Henry Fuseli was born in Switzerland, the son of a painter and writer, Johann Caspar Fuseli (sometimes spelt F?ssli, 1707-82). His father’s love of art and literature was transmitted to his son, manifesting itself in such works as The Death of Oedipus (1784) and Titania and Bottom (c. 1780-90), as well as in Henry’s later career as an art critic.
At the age of 20, Henry Fuseli was ordained as a pastor, but a disagreement with his father prompted him to leave Switzerland and the Church. He traveled throughout Europe, studying in Germany and Italy, where he was influenced by Michelangelo, before arriving in London. He was soon accepted into the London art-world and became a member of the Royal Academy in 1790. Despite frequent visits to Europe, including to his native Switzerland, he always returned to London.
Fuseli’s enigmatic, dreamlike Nightmare was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790, bringing him wide public acclaim and instant fame. The unsettling subject matter and treatment reveal the disparate influences of Classicism (engendered by his study of Michelangelo), the grotesque, as seen in the work of Arcimboldo, and the work of William Blake.
Works as a Painter
As a painter, Fuseli favoured the supernatural. He pitched everything on an ideal scale, believing a certain amount of exaggeration necessary in the higher branches of historical painting. In this theory he was confirmed by the study of Michelangelo’s works and the marble statues of the Monte Cavallo, which, when at Rome, he liked to contemplate in the evening, relieved against a murky sky or illuminated by lightning.
Describing his style, the 1911 edition of the Encyclop?dia Britannica said that:
His figures are full of life and earnestness, and seem to have an object in view which they follow with intensity. Like Rubens he excelled in the art of setting his figures in motion. Though the lofty and terrible was his proper sphere, Fuseli had a fine perception of the ludicrous. The grotesque humour of his fairy scenes, especially those taken from A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, is in its way not less remarkable than the poetic power of his more ambitious works.
Though not noted as a colourist, Fuseli was described as a master of light and shadow. Rather than setting out his palette methodically in the manner of most painters, he merely distributed the colours across it randomly. He often used his pigments in the form of a dry powder, which he hastily combined on the end of his brush with oil, or turpentine, or gold size, regardless of the quantity, and depending on accident for the general effect. This recklessness may perhaps be explained by the fact that he did not paint in oil until the age of 25.
The Nightmare (1781), Detroit Institute of Arts
Fuseli painted more than 200 pictures, but he exhibited only a small number of them. His earliest painting represented “Joseph interpreting the Dreams of the Baker and Butler”; the first to excite particular attention was The Nightmare, exhibited in 1782. He painted two versions, shown in the Nightmare article. Themes seen in The Nightmare such as horror, dark magic and sexuality, were echoed in his 1796 painting, Night-Hag visiting the Lapland Witches.
His sketches or designs numbered about 800; they have admirable qualities of invention and design, and are frequently superior to his paintings. In his drawings, as in his paintings, his method included deliberately exaggerating the proportions of the human body and throwing his figures into contorted attitudes. One technique involved setting down arbitrary points on a sheet, which then became the extreme points of the various limbs. Notable examples of these drawings were made in concert with George Richmond when the two artists were together in Rome. He rarely drew the figure from life, basing his art on study of the antique and Michelangelo.
He produced no landscapes”Damn Nature! she always puts me out,” was his characteristic exclamationand painted only two portraits. However, similar to contemporary landscape painters such as J.M.W. Turner. he evoked qualities of terror and the sublime.
Many interesting anecdotes of Fuseli, and his relations to contemporary artists, are given in his Life by John Knowles (1831). He influenced the art of Fortunato Duranti.
Shocked, titillated, and frightened
Working during the height of the Enlightenment, the so-called Age of Reason, the Swiss-English painter Henry Fuseli (born Johann Heinrich F?ssli) instead chose to depict darker, irrational forces in his famous painting The Nightmare. In Fuselis startling composition, a woman bathed in white light stretches across a bed, her arms, neck, and head hanging off the end of the mattress. An apelike figure crouches on her chest while a horse with glowing eyes and flared nostrils emerges from the shadowy background.
The painting was first displayed at the annual Royal Academy exhibition in London in 1782, where it shocked, titillated, and frightened exhibition visitors and critics. Unlike many of the paintings that were then popular and successful at the Royal Academy exhibitions, Fuselis The Nightmare has no moralizing subject. The scene is an invented one, a product of Fuselis imagination. It certainly has a literary character and the various figures demonstrate Fuselis broad knowledge of art history, but The Nightmares subject is not drawn from history, the Bible, or literature. The painting has yielded many interpretations and is seen as prefiguring late nineteenth-century psychoanalytic theories regarding dreams and the unconscious (Sigmund Freud allegedly kept a reproduction of the painting on the wall of his apartment in Vienna).
Incubus or mara
The figure that sits upon the womans chest is often described as an imp or an incubus, a type of spirit said to lie atop people in their sleep or even to have sexual intercourse with sleeping women. Fuselis painting is suggestive but not explicit, leaving open the possibility that the woman is simply dreaming. Yet, her dream appears to take frightening, physical form in the shapes of the incubus and the horse. According to Fuselis friend and biographer John Knowles, who saw the first drawing Fuseli made for the composition in 1781, the horse was not present in the drawing but added to the painting later.
lthough it is tempting to understand the paintings title as a punning reference to the horse, the word nightmare does not refer to horses. Rather, in the now obsolete definition of the term, a mare is an evil spirit that tortures humans while they sleep. As Samuel Johnsons A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) defined it, a mare or mara, [is] a spirit that, in heathen mythology, was related to torment or to suffocate sleepers. A morbid oppression in the night resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast. Thus, Fuselis painting may in fact be understood as embodying the physical experience of chest pressure felt during a dream-state.
Through his use of composition and chiaroscuro the strategic juxtaposition of sharply contrasting light and shadowFuseli heightened the drama and uncertainty of his scene. However, unlike the slightly earlier painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, which utilized chiaroscuro to symbolize the enlightening power of rational observation, Fuselis The Nightmare instead shows the futility of light to penetrate or explain the darker realms of the unconscious.
In The Nightmare, the single light source coming in from the right, the curtains and tassels in the background, and the shortened, stage-like foreground also add to the works theatricality. The red drapery falling off the edge of the bed even suggests a river of blood as it might be symbolically enacted on stage in a play or an opera, adding morbid undertones to the paintings already dark themes. Throughout his career, Fuseli painted and illustrated scenes from Shakespeare and Milton, and his art has a consistent sense of literary, at times even erudite drama that reveals his classical education (after completing his studies, Fuseli had been ordained as a pastor in the Swiss Evangelical
Burke, Thomas, The night mare after Fuseli, published in London by R. J. Smith, 1783, stipple engraving in sepia ; plate mark 228 x 254 mm, on sheet 24 x 27 cm (Walpole Library, Yale University)
The Nightmares stark mixture of horror, sexuality, and morbidity has insured its enduring notoriety. In January 1783, The Nightmare was engraved by Thomas Burke and distributed by the publisher John Raphael Smith. The relatively low price of this reproduction following on the heels of the attention the work received at the Royal Academy helped to distribute the image to a wider audience. Fuseli later painted at least three more variations with the same title and subject.
The Nightmare became an icon of Romanticism and a defining image of Gothic horror, inspiring the poet Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwins grandfather) and the writers Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe among many others. From the start, caricaturists also adopted Fuselis composition, and political figures from Napoleon Bonaparte to President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all been lampooned in satirical versions of Fuselis painting.