Henry Fuseli and His Fantasy World

Zuzanna Stańska 7 February 2023 min Read

Henry Fuseli was a master of Romantic imagination. He was one of those artists who shaped our view of the epoch—or, to be more precise, he defined the image of the gothic horror and nightmare. 

He was born in Zürich, Switzerland under the last name of Füssli. After he was forced to leave his mother country, he traveled through Germany, and then came to England, where he managed to make ends meet through miscellaneous writing. Eventually, he became acquainted with Sir Joshua Reynolds, to whom he showed his drawings. Following Reynolds’ advice, he decided to devote himself entirely to art. That was a good choice, and thanks to it, this, the most famous painting of Fuseli, was created:

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI, USA.
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI, USA.

Before leaving Switzerland, Fuseli had a mentor, Johann Jakob Bodmer, who was incredibly important to him and who shaped his later career. Homer, the Nibelungenlied, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton were all to become the principal sources of inspiration for his art. He was also loosely associated with the Sturm und Drang movement. He was able to study a wide range of humanist studies and languages.

Henry Fuseli, Friar Puck, Tabley House
Henry Fuseli, Friar Puck, Tabley House, Tabley, UK.

Fuseli established his reputation with The Nightmare in 1780. In 1786, he got involved in John Boydell’s scheme for employing the most talented artists of the day to the Shakespeare Gallery, and Fuseli devoted most of his time to paintings of Shakespearean themes.

Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, Tate Britain
Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, 1812, Tate Britain, London, UK.

In 1799, Fuseli exhibited a series of paintings from subjects furnished by the works of John Milton, with an aspiration to form a Milton gallery comparable to Boydell’s Shakespeare gallery. Unfortunately, Fuseli’s idea turned out to be unsuccessful and he was forced to close it in 1800.

Henry Fuseli, Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma, 1783, Tate Modern
Henry Fuseli, Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma, 1783, Tate Modern, London, UK.

Fuseli was largely neglected after his death until his rediscovery in the early 20th century by Expressionist painters and Surrealist artists, who admired his Romantic subjectivism, complex symbolism, and bold composition. He is now known as a precursor of these movements.


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