The Reality of Dreams in Henry Fuseli’s Art

Henry Fuseli’s portrait painted by James Northcote

Henry Fuseli’s paintings fire up the soul. What is special about this eighteenth-century artist is that he never painted from “nature” but rather he chose to cast his eye inwards and look for inspiration in the fiery depths of his soul. The themes of his art were myth, literature and gothic tales. The scenes depicted in his work are full of expression, the characters always in rapture, seized by extreme psychological states. The art can be described as sublime, lofty and ecstatic, as if the beholder was standing face to face with purely archetypal content, which has momentarily sprung up from the eternal substratum of the material reality.  It is reminiscent of Rudolf Otto’s idea of the numinous, meaning “”arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring.” To quote Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, the characters in Fuseli’s paintings stand trembling “face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendum.” 

In the introduction to a brochure accompanying the exhibition of his art in Kunstmuseum Basel, Eva Rufeli wrote:

“Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) is in many respects an artist of transitions and transgressions. Geographically speaking, his biography links his Swiss origins with his adopted country, England; art-historically speaking he stands on the threshold between Classicism and Romanticism; and, finally his oeuvre develops from a close dialogue between literature and visual art. The renown of the artist, who polarized opinion during his lifetime and acquired the nickname of ‘the wild Swiss’ in London, was founded on the scandal-provoking picture The Nightmare…, which triggered both horror and fascination in the public when it was first exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1782.”

Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare”

This world of dreams, which is the matrix of myth and symbol, was precisely where Fuseli felt at home. It is not easy to say which paintings that I saw at the exhibition affected me most. He wrote once, “Prostrate yourself before the genius of Homer!” and it is hard to ignore his wonderful rendering of ancient themes. Here the white goddess Leukothea offers the shipwrecked Odysseus her veil. You can read more about this myth in one of my previous posts devoted to The Odyssey.


In another Homer-inspired painting, Achilles sees the soul of his dead friend in a dream. When he reaches to embrace him, the apparition turns into smoke.


Fuseli was dubbed “Shakespeare of the canvas” by his contemporaries, perhaps because he was a huge admirer of Shakespeare and an avid theatre goer. The most striking to me were his artistic illustrations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth.  Puck, the diminutive sprite loves to lead wayfarers astray in the nocturnal forest. Here he is depicted in sheer delight over the mischief he has managed.


In another one, Titania, bewitched by a love charm, tenderly caresses the ass-headed Bottom.

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakes Surrounded by Attendant Faries - 1794

And from Macbeth nothing surpasses the famous Three Witches.


In one of his aphorisms, Fuseli stated that “reality teems with disappointment for him whose sources of enjoyment spring in the elysium of fancy.” But I believe Carl Jung might have redeemed his fears by saying in The Red Book that he “learned in the Mysterium: to take seriously every unknown wanderer who personally inhabits the inner world, since they are real because they are effectual.” Jung complained about “a scientific phobia against fantasy.” The inner world is not less effectual or less real that the outer one. What is more, the so-called physical reality was dreamed into existence from “the elysium of fancy” referred by Jung as the collective unconscious. In Fuseli’s “Creation of Eve” the divine apparition at the top of the painting is in fact the birthing force behind this miracle of creation.



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19 Responses to The Reality of Dreams in Henry Fuseli’s Art

  1. litebeing says:

    Jung complained about “a scientific phobia against fantasy.” The inner world is not less effectual or less real that the outer one. What is more, the so-called physical reality was dreamed into existence from “the elysium of fancy” referred by Jung as the collective unconscious.

    yes! This is true Monika, but can cause confusion and overwhelm.So many people minimize the sleep state, but what happens in sleep, and meditation, etc is probably ” realer” than the so-called waking experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For sure! Perhaps you have been watching Deepak Chopra’s new Commune course. He said yesterday that “the essential nature of the physical world is that it’s not physical. The essential nature of the material world is that it’s not material.” It is important to ask ourselves what is real and hopefully one day we can reach a deeper understanding of reality.

      Liked by 1 person

      • litebeing says:

        Hi again,
        I am not taking the course but have read some of his books and enjoy his take on spirituality. How to Know God ( paraphrase) was a game changer for me. For those of who are very active dreamers, the blur between real and unreal is palpable. For me, love is real. Not sure about the rest. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well said and I agree about love. I must admit I had to stop the Commune course because, well, I just couldn’t get into it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Dewin Nefol says:

    Namaste Monika, how are you 🙂

    I have heard it said that a mind once expanded by new ideas cannot return to its original dimension: that once ‘aware’ of the objective psyche – the inherited structures of the brain – there can never again exist clear differentiation between reality and the fantastical reality of the inner world. Perhaps this is what Fuseli meant when stating that “reality teems with disappointment for him whose sources of enjoyment spring in the Elysium of fancy.” Might it be that the Dreamer – the mythologizing Artist – who unlocks this door – whose sensitivity reaches to touch what is hidden – remains devoted to this truth, this experience, long after making it manifest upon the canvas where it is immortalised. As an instrument of creation one imagines there cannot be anything other than seamlessness between vision and expression.

    A most fascinating, insightful and inspired read. Thank you so much for posting.

    Hoping all is well and your weekend surpassing every expectation.

    Namaste 🙂


    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Dewin,
      It was delightful to hear from you. This is really true – you cannot lock the doors of perception that have once been opened. That reminds me of a line from a song by Sonic Youth – “Do you believe in rapture?” These paintings do take me to that rapturous place.
      Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dewin Nefol says:

        Namaste Monika 🙂

        Thank you, it’s delightful to visit and be inspired by the topics you post: this being no exception to that consistent rule.

        Gosh, Rapture is a huge word to accommodate! 😉 Overwhelming in fact but we are only mortal. Obvious to me is the unwavering passion with which you embrace your subject matter: only Air sign flows as the wind, forever attracted to the warmth of creative flame. I can understand why an Artist like Fuseli whose expression is so honest, so direct, so uninhibited and unencumbered by design inspires you: his flare, his genius, thus his work feels as if the vision he held within were released from his psyche without addition of rational thought or unnecessary deliberation to flow and imprint itself on the canvas. One imagines he was an Artist on top of his game, as they say, ever inspired to paint 😉

        As to Sonic Youth – great band name – I will remind myself of this track: it sounds inspired. Thank you for mentioning it here.

        Brightest blessing and best wishes. Take care.

        Namaste 🙂


        Liked by 1 person

  3. An exquisite post, and fascinating introduction to an artist I did not know. There is much here for the eyes and heart to feast upon! Warm and wild blessings, Deborah.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this post. And wow, the witches are powerful …

    Liked by 1 person

  5. rolandclarke says:

    Fascinating post. I knew some of Fuseli’s paintings but nothing about the artist or his inner-creative mind. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jeff Japp says:

    Was not that familiar with his work, but I like it a lot! Thanks for posting. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. dannymalboeuf says:

    I came to Fuseli years ago – through Blake, with whom he shares a certain aesthetic. His Midsummer Night’s Dream pieces made a huge impression on me, and continue to do so. Thanks for making him better known.

    Liked by 1 person

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