Human concerns – Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)

See on this site – Swiss painter, poet, critic, and teacher, who spent most of his active career in England. Fuseli has often been regarded as a forerunner of the Romantic art movement and a precursor of Symbolism and Surrealism. His most famous painting is The Nightmare (1781), in which an ape-like goblin sits on a young woman, who is sleeping in a strained posture.

The only man that ever I knew
Who did not make me almost spew
Was Fuseli: he was both Turk and Jew –
And so, dear Christian Friends, how do you do?
(William Blake’s tribute to Fuseli)

Henry Fuseli was born Johann Heinrich Füssli in Zürich into a family of artists and writers. His father was the portrait painter and art historian Johannes Kaspar Füssli. Although Fuseli’s brothers and sisters became artists, his father directed him towards priesthood.

He studied theology at Caroline College in Zurich, where he was taught by Professor J.J. Bodmer, an early promoter of the Sturm und Drang movement in Switzerland. Later Fuseli portrayed him an a work entitled The Painter in Conversation with Johann Jakob Bodmer (1778-81).

Fuseli was ordained a Zwinglian clergyman in 1761. Next year, in consequence of a pamphlet, in which he attacked the corrupted administration of a magistrate, Felix Grebel, he had to leave Zurich. Fuseli’s fellow-polemicist, the theologian Johann Casper Lavater, later descibed his energetic friend: “His spirits are hurricane, his servants flames of fire. He goes on the wings of the wind. His laugh is the mockery of Hell, and his love a murderous lightning flash.” Fuseli traveled through Germany, and spent then much time in Berlin. There worked on a German translation of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Letters, which was published in 1763. Lavater and Fuseli remained friends. In 1788 appeared Fuseli’s translation of Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man, and he also illustrated the original German and French editions of his Physiognomical Fragments.

In 1764, Fuseli went to London to work as a translator of French, German, and Italian books. At the age of twenty-four, he translated into English Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks by the German Neo-Classical theorist J.J. Winkelmann. However, Fuseli did not become Winkelmann’s follower. He also admired another great intellectual figure of the time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he met, but eventually broke with his ideas. Fuseli’s book on the French philosopher, Remarks on the Writing and Conduct of J. J. Rousseau, was published anonymously in 1767.

Fuseli was an active writer until 1768 without much success. Because he could not support himself by his pen, he served as a traveling tutor to the young Lord Chewton, a work which he did not like and which was much against his temperement. Fuseli had “the wildness of the warrior”, as Lavater said, and a punch-up ended eventually his appointment. On the advice of the famous portrait painter Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), who encouraged Fuseli to devote himself to painting, he went in 1770 to Rome for eight years. There he abandoned Winkelmann’s refined aestheticism – “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” was not his program. Fuseli taught himself, mainly by copying Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and drawing from antique sculptures. Among Fuseli’s most haunting works dealing with antique is The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments (1778-80), in which only a hand, pointing upwards, and a foot, have remained from a colossal statue (of Constantine the Great). Although Fuseli’s technique was highly personal and experimental, his choice of themes influenced so much the other foreign artists in Rome, that he became virtually the leader of a school of painting. His circle included Alexander and John Runciman, the Swedish sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel, and the English artist Thomas Banks, and the Danish painter Nicolas Abildgaard.

On his return to Zurich Fuseli painted The Oath of the Ruttli (1779-81), which was destined for the Town Hall. After his romance with Lavater’s niece Anna Landolt failed, he left in 1779 for London. It is though that his best-known scene, The Nightmare, refers to this affair. A young woman is mounted by a demonic looking incubus; the monster literally is a burden on her heart. She lies in a sprawl, with her arm hanging down. A horse, the “night mare” gazes through the curtains with phosphorescent eyes, observing or leering. It has remained a puzzle, whose nightmare Fuseli portrays – it cannot be the woman’s because she is part of the scene herself. It has been said, that the picture is an revenge for an unfulfilled desire, ultimately perhaps a manifestation of a jealous passion – the strange lover of the woman is reduced into a monster. The work became so popular that Fuseli painted several other versions on request. One version of The Nightmare was published in Erasmus Darwin’s poem The Botanic Garden (1789-91). In France, The Nightmare inspired Charles Nodier’s fantasy story Smarra, ou Les Démons de la nuit (1821). Fuseli himself was careful not to be tempted by “fancy” and the unknown, but believed in the possible, the probable, and the known – “our ideas are the offspring of our senses,” he once said. A Sleeping Woman and the Furies (1821) took the sexual undertones even further – now the woman is half-naked and her figure suggest that she has been violated. Another cruel fantasy was Wolfram Looking at his Wife, whom he has Imprisoned with the Corpse of her Lover (1812-20). From these and other works it has been concluded, that Fuseli was a misogynist and he feared and loathed dominant women.

