s text  and *spoiler alert*  Elizabeth is not killed by the creature, she is still shown collapsing in a fit of what the trailer describes as ‘uncontrollable hysteria’ at the sight of him and falls on the bed in the pose of Fuseli’s sleeping woman.

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Figure 3: Frankenstein (1931), Dir. James Whale


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Figure 4: Gothic (1986), Dir. Ken Russell


Ken Russell’s 1986 film Gothic, about the laudanum-fuelled exploits of Byron, Polidori, the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont at the Villa Diodati goes a step further by portraying the author herself as the sleeping woman. In her introduction to the 1831 edition, Shelley famously describes how her inspiration for Frankenstein had come to her in a waking dream in which she saw ‘the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.’[9] In Gothic her vision is re-staged as Fuseli’s Nightmare with Shelley screaming when she wakes from a vision of an incubus crouched on her chest. Russell, therefore, fully incorporates Fuseli’s painting into the creation myth surrounding Shelley’s inspiration for Frankenstein.

Nightmares themselves are key to the idea of creation in the text, and having bestowed his creature with the spark of life, Victor is plagued by nightmares in which he sees Elizabeth transform into the corpse of his dead mother. This symbolically reveals his unease at having removed the female from the reproductive process, and on waking he is faced with his creation, whom, Victor relates ‘held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me’ (Shelley, 1998: 39-40). In a scene taken straight from Fuseli, the creature takes the place of the horse forcing his head through the curtains. Victor’s nightmare becomes reality when Elizabeth is later murdered, and the Fuselian imagery is repeated. This doubling shows how bad dreams can contain omens, and the term ‘monster’ itself derives from the Latin root ‘monēre’, meaning warning or portent.

Of the two scenes it is Elizabeth’s actual death at the hands of the creature that attracts attention as being inspired by Fuseli. This is perhaps due to the presence of a female even though there are key differences between the scene depicted in the novel and that in the painting. William Veeder is one critic who disagrees that there is a connection because Shelley writes that Elizabeth’s hair covers her face[10] – a feature not present in the painting. Whilst Shelley evokes The Nightmare with the description of Elizabeth and her death by suffocation, she does also subvert it. Frankenstein’s creature is no small incubus seen crouched on Elizabeth’s chest. First of all, in the text Elizabeth’s death is not observed. Victor only hears her scream and enters the bedroom to find her lifeless body. The creature has fled. Secondly, the proportions are inverted. The creature is huge; a monster who would tower over the diminutive Elizabeth.

Victor claims that his size is a consequence of practicality, recounting that: ‘As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large’ (1998: 35-6). However, human hubris also makes him strive to improve on nature and he purposefully selects beautiful features for his creature.

Theodor von Holst’s visual representation of the creature from the first illustrated edition of Frankenstein (1831) does closely follow Shelley’s text, with Victor’s famous first description of his creature being as follows:

“His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! – Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.” (39)

The parts may have been beautiful, but as a whole Frankenstein’s creation horrifies him. Whilst the limbs are described as being in proportion, the creature is out of proportion with those around him – a factor which instantly marks him out as a monster before anything is known of his intellect or character.

Figure 5: Theodor von Holst illustration (1831)


Figure 6: Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1790-1)


Alongside Holst’s illustration here is the print of Fuseli’s 1790-1 version of The Nightmare. Owing to the popularity of the work he painted at least 3 versions, with this one oriented portrait rather than landscape and with a more cat-like incubus starring at the sleeping woman rather than out at the viewer. When viewing the two images side by side the similarities in the composition really come to light. There is a comparable triangulation from the reclining figures at the base, both of whom are shown with bent knees, and up to the night visitors above. Victor Frankenstein fleeing in horror through the open door is a mirror image of the spectral horse forcing its head through the parted curtains. It is perhaps no surprise to learn that Holst had been a pupil of none other than Henry Fuseli and was heavily influenced by his tutor’s work. What is interesting here is that Holst does not choose to link Elizabeth Lavenza’s death scene with The Nightmare, but Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation. However, both are images of unrequited love.

In ‘Fuseli’s Nightmare’ H.W. Janson argues that The Nightmare is a projection of Fuseli’s unrequited love for Anna Landhold[11]. Prior to painting The Nightmare Henry Fuseli had fallen in love with Anna, the niece of his friend Johann Kaspar Lavater, and had started to paint her portrait when he learned that she had married another man. Fuseli’s reaction was to turn over the canvas and paint The Nightmare instead drawing on a dream about Anna he had described to Lavater in which he had ‘wound my hot and tight-clasped hands about her’[12] – thus making Fuseli himself the sexually frustrated incubus of the piece.

