Above Henry Fuseli, The Vision of Catherine of Aragon. Oil on canvas, 1781. Size: 151 x 212.1cm

Shock and awe: the imaginative work of Henry Fuseli

The drawings and paintings of Romantic-era artist Henry Fuseli showcase his fascination with fantasy, expression, and elaborate hairstyles. Lucia Marchini takes a look at the imaginative work of the artist, and how he challenged conventions in public and private.


When the artist Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) died in 1825, he left behind in London’s Somerset House an intriguing set of drawings. Though he had a somewhat respectable role in the art establishment and received the honour of burial in St Paul’s Cathedral, these drawings represent a more private side to the artist’s practice. In some cases, the images were so ‘indelicate’ that Fuseli’s wife and model Sophia (née Rawlins) felt it necessary to destroy them.

Born in Zürich in 1741, Fuseli’s entry into the Royal Academy of Arts (becoming Professor of Painting in 1788, full Academician in 1790, and Keeper in 1805) and into the institution of marriage (also in 1788) came rather late in his career. His father was an artist and his brother was also destined to follow in the family profession, but young Johann Heinrich was sent to study theology in order to become a priest. Yet he drew as a child, alone and by candlelight. This personal practice is something the deft draughtsman kept up later in life, carrying with it the notion that drawing allowed for experimentation, fantasy, and going against the grain.

Above Henry Fuseli, The Vision of Catherine of Aragon. Oil on canvas, 1781. Size: 151 x 212.1cm
Henry Fuseli, The Vision of Catherine of Aragon. Oil on canvas, 1781. Size: 151 x 212.1cm.
IMAGE: Lytham St Annes Art Collection of Fylde Council © Heritage Images/Fine Art Images/akg-images

Though Sophia Fuseli burned some of the artist’s drawings, more than 150 of Fuseli’s drawings of women are known to survive. Some have now been brought together at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, the former home of the RA where Fuseli resided as Keeper, for Fuseli and the Modern Woman: fashion, fantasy, fetishism. Organised with the Kunsthaus Zürich, where it will open in February (with a slightly different selection of works, curated by Jonas Beyer), this is the first exhibition devoted to the artist’s drawings of women.

Many of the drawings in the exhibition remained in Fuseli’s studio until his death. The general high degree of finish of some of them, with layers of watercolour carefully built up, suggests that although they weren’t for general public consumption, they were meant to be seen and enjoyed, probably by the artist’s close circle, including his patron Susan North, Countess of Guilford. As Ketty Gottardo, one of the co-curators at the Courtauld, explained, new analysis of a small group of drawings has revealed that they could even be enhanced with a now-muted golden glaze and formerly three-dimensional white dots adorning the figure’s hair as pearl beads.

Henry Fuseli, Sophia Fuseli, seated at a table (drawn over a list of Fuseli’s articles for the Analytical Review). Pen and brown ink, brush and watercolour, over graphite, heightened with white opaque watercolour, c.1790-1791. Size: 22.7 x 15.7cm.
IMAGE: Auckland, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1965

Some of the drawings do strike you as shocking and ‘indelicate’ even today: there are explicit sexual scenes, women committing indistinct acts of violence with knives and other implements, and phallic table legs. The provocation seems deliberate – a secret, scandalous series of experiments that were part of Fuseli’s persistent challenging of conventions.

Though he came from an artistic family, Fuseli received no formal training due to his fledgling career in the priesthood. While studying at the Collegium Carolinum in Zürich, he became familiar with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and John Milton, as well as the medieval German heroic epic the Nibelungenlied, works that would come to influence his paintings. He left Zurich having co-written a pamphlet in 1762 attacking a corrupt local official, and travelled to Germany and then London. Expanding his horizons with more literary pursuits, Fuseli published a (poorly received) English translation of German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks, wrote on philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whom he met in Paris in 1766), and later, when his artistic career was in full swing, contributed to William Cowper’s English translation of Homer’s Iliad.

