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Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli (German: Johann Heinrich Füssli) (February 7, 1741 – April 17, 1825) was a British painter, draughtsman, and writer on art, of Swiss origin.

Fuseli was born in Zürich, Switzerland, the second of eighteen children. His father was Johann Caspar Füssli, a painter of portraits and landscapes, and author of Lives of the Helvetic Painters. He intended Henry for the church, and sent him to the Caroline college of Zurich, where he received an excellent classical education. One of his schoolmates there was Johann Kaspar Lavater, with whom he became close friends.

Early in 1779 he returned to Britain, taking in Zürich on his way. He found a commission awaiting him from Alderman Boydell, who was then organizing his famous Shakespeare Gallery. Fuseli painted a number of pieces for Boydell, and published an English edition of Lavater’s work on physiognomy. He likewise gave William Cowper some valuable assistance in preparing a translation of Homer. In 1788 Fuseli married Sophia Rawlins (originally one of his models), and he soon after became an associate of the Royal Academy. The early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whose portrait he had painted, planned a trip with him to Paris, but after Sophia’s intervention the Fuselis door was closed to her forever. Two years later he was promoted to Academician.

In 1799 Fuseli exhibited a series of paintings from subjects furnished by the works of John Milton, with a view to forming a Milton gallery corresponding to Boydell’s Shakespeare gallery. There were 47 Milton paintings, many of them very large; they were completed at intervals in the space of nine years. The exhibition, which closed in 1800, proved a commercial failure. In 1799 Fuseli was also appointed professor of painting to the Academy. Four years afterwards he was chosen as Keeper, and resigned his professorship; but he resumed it in 1810, and continued to hold both offices until his death. In 1805 he brought out an edition of Pilkington’s Lives of the Painters, which did little for his reputation. As Keeper, he was succeeded by Henry Thomson.

Antonio Canova, when on his visit to England, was much taken with Fuseli’s works, and on returning to Rome in 1817 caused him to be elected a member of the first class in the Academy of St Luke. Fuseli, after a life of uninterrupted good health, died at Putney Hill, at the advanced age of eighty-four, and was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. He was comparatively rich at his death.

As a painter, Fuseli favoured the supernatural. He pitched everything on an ideal scale, believing a certain amount of exaggeration necessary in the higher branches of historical painting. In this theory he was confirmed by the study of Michelangelo’s works and the marble statues of the Monte Cavallo, which, when at Rome, he liked to contemplate in the evening, relieved against a murky sky or illuminated by lightning.

Fuseli painted more than 200 pictures, but he exhibited only a small number of them. His earliest painting represented “Joseph interpreting the Dreams of the Baker and Butler”; the first to excite particular attention was The Nightmare, exhibited in 1782. He painted two versions, shown in the Nightmare article. Themes seen in “The Nightmare” were repeated in his 1796 painting, “Night-Hag visiting the Lapland Witches.”

Fusely was a much respected and influential figure in his lifetime, but his work was generally neglected for about a century after his death until the Expressionists and Surrealists saw in him a kindred spirit. His work can be clumsy and overblown, but at its best has something of the imaginative intensity of his friend William Blake, who described Fuseli as `The only man that e’er I knew who did not make me almost spew‘. Fuseli’s extensive writings on art include Lectures on Painting (1801) and a translation of Winckelmann’s Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks (1765).

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