The Story in Paintings: Henry Fuseli, Swiss Gothic

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Nightmare (1781), oil on canvas, 101.6 × 127 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of the eighteenth century, when William Blake was developing his artistic career, the Royal Academy had two influential and very controversial members: James Barry, who became Professor of Painting but was then the only member to be expelled until a few years ago, and Henry Fuseli, also Professor of Painting and renowned for his ‘Gothic’ works. Both were major influences over William Blake’s work.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) was born as Johann Heinrich Füssli in Zürich, Switzerland, to a large artistic family. Expecting to train to paint, he was surprised when his father sent him instead to start theological training, with the intention of him becoming a priest. He took up orders in 1761, but fled Switzerland shortly afterwards because of his involvement in exposing an unjust magistrate. He travelled through Germany, and in 1765 arrived in England.

At first, he made a precarious living in England by writing and translating. He seized the chance to show Sir Joshua Reynolds his drawings, and was advised to devote himself to painting. To further this goal, as he had received little formal training at this stage, he went to Italy in 1770, where he studied painting, and changed his last name to Fuseli.

On his return to England in 1779 he found his reputation already building, and a commission to paint for Boydell’s new Shakespeare Gallery, a bold scheme to develop an English school of history painting, based largely on income generated from prints.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Nightmare (1781), oil on canvas, 101.6 × 127 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

Fuseli’s breakthrough occurred in 1782, when he exhibited The Nightmare (1781) at the Royal Academy, and it remains the work by which he is best known. It shows a daemonic incubus squatting on the torso of a young woman, who is laid out as if in a deep sleep in bed, her head thrown back, and her arms above her head. Lurking in the darkness to the left is the head of a black horse, whose eyes appear unseeing. The incubus stares directly at the viewer in a manner which arouses discomfort. Fuseli also painted a second version with a slightly different composition, which is as well-known.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Dido (1781), oil on canvas, 244.3 x 183.4 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Dido (1781) is almost a conventional history painting, showing the founding queen of Carthage in the throes of death after she had been abandoned by Aeneas, according to Virgil’s epic Aeneid, at the end of Book 4. Fuseli adheres faithfully to Virgil’s account, around line 666: Dido has mounted her funeral pyre, and is on the couch on which she and Aeneas made love.

She then falls on a sword which Aeneas had given her, and that rests, covered with her blood, beside her, its tip pointing up towards her right breast. Her sister Anna rushes in to embrace her during her dying moments, and Jupiter sends Iris (shown above, wielding a golden sickle) to release Dido’s spirit from her body. Already smoke seems to be rising up from the pyre, which will confirm to Aeneas that she has killed herself, as he sails away from Carthage.

Fuseli’s history is not blood and gore, though, and the only blood shown is on the blade of the sword. Iris is also seen in a rainbow swirl, an interesting presentation which I am sure influenced Blake.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Dream of Queen Katherine (Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act IV, Scene 2) (1781), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Victoria and Albert Museum (Bequeathed by Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend), London. Image courtesy of and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Dream of Queen Katherine (Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act IV, Scene 2) (1781) is a remarkable fragment of a larger painting intended to show this Shakespearean scene, commissioned by Thomas Macklin in 1779 for his Poets’ Gallery, and is most likely to have been cut down from a copy of a painting very similar to The Vision of Catherine of Aragon (1781), below, which was commissioned by Sir Robert Smith and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1781.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Vision of Catherine of Aragon (1781), oil on canvas, 147.3 x 210.8 cm, Lytham St Annes Art Collection, Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Queen Katherine of Aragon, wife of King Henry VIII of England, is on her deathbed. After her attendant has told her about the death of Cardinal Wolsey, the queen falls asleep and has a remarkable dream, for which the stage directions read:
The vision. Enter, solemnly tripping one after another, six personages, clad in white robes, wearing on their heads garlands of bays, and golden vizards on their faces; branches of bays or palm in their hands. They first congee unto her, then dance; and, at certain changes, the first two hold a spare garland over her head; at which the other four make reverent curtsies; then the two that held the garland deliver the same to the other next two, who observe the same order in their changes, and holding the garland over her head: which done, they deliver the same garland to the last two, who likewise observe the same order: at which, as it were by inspiration, she makes in her sleep signs of rejoicing, and holdeth up her hands to heaven: and so in their dancing vanish, carrying the garland with them. The music continues.

Fuseli has adhered quite faithfully to these, showing the departure of the six figures on completion of their dance. I believe that this painting was particularly influential on some of Blake’s works.

Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma exhibited 1783 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825
Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783), oil on canvas, 99.1 x 125.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the Art Fund 1941), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Having made faithful depictions of several well-known narratives from literature, Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783) marks a strange departure, as Fuseli admitted that he invented the narrative shown in this painting. It appears to be one of a series, although only one other work has been identified as part of that, and that precursor is only known from a print of 1782. He also preceded this series with a single painting of Ezzelin and Meduna (1779), which refers to another unique narrative, but does not appear to have any associated works.

Fuseli provides the viewer with a rich array of ‘Gothic’ narrative elements from which to form their own account of the story. There are visions of faces in the distance on the left, chains leading to an unseen figure apparently manacled into a bed at the right, Percival swinging a sword above his head, to strike the cloaked figure of Urma in the left foreground, and a beautiful young woman (presumably Belisane) embraced by Percival’s left arm, kneeling on the floor.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Tiresias Appears to Ulysses During the Sacrifice (1780-85), watercolor and tempera on cardboard, 91.4 × 62.8 cm, Albertina, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Tiresias Appears to Ulysses During the Sacrifice (1780-85) is another dramatic scene, featuring the strange character of Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo in Thebes, who was apparently transformed into a woman for seven years. In Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus was instructed to consult Tiresias about his means of returning home to Ithaca, and does so using a process known as nekyia, with the sacrifice of a ram and a ewe in this painting.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Shepherd’s Dream (1786), black chalk, brush, ink and brown ink, sanguine, white chalk and wash over pencil on paper, dimensions not known, Albertina, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

The Shepherd’s Dream (1786) is an elaborate drawing made in preparation for the oil painting below. As it shows many of the elements within Fuseli’s composition more clearly than the painting, it is probably more useful for understanding their narrative.