above left Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare. Oil on canvas, after 1782. Size: 31.5 × 23cm above right Henry Fuseli, The Death of Dido. Oil on canvas, 1781. Size: 244.3 x 183.4cm
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare. Oil on canvas, after 1782. Size: 31.5 × 23cm.
IMAGE: The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York © Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar, Poughkeepsie, NY/Art Resource, NY

London gave Fuseli the chance to immerse himself in the drama of the English stage and observe the effects of lighting, costume, and actors’ expressions, as is highlighted in another exhibition on the artist, Füssli: the realm of dreams and the fantastic at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris (curated by Christopher Baker, Andreas Beyer, and Pierre Curie). His paintings reflect a flair for the dramatic, both in style and subject, with Shakespeare’s tragedies a particular favourite. We see Hamlet, wide-eyed, white as a sheet, hair standing on end, as he looks upon his father’s ghost; elsewhere, Romeo lifts the shroud over the seemingly dead Juliet in a dark crypt.

Fuseli turned to Macbeth repeatedly, depicting the Three Witches, or Weird Sisters, several times, as well as Lady Macbeth. In one striking example, a vaporous figure bursts out from behind a curtain, her finger raised to her lips to silence her husband, who emerges red-handed still holding the bloody daggers used to kill King Duncan. This is a dangerous feminine power. Another painting shows Lady Macbeth stricken and sleepwalking as she holds her left hand, which she perceives as bloodstained, as far away from her face as possible. With the emphasis on psychology and heightened emotion, Fuseli’s charged scene reflects currents seen in early Romanticism.

Henry Fuseli, The Death of Dido. Oil on canvas, 1781. Size: 244.3 x 183.4cm.
IMAGE: Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CC0 1.0

So how did the artist go from drawing alone by candlelight to painting popular plays? The artist Joshua Reynolds, first president of the RA, saw and praised Fuseli’s drawings. Encouraged by Reynolds, Fuseli headed to Rome in 1770 to pursue his passion for art. His stay offered access not just to ancient art, but also the terribilità – the tremendous awe-inspiring effect – of Michelangelo. As Andreas Beyer notes in the Musée Jacquemart-André catalogue, Fuseli has ‘a neoclassical enthusiasm for antiquity’ and ‘an almost obsessive veneration of the painting of Michelangelo’, all combined with ideas seen in Romantic images. Fuseli daringly reimagined the Sistine Chapel ceiling populated with figures from Shakespeare. He was in Italy until 1778 and became a leading figure in a circle of artists, who, breaking with the established academic tradition, did not view ancient sculpture as providing perfect examples of form to imitate but as something with an intense emotional power. The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Antique Fragments, perhaps Fuseli’s most famous interaction with ancient art, is not a studious observation, but shows the effect of the unmatchable colossus of Constantine on an artist who weeps, head in hand.

After his time in Rome, Fuseli returned to Zürich and then moved back to London, where he exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy. The most-sensational was The Nightmare, completed in Zürich in 1781 and exhibited in London in 1782. A woman sleeps, her head dropping off her bed, and her arm falling to the floor, while an incubus sits on her chest and a horse’s head looks on from the dark background. It was a divisive image, hailed as the work of a genius or dismissed as the work of a madman, but it gained Fuseli recognition, was copied in engravings, and set the tone for several more of his works that would similarly explore nocturnal terrors, such as The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (1791). It was used in satire and later in psychoanalysis by Carl Jung, and had some influence on Gothic literature and horror films. Fuseli revisited his original composition of The Nightmare several times, including one version produced sometime after 1782 on loan to the Paris exhibition from Vassar College, which adopts a different, vertical format, emphasising the darkness of the background, and a yellow glow for the eyes of the horse and demon.

left Henry Fuseli, Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent. Oil on canvas, 1790. Size: 133 x 94.6cm above Henry Fuseli, Sophia Fuseli Sewing. Graphite, 1795. Size: 17.6 x 12.2cm
Henry Fuseli, Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent. Oil on canvas, 1790. Size: 133 x 94.6cm
IMAGE: © Royal Academy of Arts, London, photographer: John Hammond

Fuseli’s Nightmare is a work drawn from his imagination, not an illustration of a single source. Dreams and the unconscious were matters on the minds of Enlightenment figures: Fuseli’s lifetime saw the English translation of the ancient Greek Artemidorus’ The Interpretation of Dreams in 1786, and several contemporaries, among them William Cowper, were recording their own dreams. Some paintings combine Fuseli’s interests in these subjects and the supernatural with texts he most admired.

