Henry Fuseli (born Johann Heinrich Füssli), to whom no exhibition had been dedicated in Paris since 1975, is making his grand return to the Jacquemart-André museum until January 23, 2023.
The universe of this Swiss pastor turned British painter is absolutely striking and perfectly illustrates the artistic movement of black romanticism, which, from the years 1760-1770, evokes the dark side hidden under the apparent triumph of the Enlightenment.
Enlightenment and Reason have no place in Fuseli’s artworks. The themes developed by the painter draw their sources from the Bible, mythology and Shakespeare’s haunted works. And as a matter of fact, Fuseli’s paintings are fantastic and dreamlike but also nightmarish and grotesque.
Ghosts constantly haunt living creatures and the invisible world often invites itself, malefic, into the visible world. Terror and horror are omnipresent in the expressions of these living beings seized with dread – and it’s surprising to see there the hand of a pastor who has become a painter (or perhaps this first vocation explains his artwork).
Born in 1741 in Switzerland, Fuseli is destined by his painter and art historian father for a career as a pastor. After being ordained as a pastor in 1761, he nevertheless has to leave Switzerland for having denounced with a friend the corruption of a powerful magistrate – corruption which would later be proven.
Füssli first visits England in 1765. The painter and president of the Royal Academy Joshua Reynolds, who reviews his drawings, advises him to devote himself entirely to painting. As a consequence, Fuseli leave London in the 1770s for a long pilgrimage to Italy, where the artworks of Michelangelo will leave a lasting mark on his treatment of bodies and compositions.
Fuseli returns to England in 1779 and sets out to compete with his helpful master Joshua Reynolds, presenting in 1781 his own version of “The Death of Dido”, painted by Reynolds some time earlier. He is elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1788, then an academician in 1790. He marries one of his models, Sophia Rowlings and maintains for some time a platonic relationship with the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of the future Mary Shelley – author of “Frankenstein”.
He dies at an advanced age in 1825 and is buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
The success that Fuseli enjoyed during his lifetime is doubly astonishing: this Swiss-born man succeeded in integrating the establishment and his dreamlike and dreadful universe found a wide echo in artistic circles renowned for their academicism.
As a matter of fact, classicism irrigates the works of Fuseli. However, he diverts it in favor of sulphurous themes and becomes a precursor of romanticism, a dark romanticism both in its colors and in its themes. The deepest blacks bring out the whitest skins, illustrating the opposition between invisible and visible worlds, between imagination and reality.
As such, “The Nightmare” is one of the painter’s most emblematic paintings – it caused a scandal during its exhibition at the Royal Academy and ensured the success of its author. Fuseli presents in 1782 a first version of this “Nightmare” which will know other versions. The opposition between the falsely classic treatment of the sleeping female body and the hallucinated and hallucinating grotesqueness of the horse and the incubus is striking. The painting is disturbing and raises a thousand questions. Is it a grip of the evil world on the living world? Is it rape? Does the abandoned position of the woman reflect a nightmare or an orgasm? Does the canvas represent the part of the unconscious?
To this last question, Sigmund Freud will have chosen his answer. An engraving of Fuseli’s work adorned the cabinet of the famous Viennese psychoanalyst.
December 23, 2022
Fuseli’s portrait by James Northcote – 1778
“The Death of Dido” – 1781
“The Incubus leaving two sleeping women” – 1780
“The Vision of Catherine of Aragon” – 1781
“The Nightmare” – After 1782
“Lady MacBeth” – 1784
“Robin Goodfellow – Puck” – 1790
“The Shepherd’s Dream” – 1793
“St. John” – 1796
“Lycidas” – 1799
“Rezia and Huon” – 1805
“Romeo and Juliet” – 1809