In 1788 Fuseli married Sophia Rawlins, whom he used as a model in a number of erotic and macabre paintings. In Mrs. Fuseli Seated by a Fireplace (1799) she was also referred in the figure of the feared Medusa – the sight of her head turned all living things into stone. The early feminist Mary Godwin (Wollstonecraft), whose portrait Fuseli painted, planned a trip with him to Paris, but after Sophia’s intervention the Fuselis door was closed to her forever. “I hate clever women,” Fuseli once said, “they are only troublesome.” Fuseli’s ‘Milton Gallery’, which was exhibited in 1799, was a financial failure. Fuseli also illustrated Dante, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Nordic myths and legends, the Niebelungenlied, medieval poems, and fairy tales, but at the beginning of his career, he was most attracted to the plays of William Shakespeare. His favorite works included Macbeth, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for which he produced numerous sequences. From 1786, Fuseli contributed actively to Boydell’s ‘Shakespeare Gallery’.

For the Analytical Review Fuseli started to write in 1788 essays and reviews. With Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other men and women interested in art, literature and politics, Fuseli frequented the home of Joseph Johnson, a publisher and prominent figure in radical British political and intellectual life. When Louis XVI was executed in France in 1793, he condemned the revolution as despotic and anarchic, although he had first welcomed it as a sign of “an age pregnant with the most gigantic efforts of character.” In 1799 he became professor of painting at the Royal Academy, and keeper of the Academy in 1804. Among his pupils were John Constable (1776-1837), the major English landscape painter of his time, Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), William Etty (1787-1849), and Edwin Landseer (1802-73), who first exhibited at the age of twelve. William Blake, who was sixteen years his junior, recognized a debt to him, and for a time many English artist copied his mannerisms.

Fuseli died on April 16, 1825, at the Countess of Guilford’s country residence at Putney Hill. He was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral, near to Sir Joshua Reynolds. After Fuseli’s death, Sophia burned many of the erotic drawings, which were not meant for the art audience. Fuseli’s work fell mostly into neglect. His reveries inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, but it was not until the the 20th century when his surrealistic works were rediscovered. Among his admirers was H.P. Lovecraft, who confessed that “Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh.” The Nightmare probably inspired also Salvador Dali’s painting Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion (1930)

Fuseli’s works drew from Neoclassic harmony and narrative clarity, Romantic eroticism, and Mannerist distortions. The gestures and movement of his figures were exaggerated, as if they were actors on a stage. Male bodies have oversteressed muscles; they are men of action, not thinkers. Fuseli himself was an avid theatergoer, which perhaps explains also some of his most dramatic light effects.

There is a peculiar disparity between what Fuseli painted and what he wrote about his art. The great name of German Romanticism, Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840) fully accepted the split between the inner and outer vision. “Follow unconditionally the voice of your inner self,” was his doctrine, “because this is the divine in us, and it does not lead us astray.” Fuseli’s Lectures on Painting (1801-30), originally given at the Royal Academy in London, followed the traditional juxtaposition between the history of ancient and “modern” art, without giving a view into his inner thoughts. However, Fuseli’s studio was furnished in the style of his paintings. When his pupil Benjamin Robert Haydon visited it, he was amazed by its “Galvanized devils – malicious witches brewing their incantations – Satan bringing Chaos, and springing upward like a pyramid of fire – Lady Macbeth – Paolo and Francesca – Falstraff and Mrs Quickly – humour, pathos, terror, blood and murder met one at every look! I expected the floor to give way – I fancied Fuseli himself to be a giant.”

Fuseli’s ghostly and frightening subject-matter was a visual continuum of the Gothic novel, which developed an aesthetics of terror and horror, was occupied with dreams and the unconscious, and often looked back to the feudal world. Fuseli once said, that “one of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams and what may be called the personification of sentiments.” However, Fuseli himself showed little interest in dreams and inner workings of the psyche, with one exception – like the Romantic writers of the younger generation, Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fuseli used opium. (Read more here).

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