In 1789, the publisher John Boydell opened a Shakespeare Gallery featuring works illustrating different plays. Fuseli was among the artists who participated, with paintings from Macbeth, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Inspired by Boydell’s endeavour, Fuseli set out to create his own Milton Gallery, devoted to the 17th-century poet. It opened in 1799 – for just two months. Even before the Shakespeare Gallery, Fuseli was painting Shakespeare. At the same time as working on The Nightmare, Fuseli painted a rather different dream image: the vision of eternal bliss experienced by the divorced Catherine of Aragon on her deathbed (from Act IV of Henry VIII).

Henry Fuseli, Sophia Fuseli Sewing. Graphite, 1795. Size: 17.6 x 12.2cm.
IMAGE: Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstichkabinett

Fuseli turned to other sources too, among them the Bible and Greek and Latin epic poetry. His painting of the suicide of Dido, Queen of Carthage, after her abandonment by the Trojan prince Aeneas, as related in the Virgil’s Aeneid, makes use of the same dramatic extended arms that appear in The Vision of Catherine of Aragon, The Nightmare, and The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth.

A taste for the epic and monstrous creatures drew Fuseli to Norse mythology. When he was elected a full Academician in 1790, the diploma work he presented to the RA was Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent. On a dark and crashing sea, the muscular god Thor grasps the chain with which he has caught the twisting serpent, his other hand holds his weapon aloft, ready to strike. It is a frozen moment amid formidable forces – hero, monster, and nature. In 1770, the first comprehensive work on Norse mythology to appear in English was published: Northern Antiquities by Paul Henri Mallett, translated into English by Thomas Percy. The book introduced British readers to the Icelandic sagas of the Edda, giving Fuseli the subject for this painting. There may even be greater contemporary significance to the mythic struggle. This was the time of the French Revolution. Fuseli supported the revolutionary cause (though, after the execution of King Louis XVI and the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, he would change his stance) and so the representation of a conflict between a noble hero and an out-of-control evil may have struck a chord politically.

At the same time as receiving approbation and employment from the Royal Academy, Fuseli was still carrying out his more private drawings, detailed works that draw the eye and invite it to linger. Indeed, David Solkin, co-curator of the Courtauld exhibition, observes they become more and more transgressive – sometimes even pornographic – in the later decades of his career, almost a reaction to how integrated into the art establishment he had become.

right Henry Fuseli, Sophia Fuseli Seated in Front of a Bust of Medusa. Graphite, brush and grey and brown wash, touches of red wash, heightened with white opaque watercolour, 1799. Size: 33.6 x 19.9cm
Henry Fuseli, Sophia Fuseli Seated in Front of a Bust of Medusa. Graphite, brush and grey and brown wash, touches of red wash, heightened with white opaque watercolour, 1799. Size: 33.6 x 19.9cm
IMAGE: Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstichkabinett

In the drawings of women at the Courtauld and Kunsthaus, we still see some of the same concerns that appear in his paintings – fantasy, femmes fatales, and a desire to push boundaries. There is also an obsessive fascination with hairstyles. The later drawings include a woman teasing someone trapped in a well with her long plaited hair; a hand reaches up from the darkness to try to touch it. In another drawing, a woman with a sharp pin in her mouth and elaborate hair (more finished than the sketchy lines of her body) clutches at something with her hand. From its Greek inscription paidoleteira (‘child-destroyer’, used to describe Medea) we get a sense of the ghastly violence that might be going on.

