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Henry Fuseli Photo

Henry Fuseli

Swiss Painter and Writer

Born: February 7, 1741 - Zürich, Switzerland
Died: April 16, 1825 - London, United Kingdom
Movements and Styles:
"Our ideas are the offspring of our senses; we are not more able to create the form of a being we have not seen than we are able to create a new sense."
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Henry Fuseli Signature
"Art, like love, excludes all competition and absorbs the man."
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"Ancient art was the tyrant of Egypt, the mistress of Greece and the servant of Rome."
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Henry Fuseli Signature
"Art among a religious race produces relics; among a military one, trophies; among a commercial one, articles of trade."
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Henry Fuseli Signature
"Selection is the invention of the landscape painter."
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Henry Fuseli Signature

Summary of Henry Fuseli

At a time when moralistic reverence and factual accuracy were staples of British academic painting, Fuseli stood out amongst his peers as the artist who revelled in the macabre and fantastical. In the new age of scientific and liberal enlightenment, Fuseli played rather on the spectator's primal fears and instincts in painted scenarios that would often marry the supernatural with the erotic. Coming from a strong theological background, Fuseli's intellectual interests would evolve along more philological and humanitarian lines and he carved out a successful parallel career as a theoretician and professor. He had honed his artistic practice, however, in an eight-year study period in Rome where Michelangelo proved to be his biggest stylistic influence. Thematically his art is most famous for its intense emotional content which was expressed through a series of interpretations of poetic and theatrical works (including Milton and Shakespeare). Though not considered of great (or at least of a lesser) artistic merit, he produced a large number of erotic - most would say pornographic - sketches and drawings that have seen him aligned with the libertine movement that originated in eighteenth century France. He had a conspicuous influence on the style of the emerging generation of British artists, most notably, William Blake.


  • Standing apart from his more austere Academy colleagues, Fuseli was considered the maestro of melodramatic exposition. Having fallen under the spell of the Mannerists while studying in Rome, Fuseli achieved his most powerful dramatic effects through a mastery of chiaroscuro lighting and the skilful foreshortening of figures and objects.
  • Though well versed in the ideals of the Enlightenment, Fuseli became closely associated with the German Sturm and Drang (storm and stress) literary group which sought to challenge what they saw as the "cult" of rationalism. His mistrust of rationalism manifested itself in his art through an individualistic style that dealt, not with the objective world, but rather with the experiences of the senses.
  • Because of his fascination with dream worlds, sexual symbolism and the supernatural - which he tended to explore through personal interpretations of poetic and tragic literary works - Fuseli is seen as the godfather of the twentieth-century Surrealist movement.
  • Fuseli's unabashed love of women played a crucial role in his art. The theme of the sheltered woman being terrorized by a demon saw his paintings singled out as an antecedent of the emerging strain of gothic horror in literature. Meanwhile, his most provocative work emerged out of his sexual relationship with his wife, the artist Sophia Rawlins. Known to be fetishists (predominantly about hair), Rawlins posed for her husband in a series of erotic pictures over the course of their long married life.

Biography of Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli Life and Legacy

Fuseli was fascinated with the extremes of human passion and was adept at painting scenes of abject human tragedy. In Oedipus Cursing His Son Polynices (1786), he shows the blind Oedipus calling for each of his sons to die at the hands of the other, the dark tones of the canvas echoing the gloomy depths of the human spirit.

Important Art by Henry Fuseli

Progression of Art
The Nightmare (1781)

The Nightmare

The Nightmare shows a dark bedroom scene in which a female figure lies prone on a dishevelled bed, seemingly unconscious, with her lifeless arms hanging limply. A goblin sits atop her still body. The goblin represents an incubus, a mythological male creature who sat on female victims delivering them a suffocating feeling associated with sleep paralysis and nightmares. To the left of the frame is a horse's head with its large eyes observing the scene from behind a red curtain.

Arguably Fuseli's most famous painting, and a subject matter to which he would return, it was one of his first paintings to carry charged erotic connotations. Considered innovative in its time, it addressed obscure meanings which are the source of nightmares. In this respect, the painting belongs to the realms of gothic horror that would soon inspire writers such as Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe.

