Search the Collections

Henry Fuseli
Nationality: 
swiss
Gender: 
Male
Birth Date: 
1741
Birth Place: 
Zürich
Death Date: 
1825
Death Place: 
Putney Hill, England
One of the most famous European artists of his day, Swiss painter, draftsman and author Henry Fuseli spent the last five decades of his life working in England. Best known for his interpretations of scenes from William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) plays, John Milton’s (1608-1674) poetry and the Germanic legend “Nibelungenlied,” his works were done in a dramatic style, often depicting nude figures caught in strained and violent poses suggestive of intense emotion. Johann Heinrich Füssli was born in Zurich in 1741, the son of an artist and art historian. His early education was at home, instructed by his mother. He began drawing around the age of eight, but received no formal art instruction. Although he wanted to be an artist, his father thought he should enter the clergy and sent him to the Caroline College in Zürich, where he studied Greek, Latin, literature and aesthetics and began his life-long interest in Milton, the Nibelungenlied and Shakespeare. Fuseli was ordained as a Zwinglian minister in 1761, but his career in Zürich was short. The next year he and his two friends published a pamphlet criticizing a corrupt local magistrate, and were advised to leave town, which they did in 1763. They studied with the Swiss philosopher Johann Georg Sulzer (1720-1779) in Berlin and the theologian Johann Joachim Spalding (1714-1804) in Barth, Pomerania. Through Sulzer Fuseli met the British ambassador to Prussia, Sir Andrew Mitchell (1708-1771), who took Fuseli to London in 1764 on a mission to advise British writers on German literature. Mitchell introduced Fuseli to the bookseller and publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809) and the banker Thomas Coutts (1735-1822), both of whom would become important patrons. Fuseli found work in book illustration and journalism, published a much-criticized translation of a German work on Greek sculpture and wrote a monograph on the work of Jean-Jacques Rouseau (1712-1778). Fuseli met Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) in 1768, who advised him to focus on painting and recommended study in Italy. Fuseli followed that advice in 1770, with financial support from Coutts and other patrons. During eight years in Rome he studied Michelangelo (1475-1564) intensely and found inspiration in the art from antiquity and the Italian Mannerists. He adopted the Italian version of his name, established his artistic reputation, and enjoyed an active social life that may have been recalled in his later erotic drawings. Fuseli left Rome in 1778, spending six months in Zürich before returning to England. There he reconnected with Johnson and Reynolds and began to exhibit history paintings at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions. His “The Death of Dido” (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art), shown in the 1781 exhibition, was either a homage to Reynolds’s work on the same subject shown in the same exhibition or a competitive challenge, but it generated much publicity in any case. The next year Fuseli exhibited his shocking and controversial “The Nightmare” (1781, Detroit Institute of Arts), which drew great attention and became famous across Europe through reproductive prints (W. 67-67G). In 1786 the print publisher John Boydell (1719-1804) conceived his “Shakespeare Gallery,” a project to publish a new edition of the Shakespeare’s plays, commission paintings of scenes from the plays by leading artists to be shown in a public gallery, and publish a portfolio of prints reproducing the paintings. The painters and engravers were paid large sums for their work, with Fuseli contributing nine paintings. An artistic success, the project led to Boydell’s eventual bankruptcy. In 1788 Fuseli married Sophia Rawlins (1762/3-1832), whom he depicted in some 150 drawings. That year he was elected as an associate member of the Royal Academy, followed by his election as a full member in 1790. In 1791 Fuseli and his friend Johnson were inspired to attempt a new edition of Milton’s complete works with engraved illustrations after Fuseli’s paintings. Johnson later withdrew, but Fuseli went ahead, exhibiting 41 paintings of scenes from Milton’s works in 1799 and another 47 in 1800. No engravings were ever made and few of the paintings were sold, but the exhibitions were artistic successes. Elected as Professor of Painting at the Academy in 1799, Fuseli gave his first lectures in 1801, ultimately writing lectures on ten subjects. Elected Keeper of the Academy in 1804, he resigned as Professor in 1805. Although he continued painting and drawing, eventually creating some 3,000 works, his major efforts after 1800 were in his duties at the Academy and writing art history works. In 1810 the rules of the Academy were altered to permit Fuseli to be re-elected Professor of Painting while retaining his post as Keeper, assuring financial security for the rest of his life. Fuseli died in 1825 while visiting the Putney Hill country home of his patron Lady Susan North, Countess of Guilford (1771-1837), one of Thomas Coutts’s daughters. Fuseli was buried alongside other artists in St. Paul’s Cathedral. (TNB 7/2015) Selected bibliography: Lentzsch, Franziska, et al. Fuseli: The Wild Swiss. Exhibition catalog, with essays by Cristoph Becker, Christian Klemm and Bernhard von Waldkirch. Translated by Suzanne Walters and Carol Escow. Zürich: Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess AG, 2005. Schiff, Gert. Henry Fuseli 1741-1825. Exhibition catalog, with an essay by Werner Hofmann; translated by Sarah Twohig. London: Tate Gallery, 1975.