Even the domestic drawings of his wife Sophia Fuseli, more unassuming at first glance, carry a twist. Sometimes she wears a tiny pyramidal cap; at others, a voluminous, flopping ‘balloon hat’, inspired by the rise of hot-air balloon flights, or a dangerously sharp pin. The hairstyles she sports are consistently complex and contribute to the artist’s striking portrayal of modern femininity. This hair is not luxuriant in softness. It is sculptural, tightly worked, and carefully structured, sometimes even inspired by Roman portraiture. The hairstyles may be entirely invented by Henry Fuseli on paper. Yet hair offered a means of expression for the 18th-century woman. For Sophia, an artists’ model, her imaginative hairstyles could have been part of her own creativity, and, in a sense, a significant contribution to her husband’s work.

Such work devoted to one’s appearance was something traditionally associated with another subject of Fuseli’s drawings: the courtesan, not the virtuous wife. By the conventions of the day, there is therefore something challengingly immodest about Sophia Fuseli’s elaborate appearance. In one drawing, she appears made up, her lips parted exposing her teeth (a sign of sexual immorality), yet she poses with her hand on a sewing box, an emblem of domesticity – or perhaps an allusion to Pandora’s box. Elsewhere, she stands next to the hearth, the symbolic centre of the home, but almost scandalously made-up. While a hearth may provide warmth and comfort, it was unusual to depict a woman of polite society directly in front of a blazing fire like Fuseli does here: the heat of the flame was seen as connected to sexuality.

above Henry Fuseli, Woman in Front of the Laocoön. Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over graphite, c.1800-1805. Size: 31.8 x 40.3cm
Henry Fuseli, Woman in Front of the Laocoön. Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over graphite, c.1800-1805. Size: 31.8 x 40.3cm. IMAGE: Zürich, Kunsthaus Zürich, Collection of Prints and Drawings, donated by a Patron, 1913

Fuseli also draws Sophia in the act of sewing. Her appearance is less done-up in this more typical wifely scene. Look closely, though, and you can make out a word on the cloth she is stitching: ‘Nemesis’. Fuseli’s occasional Greek inscriptions hint at layers of coded meaning in otherwise unassuming or ambiguous scenes. Here, is Fuseli (a skilled self-promoter who wrote reviews puffing his own work) casting his wife as the Greek goddess of retribution and revenge and expecting some punishment for his arrogance and pride?

The artist invokes an interesting parallel between his wife and the gorgon Medusa, best known for her petrifying gaze and the snakes in her hair. Unusual hair is something the two have in common, as well as a notable stare. To emphasise the point, Fuseli includes a relief of Medusa, the ancient Medusa Rondanini, inscribed with a quotation from the Greek poet Pindar (‘the head of the fair-cheeked Medusa’), in an image of a seated Sophia. Moreover, this is an 18th-century Medusa, wearing modern earrings and a high collar. It is a curious comparison, perhaps a joke or a general comment on the modern woman, with Sophia as model standing in for the wider group.

The act of viewing art can be a powerful thing. Another drawing shows a woman standing by the Laocoön, an ancient sculpture found in Rome. It is not shown in full, yet the famous sculpture depicting an episode from the Fall of Troy is easily recognisable. The Trojan priest’s two sons and the lethal serpents entangling them are absent, leaving the focus on Laocoön, nudity, and intense suffering. The viewer’s fists are clenched; she appears physically affected by the sculpture. The Laocoön is one work whose form was much praised by 18th-century scholars like Winckelmann, who admired the ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ of classical sculpture, and the priest’s self-control.

For Fuseli, expression is key. It animates form, as he writes in his posthumously published Aphorisms on Art. Laocoön is ‘convulsed’ by expression (much like the woman who views the sculpture). On paper and on canvas, Fuseli likewise knew how to create a sensation.

Fuseli and the Modern Woman: fashion, fantasy, fetishism runs at the Courtauld Gallery in London until 8 January 2023. See https://courtauld.ac.uk for details. A catalogue has been published by Paul Holberton Publishing (£30).

The exhibition then travels to Kunsthaus Zürich as Fuseli: fashion – fetishism – fantasy, where it runs between 2 February and 21 May 2023.

Füssli: the realm of dreams and the fantastic is at the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris until 23 January 2023 (www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com). A catalogue in French published by Culturespaces and Fonds Mercator (€32) is available in the museum shop and online at www.boutique-culturespaces.com.