The work has been read on a more personal level, however. On the reverse of the canvas is an unfinished portrait of a girl leading some to believe that the painting may have been an act of vengeance against an unnamed former lover. Others identify the woman in the painting specifically as Anna Landolt, Lavater's niece, and a woman with whom Fuseli had fallen in love. Indeed, the painting depicts an erotic dream Fuseli had had involving her and which he described in a letter to Lavater. In this interpretation the incubus sitting on the woman represents Fuseli himself while the horse's head pushing through the dark red velvet curtains has been read symbolically: as a metaphor for sexual penetration.

Exciting "an uncommon degree of interest", the painting proved very popular with the public when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782. Indeed, the engraved versions that followed made The Nightmare widely available and catapulted Fuseli to widespread fame. The painting soon became a source of inspiration for contemporary artists, including William Blake who reinterpreted the composition in his motif for his famous poem Jerusalem, as well as the satirist James Gillray in his Duke William's Ghost (1799), in which he shows George, the Prince of Wales lying drunk on a dishevelled bed.

Oil on canvas - The Detroit Institute of Arts, USA

Titania and Bottom (c. 1790)
c. 1790

Titania and Bottom

This painting illustrates a scene from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream when Oberon casts a spell on Queen Titania causing her to fall in love with Bottom whose own head has been turned into the head of an ass. Fuseli was intent on developing history painting beyond the retelling of events; to produce paintings based on literary and fantastical themes. Shakespeare was the ideal author for his project. Fuseli invented characters from folklore, such as the changeling at the right-hand corner of the painting, the small old man held on a leash by a fairy with a mischievous look, and the butterfly-headed girl on the left. But Fuseli also remained true to the theatrical nature of the work by placing the "players" in a stage setting and by having them look out at their audience.

The picture draws on many artistic influences including Titania's seductive pose from Leonardo da Vinci's Leda (1506), and elves that invoke Botticelli's illustration of Dante's Paradiso (1469). In seeking to portray dream worlds - dreams being the "royal road" to the unconscious according to Sigmund Freud - Fuseli's work is held by many to be a precursor to the work of the Surrealists who were devotees of Freud and his ground-breaking work The Interpretation of Dreams published in 1900. Predating Freud and the Surrealists, however, this painting ranks as an important example of Fuseli's preoccupation with supernatural motifs and he went on to paint several other fantastical scenes based on A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

Christ Disappearing at Emmaus (1772)

Christ Disappearing at Emmaus

The painting shows Christ rising to the heavens after the disciples recognise him through the breaking of bread, an allusion to the eucharist, the Christian sacrament commemorating the last supper in which wine and bread are consecrated and consumed. This subject matter was popular in the retelling of one of the early resurrection scenes on the road to Emmaus and it followed an artistic theme tackled by the likes of Titian, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Caravaggio and Diego Velázquez.

The painting is unusual, however, since Fuseli very rarely painted biblical subjects. Although ordained as a priest, he moved away from religious doctrine, declaring himself a non-Christian in the late 1760's. Although ostensibly a religious painting, Fuseli seems to have been drawn to the subject on its own terms as a mythological dream sequence.

Oil on canvas - Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

Symplegma eines Mannes und einer Frau mit helfender Dienerin (Symplegma of a man and a woman with a helping servant) (1770-78)

Symplegma eines Mannes und einer Frau mit helfender Dienerin (Symplegma of a man and a woman with a helping servant)

Though it hardly holds its own against his most distinguished works, this pen and ink drawing provides an example of the many erotic drawings Fuseli produced throughout his life. Although many of the drawings were destroyed by his wife immediately following his death - particularly those in which she was depicted - a large number have survived. The drawings were distributed amongst friends and influential patrons and are considered a source of early, pre-photographic, pornography.

This drawing is part of his Symplegma series which he produced during his eight-year stay in Rome. The symplegma (erotic copulation) involved a man and two women, one of which would be a female servant, who, under the manners of the 18th century class system, would oblige the master and mistress of the house by "providing excitement" in fulfilling the couples' conjugal obligations.

Fuseli's were very different to earlier erotic depictions in Western Art which were not as graphic in their illustration of the sexual act. Fuseli was in fact part of a wider libertine movement, which originated in France in the eighteenth century, and saw the widespread availability of erotic etchings. Fuseli's erotic pictures saw him join the ranks of eminent artists including Jean-Frédéric Schall, Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honoré Fragonard all of whom explored the limits of eroticism in art.

