Henry Fuseli and the Nightmare of Unrequited Love

I have long stared at the question of unrequited love and what makes this particular type of love so painful and obsessive. I started drafts. I discarded them. I came back to this question and gave it another go only to find my writing out of touch. The truth is I do not know much about love. I know even less about unrequited love.

Most of us will encounter it for brief periods in our lives either on the giving or the receiving end. In time, we will forget about it as if it was just a bad dream. Yet some of us will not be able to let go, holding onto it as if to a fantasy that, if only turned real, could make everything better. For it is so much easier to cling to the promise of hope than to face what lies ahead, and what lies within.

That much I understand.

And so I wanted to tell you about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his unrequited love for socialite Ginevra King, how it fueled his writing and begat some of the best novels in American literature. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald never got over his first love, and his writing became the gateway for his obsession, a way to soften the pain. That, and lots of alcohol.    

I wanted to tell you about Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and the amazing story behind it. Although many of us will recognize the theme from A Ball, the second movement of the piece, few of us know that this symphony is built as a delirious trip that probes the highs and lows of unrequited love. Fewer people, still, know that this ambitious creative work was undertaken by 23-year-old Berlioz after falling helplessly in love with Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom he had seen playing Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Undeterred by Smithson’s lack of reciprocation, Berlioz’s unrequited love grew for years and was the drive behind one of the most famous and hallucinatory symphonies ever created. I wanted to tell you how Berlioz even got the girl in the end. Yet the fantasy turned more powerful than reality and their marriage broke apart – all the more reason to be grateful for the uplifting waltz in A Ball that defies time and personal disappointments.  

Vincent van Gogh - Four Withered Sunflowers
Vincent van Gogh – Four Withered Sunflowers (1887). Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands

I wanted to tell you about Vincent van Gogh, whose marriage proposals got rejected three times by three different women. I wanted to tell you how Van Gogh’s sunflowers, which can be viewed as the artist’s self-portraits capturing his volatile moods – sometimes bright and cheerful, other times wilting and gloomy — remind me of Clytie, the water nymph from Roman mythology. Clytie, according to Ovid in Metamorphoses, got transformed into a sunflower* after Helios, the god of sun, rejected her love, and punished her for her jealousy and efforts to win him back. Clytie was to spend eternity turning her head towards the sun – her beloved.  

But, most of all, I wanted to discuss Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare.

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare
Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare (1781). Oil on canvas. Detroit Insitute of Arts Museum

To be honest, I’ve always had my reservations about this painting, finding it clunky and overrated. Yes, it’s grotesque, but the grotesque when done well becomes somewhat beautiful or, at the very least, intriguing. It draws you in. I had never felt intrigued by The Nightmare. 

And even though I had no idea that the hairy creature sitting atop the torso of a sleeping woman was an incubus — a mythological demon in male form who visits women at night and lies on them to engage in sexual activity — the eroticism of the picture is undeniable. You do not need a PhD in folklore or psychoanalysis to get an idea of what this image hints at. Of course Sigmund Freud later hung a copy of this piece in his Vienna apartment.

The painting remains one of the most reproduced artworks in the world, its meaning still being questioned today. For instance, art historians have spilled a lot of ink just over the wordplay “nightmare/ night mare”, due to the spectral horse head popping in the background. As in, maybe the painting is about … a horse?

As far as my thinking went, nightmares weren’t meant to be understood or rationalized. But that is because I knew nothing whatsoever about Fuseli. I didn’t know how well-read and knowledgeable he was, or how often his pictures contained countless cryptic literary and artistic references. Art historians were onto something, after all.  

My interest finally got stirred when I heard the most popular explanation for this piece. You guessed it – it was unrequited love. For weeks I looked at that incubus not with disdain as before, but with sympathy, and even endearment. The theory, proposed in 1962 by art history professor Horst Waldemar Janson and based on Fuseli’s life, was that the gargoyle-like creature was a self-portrait of the artist, while the woman was a former lover. The timing checked, somewhat: two years prior, during his return trip to England, Fuseli had fallen in love with a young woman called Anna Landolt, niece of his friend, the physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater. Fuseli’s advances were rejected and Landolt soon married another man.  

