Romantic Circles Gallery
N-Nightmare, Cruikshank's Comic Alphabeth
The illustration depicts a man sleeping in bed with his mouth open; he wears a nightcap, and only his face is visible above the covers. A miniature sultan, with a dark visage and an immense moustache, sits astride an obese pig which, in turn, stands on the sleeping man's chest. The sultan looks down at the sleeper with a comically crazed expression. The picture is naturally framed by the bed curtains, which are pulled aside. The capital letter "N" is engraved beneath the drawing, followed by the word "Nightmare."
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
The Night Mare
Thordarson T 641.
Height (in centimeters):
Width (in centimeters):
Marks DescriptionN Nightmare
Edition and StateFirst edition
Printing ContextEntry under the letter N of a booklet called A Comic Alphabet, designed, etched and published by George Cruikshank in 1836, in Pentonville, London.
Associated EventsThe young George Cruikshank quickly gained fame through caricatures of political figures and events. Even though he was paid 100 pounds by King George IV in exchange for his agreement not to parody the king, Cruikshank betrayed the bargain. In 1820, however, he started his career as a book illustrator, which gained him the friendship of many influential writers. In 1830 Thomas McLean created London’s first caricature magazine, The Looking Glass (1830-1836). According to Robert L. Patten, this magazine "lacked the political passion of earlier generations." Instead, it offered a "pictorial commentary on the events of the month interspersed with puns and jokes." This mixture of miscellaneous designs supposedly influenced Cruikshank’s scrapbook albums, A Comic Almanac (R. Patten, George Cruikshank, Vol. 1, 1992, 391), of which series The Comic Alphabet is part.
Associated PlacesLondon, whose private and public scandals provided good material for Cruikshank's work.
Associated TextsHenry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1782), and also other versions that Fuseli produced, because of the great success of the painting in England and overseas.
SubjectIn this illustration, Cruikshank mocks the widely popular Nightmare by Henry Fuseli. The image can be read as a response to the emergence of the Romantic pop-culture that had been developing during the beginning of the nineteenth century.
ThemeAlphabetic depiction of contemporary topics and themes, folktales and other stories, was a popular craft from the late Middle Ages onwards (the most famous example is probably Hohlbein’s Dances of Death alphabet). Cruikshank’s alphabet is a volatile mix of everyday themes, which range from A for "Alamode"—which portrays an overweight woman cooking for two older gentleman—to Z for "Zoophyte," which shows a man sitting in front of tree, trying to cut a pig (in the shape of a tree) with a knife and fork. Other examples are "H" for "Holiday" or "M" for "Monkies." "N" for "Nightmare" clearly reminds us of Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare (1781, oil on canvas), which was often parodied in political satire.
SignificanceCruikshank mocks Fuseli’s The Nightmare by transforming the beautiful woman of Fuseli’s image into a fat man. Furthermore, the "nightmare" itself, portrayed as a demonic mare by Fuseli, is depicted as a friendly-looking pig mounted by a comic sultan. Cruikshank's rendering of the nightmare depicts the latter as both harmless and comical, and, consequently, as a completely unrealistic event. The first showing of Fuseli’s The Nightmare at the Royal Academy in 1782 was visited by 55,357 people during its five-week exhibition period. When the image appeared between the usual history and landscape paintings—such as George Barret’s A Wood Scene with a Group of Beech Trees in Norbury Park or Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of an Officer, Major St Leger— Horace Walpole wrote down the word "shocking" in his exhibition catalogue (C. Frayling, ‘Fuseli’s The Nightmare' 9-10). The Nightmare quickly became not only famous, but also popular; this perhaps brings into question Fuseli’s claim that he never aimed at fame, but rather hoped to translate what he considered "high" literature of the time into painting. He wrote that "art should only be accessible to a self-selected elite of connoisseurs and practitioners."
However, Frayling points out that, quoting Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) (one of Fuseli’s ex-students), The Nightmare had spread Fuseli's
. . . name over the earth, well beyond the elite connoisseurs for whom he claimed to be painting . . . the authorised stipple engraving went on sale at the end of January 1783, at the price of five shillings. If Smith [the engraver and print publisher] did make more than five hundred pounds on the deal, then over two thousand printings must have been made from the original plate. (C. Frayling, ‘Fuseli’s The Nightmare' 13)After this "bargain" deal Fuseli soon went against his earlier claims and employed his own engraver, as he felt that he was not making enough money. Because of the painting's rapid and frequent reproduction, it soon became an element of mass culture. This final shift caused it to become what Frayling calls "the first ever contemporary work to form the basis of an entire sub-genre of ‘mock Sublime’ in English political caricature" (C. Frayling, ‘Fuseli’s The Nightmare' 14, 15). During the French Revolution The Nightmare became associated with caricature, examples of which are listed in David H. Weinglass's Prints and Engraved Illusions by and after Henry Fuseli: A Catalogue Raisonné.
However, the 1836 publication date of Cruikshank’s parody of The Nightmare might call for a different interpretation. In his essay, "The Politics of Humor in George Cruikshank’s Graphic Satire," Robert L. Patten illustrates Cruikshank’s use of Turkish and Oriental dress by analyzing the caricaturist’s images of Princess Caroline from Brunswick (1768-1821). In one of these caricatures, Cruikshank portrayed the princess as a lustful woman wearing a Turkish turban (an allusion to a costume she had worn at a 1814 ball). The Turkish or Oriental way of dressing was considered to be "ridiculous," "un-English," and "licentious." The Princess from Brunswick was thus not only mocked for her supposedly sexual desires, but also for her otherness, her "un-Englishness." And yet, Patten goes on to point out that Turkish or Oriental style also connoted "strangeness, a kind of cultural sophistication, romance; it suggested the power of something other, power often troped through the nineteenth century as the fantasy of British men’s control over women"(R. Patten, ‘The Politics of Humor' 96, 97). As a result, it seems that an interpretation of Cruikshank's N for Nightmare should take into account the significance of gender roles and their subversion as presented in the painting. The oriental sultan sitting comically on the belly of the sleeping fat man, does not convey any sense of sexual power at all. This is in stark contrast to The Nightmare: the hairy demon sitting atop the young woman is grotesque and frightful, and the woman, uncovered and lying on her couch in a pose that suggests she has fallen over the lip of the couch in a swoon or from unconscious exertion, exposes the entirety of her extended, helpless figure to the gaze of the viewer.
One should also keep in mind that Fuseli was ten years dead and The Nightmare one of the most popular pictures of its time; by then, it had disappeared "from the radar of serious British art historians to be consigned to the annals of ‘Teutonic hobgoblinry." (C. Frayling, ‘Fuseli’s The Nightmare' 15). To mock an image of this fame means also to mock its spectators, perhaps to the extent of blaming the spectatorship for what has happened to the reputation of such an incredible painting.
FunctionThe discussed image mocks elaborate and sincere Romantic paintings.
BibliographyFrayling, Christopher. ‘Fuseli’s The Nightmare: Somewhere between the Sublime and the Ridiculous’, pp. 9-23, in: Myrone, Martin (ed.). Gothic Nightmares, Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination. London: Tate Publishing, 2006.
Patten, Robert L. ‘The Politics of Humor in George Cruikshank’s Graphic Satire’, in: Golden, Catherine, J. Book Illustrated, Text, Image, and Culture 1770-1930. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2000.
Patten, Robert L. “Cruikshank, George (1792–1878).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. May 2006. 19 Mar. 2009 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6843
Weinglass, David H. Prints and Engraved Illustrations by and after Henry Fuseli: A Catalogue Raisonné. Aldershot and Brookfield: Ashgate, 1994.