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Horrifying Masterpieces

In celebration of National Art Day, which falls on the 25th of October, let’s take a look at horrifying artwork from the Romanticism and Ukiyo-e periods.

Dark Side of Romanticism

Romanticism artwork is known for its emphasis on emotion and characteristics of mystery, imagination, and fervor.

The Nightmare - Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli was a Swiss artist of Romanticism and Strum und Drang. During his lifetime, Fuseli was known for his writings and teachings on art history rather than his art itself. However, his artwork The Nightmare became notorious. The artwork features a sleeping woman with a creepy demon sitting on top of her while a horse watches in terror from behind a curtain. It is believed that this is a reflection on how the woman’s nightmare feels, rather than how she sees it. She experiences a disturbing pressure on her chest as her dream takes a physical form, portrayed through the demon and the horse. This piece became a household name in the Gothic world and is known to have inspired the novelist Mary Shelley and poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe.

Saturn Devouring His Son - Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya was a Spanish artist most prominently known for his Romanticism and Rococo artworks. He is uniquely regarded as an old master of art as well as a modern artist. Goya’s works began in the style of Rococo cartoons; however, after a life-threatening illness left him deaf, his artwork evolved into Romanticism with a dark twist. One of Goya’s most popular artworks is Saturn Devouring His Son. This painting is based on the Greek mythological story of the Titan Cronus, also known by his Roman name, Saturn. Cronus believed that one of his own children would overpower and dethrone him, just as he had done to his own father. To prevent this, he decided to eat all of his children when they were born, which is what Goya has depicted in his artwork. In the end, however, Cronus is unsuccessful as he is overthrown by none other than his son, Jupiter, also known as Zeus. This painting is actually a part of a 14-part series called the Black Paintings. Goya painted these directly onto the walls of his own home, with this one in particular being located in his dining room. He created this series near the end of his life, and it is believed that they reflect the paranoia and isolation he was feeling after the Peninsular War.

Witches’ Flight - Francisco Goya

Despite not believing in the supernatural himself, Goya created a five-part series of witchcraft paintings for the Duke and Duchess of Osuna. This is how the horrifying and gruesome artwork of the Witches’ Flight came to be. This piece depicts a magical ritual being performed by three flying witches wearing tall conical crowns as they inflict pain on a man. Directly underneath these four figures, a man with a cloth over his head flees the scene while making the ‘figa sign’ by wedging his thumb in between two fingers. This gesture is used to ward off evil, in this case, the witches. There is also a man lying face-down, covering his ears, as well as a donkey to the right of the figures. The fleeing man represents blindness and superstition, the man on the ground represents willful ignorance, and the donkey symbolizes the foolishness of believing in witchcraft. In all, Goya created this piece to criticize the superstitions prevalent in Spain at the time.


Ukiyo-e, meaning “floating world,” is an art form created through Japanese woodblock prints of the Edo Period (1603-1868). This artistic period was inspired by the concept of living in the moment and the Kabuki theater. Ukiyo-e reflects these themes through its depiction of daily life and even ghost stories.

Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre- Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Utagawa Kuniyoshi was a prominent ukiyo-e style artist who created images of various genres. Here, he illustrated a story about the confrontation of Princess Takiyasha, the daughter of a deceased warlord, and Oya Taro Mitsukuni, the emperor’s official. The palace where Takiyasha lived was haunted by the ghosts of those who were killed in the rebellion. Mitsukuni, who was sent to find any remaining enemies of the emperor, arrives at the palace. The moment depicted is Princess Takiyasha summoning a skeleton specter from the ghosts to confront and frighten Mitsukuni.

Takuto Tenno Chogai- Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi was one of the last masters of ukiyo-e and was known for innovating his unique style. This particular print is from the series called “Essays by Yoshitoshi.” It depicts a character from a classic Chinese novel “The Water Margin,” who is a warrior known as the “Pagoda-shifting Heavenly King,” Chao Gai. As he carries the small pagoda to his village, he is confronted by multiple demons. These demons are horrifying, with their sinister expressions; however, Chao Gai is not unprepared as he carries a sword for protection.

One Hundred Ghost Tales- Katsuhika Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai is probably the most well-known ukiyo-e artist. However, prior to his popularity, he worked on his series One Hundred Ghost Tales. Despite the series name, only five prints were created that depict popular folklore tales. Oiwa-san is a tale of a wife who is purposefully deformed and, therefore, abandoned by her husband. Becoming mad, she accidentally dies and decides to haunt her husband in all forms, including as a paper lantern. The Warai-hannya print depicts a monstrous combination of a jealous woman turned into a demon and a child-eating monster. Kohada Koheiji tells a real story based on a man who was murdered by his wife and her lover. Vindictive, he returns after death to torment them. Sara-yashiki depicts the tale of a maid who was thrown down a well after breaking an elegant Korean plate. Her spirit was believed not to rest and instead lingered around wells. Shûnen depicts obsessive jealousy through the motif of a snake.


Works Cited

Cristina, Maria. “Spooky Art: Witches’ Flight by Francisco Goya - Maria Cristina.” Medium, 16 Oct. 2020,

Paulson, Dr. Noelle. “Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare.” Smarthistory, 9 Aug. 2015,

Richman-Abdou, Kelly. “6 of Francisco’s Goya’s Most Famous Masterpieces.” My Modern Met, 11 Aug. 2019,

Takac, Balasz. “Understanding the Practice of Francisco Goya Through Seven of His Paintings.” Widewalls, 7 Jan. 2022,

Team, MAA. “Goya’s Darkest Masterpieces: A Look at His Famous Black Paintings.” Madrid Academy of Art, 28 Jan. 2023,

“The Witches Flight.” Obelisk Art History, 2022,

“Chao Gai, the Pagoda-Shifting Heavenly King by Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892).” Fuji Arts Japanese Prints , Fuji Arts,

Dilworth, Francis. “3 Japanese Ghost Stories and the Ukiyo-e Works They Inspired.” The Collector, 12 Oct. 2020, “Hokusai’s Ghost Stories (ca. 1830).”

The Public Domain Review,

“Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre: Kuniyoshi, Utagawa: V&A Explore the Collections.” Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections,

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