Self-Portrait as a Faun. Verso: Head of a Woman Three-Quarters to Left by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825
Henry Fuseli – Self-Portrait as a Faun (1770s). Graphite and chalk on paper. Tate, London

The idea that the incubus was a self-portrait seemed to me rather outlandish at first, but that was before I came across Self-Portrait as a Faun, an earlier drawing of Fuseli’s. The faun, a Roman mythological creature half-human, half-goat, was also a symbol of fertility.  Not only does the faun resemble Fuseli’s incubus, to some degree, but it also sets the precedent of self-identification with a sexual mythological being.

What a great metaphor, I thought. To love and to be rejected is to feel like a monster, a demon. And Fuseli was so acutely aware of his abject state — his shadow, as Jung would put it — that he laid it all bare, his darkest impulses, his self-perceived ugliness and worthlessness. It was fascinating to witness this courageous display of ruthless vulnerability. But it was so much more than that. It was also violence directed at the object of his affection, who lay unconscious as he took advantage of her. It was an exploration of the dark side not just of self and the subconscious, but of love.

The violent possession of the lover echoed Fuseli’s feelings for Anna Landolt as expressed in a letter to Lavater. In it Fuseli described the erotic dream he had of her, shortly before she was to marry another man:

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 commits adultery and incest! She is mine, and I am hers. And have her I will — I will toil and sweat for her, and lie alone, until I have won her.

The words seemed prophetic enough and they gave reason to believe that The Nightmare was about Landolt. To add more mystery to this affair, on the back of the picture was found the unfinished portrait of an unknown woman (see below).

Henry Fuseli - Portrait of a Lady (1781)
Henry Fuseli – Portrait of a Lady (1781), verso of The Nightmare . Oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts Museum

And just like Berlioz had rushed to the conclusion that Harriet Smithson was the woman of his life, so did art historians rush to link this mysterious portrait to Anna Landolt. From the passionate love poems and letters Fuseli wrote throughout 1779 to his friends about her, the last woman he ever fell in love with, to the nature of the portrait that suggests it was based on previous, older sketches, H. W. Janson makes an intriguing case when pointing to Anna Landolt as the key to understanding The Nightmare.  That is, if you disregard that it is all just … speculation.

In a way, this was the perfect ending to my quest of unrequited love and my research on Fuseli’s painting. It was when I realized that not even the facts could hold, that the evidence was scant; that art historians – and I – were more in love with our ideas than with reality, or with the art itself. 

There are many types of unrequited love, from the childhood crush to the months or years-long imbalanced relationship, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s with Ginevra King. There are even decades-long marriages that end when one partner cannot reciprocate the love anymore. Perhaps, they never did. And then, there’s the obsessive, all-consuming unrequited love, a powerful inexplicable attraction towards someone you know nothing about, like Hector Berlioz’s infatuation with Harriet Smithson.

These instances are ordeals to varying degrees, heartaches fueled by misplaced hopes. Sometimes there’s redemption through art, other times through another love. And then there are the unexpected gifts, like the intimacy that comes from sharing one’s pain and the enduring relationships that these confessions can forge. When English poet and artist William Blake met Catherine Boucher, his future wife, in 1781, he told her about how he had just gotten rejected in love. Boucher felt so sorry for him. “Do you pity me?”, Blake asked. “Yes, I do, most sincerely.” “Then”, answered Blake, “I love you for that.” This sincere, heartfelt exchange kindled one of the most loving and nurturing partnerships in the history of art.

 I wanted to write all of this, and maybe I have, to some extent. I’ll leave it to you to judge what is and what could have been. 

*About Clytie. In the French translations the flower is a tournesol, meaning sunflower. The English translations adopted the same word, turnsole, which refers to the heliotrope. They’re both very different flowers. But the depictions of Clytie in art history show her with sunflower petals, so I’m going with how she’s remembered in the collective memory. It may be literarily inaccurate, depending on the language, but it’s artistically true. I also find this association to be more romantic and accessible to the public imagination.