Pen and Ink Drawing - Museo Horne, Florence

The Shepherd's Dream (1793)

The Shepherd's Dream

Fuseli was introduced to the poetry of John Milton during his student days in Zürich by the Swiss scholar Jacob Bodmer. Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost held a special appeal for him given that it explores the realms of the imagination, dreams, and the supernatural.

This painting depicts the moment in Milton's poem that compares the fallen angels in the Hall of Pandemonium in Hell to the fairies who bewitch a passing peasant with the sound of their music and dancing. The fairies are shown dancing above the sleeping shepherd with one fairy touching the shepherd with a dream-inducing wand. In the bottom left-hand corner, a witch has just pulled a flowering mandrake out of the ground, and in the right-hand corner, Queen Mabs, queen of the fairies and wife of Oberon who is described as the one who reveals to sleeping men their unutterable desires. While a naked fairy combs her hair, a grotesque child is chained to Queen Mabs pointing to the shepherd. The interpretation given by Fuseli confirms an erotic fantasy which is reminiscent of his erotic drawings.

This work is further evidence of Fuseli's dramatizations of literary texts. He was able to rely solely on his powers of imagination and as such he very self-consciously moved away from the traditional genre of history paintings where viewers judged the painting on its historical or biblical accuracy. This painting was one of a series he made for Fuseli's Milton Gallery which he established in Pall Mall, London, in an attempt to emulate Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. The Milton Gallery proved a commercial disaster and might have hastened Fuseli's decision to pursue a more academic career path.

Oil on canvas

The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (1796)

The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches

This painting, first exhibited in 1799 (and sold by the artist to his friend and biographer John Knowles in 1808) illustrates a narrative thread from Milton's Paradise Lost. It shows a witch distracted by the arrival of the Night-Hag, a description used for Hecate, the goddess of darkness and evil, who is "lured by the smell of infant blood". Hellhounds occupy the background while, in front of them, witches dance in celebration of the imminent sacrifice of the child, with the raised hand in the foreground holding a dagger, the instrument of choice for the intended sacrifice.

Fuseli flaunts his mastery of chiaroscuro to intensify the dramatic effect of the scene and thereby updates, or "reimagines", Milton's poem as gothic horror. Art historian, Luisa Cale suggests that the painting is in fact a parody of the Satan and Sin sequence of the poem. Fuseli, she argues, created the horror of depicting "an inverted eucharist in which the community feeds on its offspring" with the almost blasphemous portrayal of the witch in the pose of a classical Madonna. The dancing of the witches, meanwhile, takes us back to Fuseli's painting, The Shepherd's Dream and became a motif in William Blake's (one of Fuseli's most ardent admirers) Oberon, Titania and Puck.

Oil on canvas

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers (1812)

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers

This painting depicts the scene from Shakespeare's play Macbeth in which Macbeth has just murdered Duncan, the King of Scotland. Shocked by what he has just done, Macbeth, still holding the daggers with which he has committed the crime, is berated by Lady Macbeth who is furious at her husband's inability to hide the daggers that might incriminate him/them.

The force with which Lady Macbeth demonstrates as she lunges maximizes the drama of the scene. Fuseli once more displays his mastery of chiaroscuro but here we also see the translucent colouring of the faint blues and whites which bring an added ghostlike otherworldly subtext to the scenario. The fluidity of the brushwork contributes to the movement and creates tension at the expense of fine description: "detail tends to destroy terror" he proclaimed.

Fuseli, who had translated Shakespeare's play into German while still a student in Zürich, first saw the play performed in 1766 with the famous actor David Garrick in the lead role. Following that performance he made his first preparatory sketch but the painting appeared much later and coincided with last performances of the leading actress of the day, Sarah Siddons, who played Lady Macbeth (a character with whom she self-identified) in a performance in 1812. The completion of Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers helped seal Fuseli's legend and five years later his international reputation was cemented when he was elected to the First Class in the Academy of Saint Luke in Rome.

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Henry Fuseli
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    John Knowles
  • No image available
    Johann Kaspar Lavater
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Henry Fuseli Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 09 Jan 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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