Henri Fuseli (1741 - 1825)

Henri Fuseli


Swiss-born painter, a leader of the Romantic movement, was active mainly in England.  He originally trained as a priest and took holy orders in 1761, but never practiced.  He spent the years 1770-78 in Italy, studying the work of Michelangelo, whose style he tried to emulate. He painted no landscapes and based his figures on Michelangelo, not nature.  Fuseli was a much respected and influential figure in his lifetime especially in England, but his work was neglected after his death until the Expressionists and Surrealists saw him as a kindred spirit. He was a friend of 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).


the nightmare

 The Nightmare

1781, Oil on canvas, 101 x 127 cm
Institute of Arts, Detroit

While Fuseli was studying theology in Zurich he became friends with Felix Lavater and through Lavater he met his niece Anna Landolt.  Fuseli  fell passionately in love with her.  In Maryanne Ward's book, A Painting of the Unspeakable: Henri Fuseli, The Nightmare, she quotes a passage of a letter written by Fuseli to Lavater about an erotic dream he had about Anna:

"Last night I had her in bed with me, tossed my bedclothes hugger-mugger wound my hot and tight-clasped hands about her, fused her body and soul together with my own, poured into her my spirit, breath and strength. Anyone who touches her now commits adultery and incest! She is mine, and I am hers. And have her I will."

However, it was a one-sided love affair and came to nothing, but the failed romance and erotic dream is probably reflected in The Nightmare. In the painting Fuseli contrasted the very bright color of the woman herself and her nightdress with the dark red, yellows and ochres of the background.  Her position is erotic and sitting atop of her with its feet positioned over her heart is an incubus (a male demon that has intercourse with sleeping women).  The passive creature looks out at us inquisitively. On the rear of the painting is an unfinished sketch of a girl which is thought by some art historians to be Anna Landolt, thus supporting the conclusion that Anna is the woman in Fuseli's picture.   In the left background there is a horse with phosphorescent eyes poking its head through  the dark red velvet curtains.  Is  this the "nightmare"?

The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782 and created quite a stir...it still does. Of all the painting I have presented to students, this exploration of the murky psyche where sex and fear meet, caused more students to squirm in their seats.

Note:  Fuseli painted other versions of The Nightmare following the success of the first.


fuseli, midsummer night's dream

"Midsummer Nights Dream Act IV Scene I--A wood - Titiania [i.e., Titania], queen of the fairies, Bottom, fairies attending & etc." -engraving. 1796, Library of Congress

His fascination with the fantastic comes out in his literary subjects, which formed a major part of his output; he produced several works for Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery, including this scene from "Midsummer Night's Dream" and one from "The Merry Wives of Windsor" below.


Falstaff in the Laundry Basket
Falstaff in the Laundry Basket
Kunsthaus, Zurich, 1792,
Oil on canvas, 137 x 170 cm


satan starting from Irhuriel's Speal
Henry Fuseli
Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel's Spear (Satan flieht, von Ithuriels Speer beruht) 1779
Oil on canvas, 2305 x 2763 mm
 Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Based on Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), this painting, exhibited in 1780 at the Royal Academy, helped make Fuseli's reputation.  There is  a sense of  drama, but the artist seems to have gotten Satan's  figure out of whack.


The German artist, trained in Italy, obviously knew well his English audience.

"The Englishman eats roastbeef and plumpudding, drinks port and claret; therefore, if you will read him, you must open the portals of Hell with the hand of Milton, convulse his ear or his sides with Shakespeare's buskin or sock, raise him above the stars with Dryden's Cecilia or sink him to the melancholy of the grave with Gray. Intermediate tones, though they were as sweet as honey, as lovely as the flush of dawn, send him to sleep."  -Fuseli, in a letter to a friend, November, 1765