Hey guys. It’s been such a long time since my last post. This last year has been difficult for so many of us. Let’s love a little more. Be a little kinder and more forgiving. However flawed we may think we are, we all deserve to love and to be loved.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Diana says:

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time. Wonderful. I had no idea about Fitzgerald’s obsession with Ginevra King nor about Vincent van Gogh’s rejected proposals. And from now on I will look differently at that painting The Nightmare. You have pointed out the symptoms of unrequited love so well. The novella that exemplifies this pain for me is The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. One can find there so many dreams, so much longing and fruitless hope, it is completely devastating.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thank you for reading, Diana. I’m so glad this post drew you in! I haven’t read Goethe, but I noticed that the topic of unrequited love has been well-covered in literature. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is another great one.

      “One can find there so many dreams, so much longing and fruitless hope, it is completely devastating.” That is so beautifully said. It’s almost as if the more imaginative, sensitive, and hopeful one is, the more likely they are to get stuck in the webs of their own mind. That’s what I find truly heartbreaking – not the rejection, not even the beloved’s lack of understanding for the lover’s pain, but that incapacity to see an exit out of it, because at very turn of the way the mind undermines itself with hopes and dreams. We know how Werther stops that agony.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. So glad to hear from you, Gabriela 🙂 Another great post. I love the way you’ve approached the subject of unrequited love and your interpretation of Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare. Fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thank you so much, Rosaliene. Unrequited love is a thorny subject. We don’t really talk about it these days. Instead we just say “things didn’t work out”, without acknowledging the real cause for this.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It was until I read this analogy that I found words to how I felt. Almost like a monster, a bad man, a vile man. Incapable of being loved or maybe the cause of hurt and pain in an other.
    I am so glad that you finally shared this long due piece with us Gabriela.
    Ah, the things love makes us do and we do for it. And if all of it is only for art and for future to ponder over, maybe that is some redemption.
    I always thought fondly of this quote by Oscar Wilde. “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” This has made it a little easier to reconcile to unrequited loves ( and requited ones too 🙂 )


    P.S. Loved the end note. Amen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Rahul, I am so so so so glad you read this! I would have never finished this if it wasn’t for you. Let alone post it. I hope reading it helped…

      I think the same thing happened to me when looking at the incubus. I found it very cathartic, as if I was reconciling with my shadow-self and finally getting the validation I had been longing for. Instead of repressing or feeling ashamed of these negative feelings I could just make peace with them.

      I love that quote. Somehow I seem to keep forgetting it when I need it the most, hehe.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Eric Wayne says:

    That particular Van Gogh sunflower painting is magnificent.It is extraordinarily detailed, and yet using his impasto technique which tends to simplify quite a bit. I don’t really care if the flowers symbolize anything else or not.

    Those are interesting stories about men falling so deeply in love, and I gather that much of it is their love of the idea of being in love, in which case they may be projecting their need to be madly in love on whichever seemingly suitable candidate. I’ll have to reconsider it from that angle.

    Was never a fan of the Nightmare painting either, because it struck me as “fantasy”, and kinda’ superficial. The unrequited love angle gives it more depth, so I’m happy for that interpretation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, the first time The Nightmare caught my interest me was when I read somewhere that the painting inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the scene when the creature kills Frankenstein’s bride). And then weeks later I was surprised to hear about the unrequited love explanation. I don’t know what exactly had Fuseli in mind with the painting, but I assume that there’s more than meets the eye there.

      It’s sort of humbling to know that something that I was quickly disregarding had such a rich history, over the centuries inspiring Romantic poets, writers, psychoanalysts and Surrealist artists.

      I think you’re right. And I can’t quite explain it fully either as to why some people would cling to that idea of love for years. But I also empathize and realize that it could very well be me or a loved one stuck in that place. You just lose your mind and senses. For now it’s so much easier to think of unrequited love as a nightmare or a bitter aftertaste – uncomfortable, distressful, even agonizing, but the memory of it goes away. Poof.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. David says:

    I really, really like this post. It is so interesting to me.