In the illustration from Frankenstein the positions are reversed, with the creature depicted in the pose of the sleeping woman, but in both cases the supposed monster of the piece is rejected. The creature’s immense size is directly contrasted with that of Victor, and in terms of long eighteenth-century theories of aesthetics it is the creature’s inhuman proportions that mark him out as a monster. According to Lord Kames in his 1762 publication, Elements of Criticism ‘every remarkable deviation from the standard makes accordingly an impression upon us of imperfection, irregularity, or disorder: it is disagreeable, and raises in us a painful emotion: monsters, exciting the curiosity of a philosopher, fail not at the same time to excite a sort of horror.’[13] Victor’s reaction of horror precisely fits this description

The link between proportion and monstrosity can be observed in George Cruikshank’s series of satirical prints entitled Monstrosities of Fashion. This one from 1816 shows the dandies of London contorted out of natural human proportion by the fashion for broad shoulders, narrow waists, wide trousers and pointed shoes.

Figure 7: George Cruikshank, London Dandies, or, Monstrosities of 1816 (1816)


Excess is monstrous, and in augmenting the proportions of Frankenstein’s creature Shelley in effect heightens his monstrosity. He immediately stands out as ‘deviating from the standard’, as Kames puts it.

To return to Victor’s first description of his creature, Elizabeth Bohls describes how it parodies an ‘aesthetic vocabulary of proportion and contrast’:

“Listing the ornaments of flowing hair and pearly teeth, the description also burlesques the poetic blazon, the part-by-part praise of woman as aesthetic object. Victor’s decorative touches mock the self-subversion of his design. He achieves the exact opposite of what he had hoped. Aesthetic unity has eluded him; the creature’s skin is too tight, calling attention to the incoherence of his composition. He is ugly enough to make children shriek and women faint.” [14]

Bohls goes on to suggest that such ‘universal recoil’ upholds the idea of universal aesthetic standards presented by the likes of Edmund Burke and David Hume. However, the distaste arises not simply from the creature’s being ugly, but from that his appearance suggests something of his unnatural mode of creation. The tight skin reveals his internal workings, whilst the dead eyes and black lips hint that he is more undead than fully alive.

For Victor ‘Life and death’ had ‘appeared’ no more than ‘ideal bounds’ which he should ‘break through’ (36) and his all-consuming ambition causes him to neglect all else, including his family and friends. In creating a being from the reanimated parts of dead bodies and then rejecting his hideous progeny, Victor not only transgresses the natural order of life and death, but eschews ethics. Fleeing from the scene with horror and disgust, Victor fails to take moral responsibility for his actions. Anne K. Mellor notes how for Shelley aesthetics and morality are entwined:

Her novel purposefully identifies moral virtue, based on moderation, self-sacrifice, and domestic affection, with aesthetic beauty. Even in poverty, the blind old man listening to the sweetly singing Agatha is ‘a lovely sight, even for me, poor wretch! Who had never beheld aught beautiful before.’ In contrast, Frankenstein’s and Walton’s dream of breaking boundaries is explicitly identified as both evil and ugly.[15]

As an ambitious polar explorer, Walton strives towards the horizon of a boundless landscape, putting his personal glory ahead of the safety of his crew. Writing home to his sister, he confesses that he needs to regulate his mind using the terminology of an artist. Walton writes:

“my day dreams are more extended and magnificent; but they want (as painters call it) keeping; and I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavour to regulate my mind.” ( 9)

The OED defines ‘keeping’ as: ‘the maintenance of the proper relation between the representation of nearer and more distant objects in a picture’ or ‘the proper subserviency of tone and colour in every part of a picture, so that the general effect is harmonious to the eye.’[16] Victor, like Walton, lacks ‘keeping’ in his aspirations, and as a consequence creates an 8ft tall monster completely out of proportion with all those around him. In using this particular term Shelley shows how her writing was influenced by the process of painting and how an image is constructed

Commenting on The Nightmare, the art critic Tom Lubbock describes the composition of the image as disjointed or staccato:

