The Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) depicted the marvelous, the megalomaniac, supernatural horror, the irrational, the erotic, and the macabre, expressing violently romantic attitudes in a severe neoclassic style.
Henry Fuseli was the first artist to command the epic literature and heroic history of northern Europe as well as the Mediterranean countries, and by his wide reading and close study of the Old Masters he equipped himself to extend the scope of history painting far beyond the traditional limits of the Bible and classical antiquity. In his speculative boldness he was a child of the Enlightenment, but he was also a fierce critic of sterile rationalism and preached the gospel of the imagination with religious fervor.
Henry Fuseli was born Johann Heinrich Füssli (in 1764 he Anglicized his name) in Zurich on Feb. 6, 1741, the son of a painter with strong religious convictions who destined him for the Zwinglian ministry. After a period of intensive theological study Fuseli was ordained in 1761 and preached his first sermon. He was a friend of Johann Kaspar Lavater, whose Aphorisms on Man he later translated into English from manuscript. Fuseli became the favorite disciple of Johann Jakob Bodmer, who in 1740 had published an essay on the wonderful in poetry that led to a literary war with Johann Christoph Gottsched in Germany and the formation of a revolutionary Swiss school which used English literature, especially Milton and Shakespeare, as a spearhead in promoting romanticism.
Fuseli's attack on corruption in high places made it prudent for him to leave Zurich in 1763. After a year in Germany, where he met most of the progressive writers of the day, he went to England. The idea was that he should act as a link between the English and the Swiss-German avantgarde movements, and his admirers confidently expected him to become the literary genius of the Continental coterie on his return. He earned his living by writing and translating and as a tutor to a young nobleman.
Like Voltaire earlier, Fuseli was attracted by the English tolerance of ideas, but it was the stirrings of romanticism and especially the theater, in which David Garrick had pioneered a revolution in stagecraft, that captured his enthusiasm. Fuseli stayed in England for 6 years, by which time he had decided to become a painter. The story that Sir Joshua Reynolds told him he would become the greatest painter of the age if he studied in Rome for a few years is probably an exaggeration, but Fuseli was undoubtedly encouraged by Reynolds.
Fuseli studied in Rome from 1770 to 1778. "Fuseli in Rome" wrote Lavater in 1773, "is one of the greatest imaginations." This sums up in a nutshell the fascination he exerted not only on Reynolds but on those who, like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, never met him but heard about him from friends. Lavater described Fuseli's look as lightning, his word a thunderstorm, his jest death, and his revenge hell. These attributes of romantic genius had the unusual support of a Voltaire an clarity of mind and incisiveness of expression. The elevation of the sketch as the spontaneous expression of genius also contributed to his reputation in romantic circles. He seems to have kept up his drawing from childhood, but his output was now prodigious, and the themes were precisely those that appealed to the early romantics: Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, the struggle for political liberty, attacks on religious bigotry, Greek tragedy, and Homer. He left many of his drawings with Lavater in Zurich, where Goethe and others eagerly sought them out.
In 1779 Fuseli returned to London, exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy from 1780. His first outstanding success was The Nightmare, exhibited in 1782. Reynolds promoted his election as associate royal academician in 1788, the year Fuseli married Sophia Rawlins, but there was a temporary coolness when Fuseli was elected royal academician in 1790 over the head of Reynolds's nominee. In 1799 Fuseli became professor of painting at the academy, and his first three Lectures on Painting were published in 1801. In 1804 he obtained the key position of keeper, virtually head of the academy schools.
Parallel with Fuseli's career in the academy, and entirely in harmony with its goal, he threw himself with enthusiasm into every scheme for promoting the revival of history painting, including his illustrations of Homer (he collaborated with William Cowper from 1786); his paintings for John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery; and above all his own Milton Gallery, 47 canvases on which he worked from 1790 to 1800.
Fuseli's last lectures—which put him in the forefront of those who pioneered art history in England by combining the analytical approach of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (whose Reflections he translated in 1765) with an even wider background of ideas—were delivered in 1825. On April 16 of that year he died in London.
The Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli, edited by John Knowles (3 vols., 1831), is valuable. By far the best introduction in English is Eudo C. Mason, The Mind of Henry Fuseli: Selections from His Writings (1951), a brilliantly annotated selection of Fuseli's major writings with an introductory study by Mason. Also useful is the essay on Fuseli in Ruthven Todd, Tracks in the Snow: Studies in English Science and Art (1946). An English translation of Paul Ganz, The Drawings of Henry Fuseli, appeared in 1949. Frederick Antal, Fuseli Studies (1956), is a scholarly monograph that reproduces some of Fuseli's finest drawings and is especially valuable for its critical apparatus and bibliographical references.
Fuseli, Henry, Henry Fuseli, London: Academy Editions; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.
Fuseli, Henry, The life and writings of Henry Fuseli, Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus, 1982.
Schiff, Gert., Henry Fuseli, 1741-1825: essay, catalogue entries and biographical outline, London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1975.