    With regard to … art historians have spilled a lot of ink just over the wordplay “nightmare/ night mare” …, I find that kind of silly, but then I often find what art historians and critics say kind of silly. Probably a bad case of reverse snobbery on my part. I tend to be very simplistic sometimes and I look at the nightmare/night mare “issue” as simply an example of what I call a picture pun.

    The title refers to the main topic of the painting but also has comic relief referencing a funny extraneous object in the painting. That Fuseli intended this he had a sense of humor.

    I went to a commuter university and often had long breaks between classes. When I got tired of reading the jokes in the 1940 editions of Reader’s Digest or became bored looking up word etymologies in the Oxford English Dictionary, I would sometimes doodle picture puns.

    Compound words and nouns preceded by an adjective usually made good subjects for a word pun. For example, take “Army brat”. I would draw a side view of a large bratwurst and, with my best military stenciling lettering, I would write Army on the side of the brat. Like word puns these can be real groaners because they are so bad, or so good. Another example would be “Preacher’s Kid”. For this I would sketch a minister dressed in black with a white collar and a large cross pendant hanging from his neck (to show what he was) standing next to a tiny goat. I didn’t actually do these two, they are just example I came up with now to illustrate what I’m talking about.

    So, maybe there is no deep meaning in nightmare/night mare, just a guy with a sense of humor having fun with his work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      I didn’t know you could sketch! Those are some funny examples, and I often see illustrators indulging in these sort of games. I find it highly creative (with a touch of silliness), like giving your brain a good, playful workout.

      Since English is not my native language, the puns sometimes are lost on me. I don’t think I could have ever, not in a million years, drawn a line between the mare and the nightmare. That’s simply because, in my mind, I’d call it “horse.” There’s also another thing that bugged me about this association: the “mare” doesn’t have a central role in this picture, so it’s a bit of a stretch to read too much into its symbolism. (I remember reading that in the first version for this painting Fuseli had left out the horse, but I can’t trace back my source at this moment.)

      Fuseli’s ingenuity, in my opinion, was in showing both the act of dreaming and the content of the dream. I think that was the pun, the truly revolutionary thing – how he blurred the lines between reality and fantasy, consciousness and the subconscious.

      I get that art historians get carried away, and people can become uncomfortable that someone else is forcing meaning onto a picture they like or dislike, ruining their experience of it. But I think that art historians’ intentions are ultimately good. If you heard or read what some artists had to say about their art process and thinking, that would have left you even more confused and overwhelmed. I’ve come to realize that paintings are seldom as straightforward as they seem.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. David says:

        I agree completely with what you said about art historians’ intentions. For me, hearing people talk about art sometimes is like listening to people talk about wine. I wonder if they really hear what they are saying and if they really mean what they say or they are just regurgitating thoughts and phrases trying to impress the listener. I do know that if it were not for art historians and teachers of art appreciation, my appreciation of art would be much less than what it is.

        Hearing someone tell me what they are seeing helps me see it too or maybe causes me to question their insight and prompt me to look deeper on my own. I for sure am truly thankful for hearing the back stories and political and cultural history that may help explain the piece. I would never have the time (nor the inclination) to do all that research on my own.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Gabriela says:

          That’s a spot-on comparison, likening art historians to wine tasters. I feel the same way about it. And I try not to sound like them, but sometimes I get carried away.

          A few days ago I was out on a walk and I stopped by the lake, to take in the view. And this self-aware thought ran through my mind, that I was standing in a contrapposto. It was such a funny, snobbish, and unexpected thought to have. Very artsy, indeed.


  6. David says:

    I find your writing to be very clear, informative, and enjoyable to read. My snob radar has not picked up any signals from your posts and I would have never known that English in not your native language. Also I have now learned (or possibly re-learned – the older I get the more I re-learn) a new word: contrapposto.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thank you, David. I really appreciate your words – they bring such relief. Contrapposto FTW!

      Liked by 1 person

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