“The Nightmare is not a fluent, unfolding composition, where one thing leads smoothly to another. It’s made up of separate incidents, each requiring a distinct act of attention. Move between them, and attention jumps. What’s more, these incidents have an order. The picture arranges things so that you move and jump in sequence. This still image is cunningly and abruptly edited.” [17]

Indeed, the painting does not reveal itself all at once. Fuseli controls the eye through chiaroscuro, so that it is the bright white of the woman’s dress that first catches your attention, and the monsters that lurk in the darkness are only seen later. Fuseli’s incubus stares directly out at us, making the viewer complicit as voyeur. This careful control of information is similar to the structure of Shelley’s novel. Frankenstein is not a simple, linear narrative, but a novel within a novel within a novel. Constructed as a frame narrative, Walton’s letters home contain Victor Frankenstein’s narrative, which in turn contains the creature’s autobiography. With each change of perspective the reader might feel that they are slowly getting closer to an inner circle of truth, but the information is organised and edited by Walton and ends without us ever finding out whether the creature acts on his resolve to commit suicide. Both the novel and the painting raise more questions than they answer, but then that is precisely the point. Unanswered questions go beyond the border of the page as the creature slowly disappears into the distance, and likewise, beyond the bounds of a picture frame where the horse peers in through the curtains and the incubus stares out at the viewer, creating a feeling of boundlessness, of fear and wonder.

To conclude, Mary Shelley does more than place Elizabeth Lavenza in the pose from The Nightmare. She uses aesthetic ideas relating to proportion, composition and keeping to bring her monster to life. When Richard Brinsley Peake adapted Shelley’s novel for the stage as Presumption! Or, The Fate of Frankenstein in 1823 the critic from The Drama had this to say about Thomas Potter Cooke’s performance as the creature: ‘with the art of a Fuseli, he powerfully embodied the horrible, bordering on the sublime and the awful.’[18] Seeking inspiration from Fuseli, therefore, is more than just a case of recreating a scene. It is about capturing the uncomfortable yet compelling feeling of viewing his paintings.



Hannah Moss is a graduate of the MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Sheffield and is returning to Sheffield Gothic in September to commence PhD research. Her thesis will explore the relationship between art and architecture in the Gothic novel, 1780-1818. This paper was presented by Hannah Moss at Reimagining the Gothic 2016.

Twitter: @HannahMoss86


[1] Christopher Frayling, Nightmare: The Birth of Horror, (London: BBC Books, 1996), pg. 8.

[2] John Knowles, The Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli, Vol. 1., (London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1831), pp. 64–65.

[3] William Hazlitt quoted in Andrew Graham-Dixon, A History of British Art, (Berkley Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), p.138.

[4] Henry Fuseli quoted in Christopher Frayling, Nightmare: The Birth of Horror, (London: BBC Books, 1996), p.6.

[5] Figures quoted in the exhibition catalogue for Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, (London: Tate Britain, 2006), p.9.

[6] Steve Bell, The Guardian, 7th November 2011, [online]:

[7] Gerhard Joseph, ‘Frankenstein’s Dream: The Child is Father of the Monster’, Hartford Studies in Literature, 7 (1975): pp. 97-115 [p. 109].

[8] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818 text, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), p.165. All subsequent references are to this edition.

[9] Mary Shelley, ‘Author’s Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition’, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, (London: Colburn & Bentley; Standard Novels Edition, 1831), p. xi.

[10] William Veeder, Mary Shelley & Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny, (Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1986), pp. 192-3.

[11] H.W. Janson, ‘Fuseli’s Nightmare’, Arts and Sciences, 2 (1963): pp. 23-28.

[12] Fuseli to Lavater, June 1779, quoted in Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 117.

[13] Henry Home, Lord Kames, (1762), Elements of Criticism, 11th ed. (London: 1839), p. 450.

[14] Elizabeth A. Bohls, ‘Standards of taste, Discourses of “Race”, and the Aesthetic Education of a Monster: Critique of Empire in Frankenstein’, Eighteenth-Century Life, 18 (Nov 1994): pp. 25-36. [online]:

[15] Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, Chapter 6: ‘Usurping the Female’, (New York: Methuen, 1988), pp. 115-126. [online]:

[16] OED [online: accessed 21/04/16]:

[17] Tom Lubbock, ‘Fuseli, Henry: The Nightmare (1781)’, The Independent, 6th April 2006, [online]:


[18] The Drama quoted in Christopher Frayling, Nightmare: The Birth of Horror, (London: BBC Books, 1996), p. 60.