Henry Fuseli was a very interesting artist of the 18th century. He was born in Switzerland and began as a Protestant minister. The love of theology, literature and philosophy he garnered while a minister was something that never left him and eventually would heavily influence his art. Once Fuseli began painting he saw instant success. One of these first paintings was accepted into the Royal Art Exhibition of 1781, resulting in an immediate renown.
This painting was entitled very simply as The Nightmare. A young woman in a white gown lies draped over a bed at an odd angle, mouth slightly open as if in distress. Her nightmare is what is causing this clear distress. A monstrous gargoyal-like creature sits atop her stomach. It’s large wild eyes stare out at the viewer as if daring them to come closer. Behind the woman and her demon a curtain hides whatever it is that lays beyond. But as long as she sleeps, all that the woman will find there are more nightmares. The head of a horse in a truly nightmarish form pokes his head out from between the curtains to observe the scene.
Nearly all of Fuseli’s paintings are have these same otherworldly, surreal qualities. Not all are centered on monsters and the stuff of nightmares. Others have themes more easily understandable, or at least relatable, than nightmare creatures haunting a dreamer. One such painting is Sin Intercedes Between Satan and Death. While the idea of personified qualities is nothing new to art the manner in which Fuseli depicts them is. Sin is a headless, ghostlike creature who has stepped in between the two other beings, neither of whom are any less terrifying than Sin. Death is an angel, but the not gentle, quiet figure we normally conjure up. Instead Death is shown as sickly white in pallor with a frozen, statue-like body and wispy, ghostly wings. Satan is a grotesque monster, not at all the flames and fallen angel being of magnificent yet terrible power as he is often shown. Fuseli’s Satan is a grey and black demon only seen in nightmares. The very way in which Satan turns his body to look at Death and Sin is grotesque.Fuseli is able to take all of these standard themes and inject them new and terrifying life. Creatures, personifications and stereotypes that have been done again and again throughout the centuries are completely remade by Fuseli. Nightmares are truly terrifying, not just odd and bewildering, just something to ponder upon waking but something worthy of real fear. Death, Sin and Satan are shown in their glorious ugliness, finally having an image worthy of their description. It is no wonder that Fuseli rose so quickly to fame. It is impossible to glance away from his art for even a moment.