John Milton’s (1608-1674) Paradise Lost held a special appeal for Fuseli since he had been introduced to it when a student. These works show a scene in the poem when the fallen angels in the Hall of Pandemonium (in Hell) are compared to the fairies who bewitch a peasant with their music and dancing:
… fairy elves,
Whose midnight revels by a forest side
Or fountain some belated peasant sees,
Or dreams he sees, while over head the moon
Sits arbitress, and nearer to the earth
Wheels her pale course, they on their mirth and dance
Intent, with jocund music charm his ear;
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.

Fuseli transforms the convention of these fairies dancing on the ground, and instead they swirl through the air above the sleeping shepherd. One of the fairies is touching the shepherd with his wand, to maintain his sleep. At the lower left, a fairy has pulled a mandrake root, which has transformed into a tiny homunculus, which is now standing. At the far right, sat on the steps, is the small figure of Queen Mabs (or Mab), who is responsible for bringing nightmares.

The Shepherd's Dream, from 'Paradise Lost' 1793 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825
Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Shepherd’s Dream, from ‘Paradise Lost’ (1793), oil on canvas, 154.3 x 215.3 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1966), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The later painted version of The Shepherd’s Dream, from ‘Paradise Lost’ (1793) cloaks much of the detail of Fuseli’s drawing in his deep chiaroscuro, but some elements, including Queen Mabs, are better emphasised and elaborated.

Titania and Bottom c.1790 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825
Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Titania and Bottom (c 1790), oil on canvas, 217.2 x 275.6 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Miss Julia Carrick Moore in accordance with the wishes of her sister 1887), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Titania and Bottom (c 1790) returns to more popular scenes from Shakespeare, here Fuseli’s liberal fantasy based on the opening of Act 4 Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Titania’s words:
Come, sit thee down upon this flowery bed,
While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head,
And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.

Titania (left of centre) calls on her fairies to attend to Bottom, who wears the ass’s head to the right of her. Peaseblossom scratches Bottom’s head, with Mustardseed on his hand, and Cobweb kills a bee to bring its honey to him. Fuseli has borrowed liberally from other sources: Titania’s pose is from Leonardo da Vinci’s Leda (c 1506), the elves at the right from a Botticelli illustration for Dante’s Paradiso (c 1469), and the girl with butterfly wings on her head in the left foreground is based on some of Reynolds’ child portraits.

Fuseli became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1790, was appointed professor of painting there in 1799, and Keeper in 1803. In 1799, Fuseli exhibited a series of paintings showing scenes from Milton, in the hope of setting up a Milton Gallery, but this proved a commercial failure and was abandoned the following year.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Tekemessa and Eurysakes (Eros reviving Psyche) (1800-10), oil on canvas, 103.8 x 82.9 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Tekemessa and Eurysakes (1800-10) is one of the most obscure classical Greek mythological paintings that I have come across. Tekemessa (or Tecmessa) was a princess, whose father was killed by Telamonian Ajax during the Trojan War, and who was taken captive by Ajax. She was famously beautiful, and had a son by Ajax named Eurysakes (or Eurysaces). Mother and son survived Ajax’s suicide, and later Eurysakes became king of Salamis Island, Ajax’s homeland.

Fuseli’s painting shows the mother comforting her son, perhaps after Ajax’s suicide, although its subtitle of Eros reviving Psyche is another interpretation altogether.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Satan Calling up His Legions (1802), oil on canvas, 91 × 71 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Many of Fuseli’s later paintings were concerned with a world of Satan, devils, and witches, among them his Satan Calling up His Legions (1802), with their weakening narrative.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Fairy Mab (1815-20), oil on canvas, 70 × 90 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Fairy Mab (1815-20) shows another Shakespearean character, referred to by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Act 1 Scene 4, who is the “fairies’ midwife”, but more probably in the guise of her reinvention in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (1792–1822) first large poetic work, Queen Mab, which was published in 1813. The name Mab is apparently pronounced as if it were Mave, to rhyme with save.

In the poem, Queen Mab, a fairy, descends in a chariot to earth, where she finds Ianthe asleep on a couch. She then takes Ianthe’s spirit on a tour of her palace at the end of the universe, where she shows him visions of the past, present, and future. Shelley use this as a platform for discussing issues of atheism, free love, and other moral matters.

This presents Fuseli with another opportunity for a liberal fantasy, with a full-sized Mab (contrasting with Mercutio’s “no bigger than an agate-stone on the fore-finger of an alderman”) at the centre of more miniature fairy antics.

As Professor of Painting, Fuseli taught extensively. Among his students were John Constable, William Etty, and Edwin Landseer, and he was a major influence on William Blake, who became a close friend from 1787.

Fuseli was an unusual individual who painted works ranging from fairly straightforward history to the utterly unconventional and seriously weird. Although I do not think for a moment that he drove Blake’s imagination or vision, I suspect that Blake valued their friendship for the support and empowerment that he could provide. Fuseli demonstrated that you can paint from your mind’s eye, however unusual your mind may be.



Myrone, M (2001) Henry Fuseli, British Artists, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 8543 7357 1.