The deep, dark magic of Henry Fuseli, a holy man hounded from Zürich for exposing corruption, who landed on his feet in London, discovered the supernatural, and leaned in.

Detail: Portrait of Henry Fuseli,
James Northcote (1830

Born Johann Heinrich Füssli, Henry Fuseli (1741 – 1825), the second of 18 children to a Swiss painter, had a unique life journey forged by strange events. In Switzerland, shortly taking holy orders as a Protestant minister in 1762, and together with his friend the poet, philosopher, fellow minister, ex-schoolmate and anti-corruption agitator, Johann Kaspar Lavater, he denounced an unfair and corrupt Zürich magistrate. The magistrate was forced to pay back his ill-gotten gains but his vengeful family hounded Fuseli out of the country. He arrived in England via Germany in 1765. Initially he earned his daily bread by writing. This all changed after he showed his drawings to the legendary Grand Style painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Impressed, Reynolds advised him to devote himself to his art. Inspired by a subsequent 9 year long art-pilgrimage sojourn to Italy and, engrossed in the study of Michelangelo, whose elevated style he sought to emulate for the rest of his life, he changed his name from Füssli to Fuseli because it sounded more Italian.

The incubus leaving two young women, (bef. 1794).

An incubus was said to be an imp or spirit that would sit atop a person as they slept, embodying the physical sensation of a nightmare. Though men could be visited, the incubus’ victims were more commonly women who were thought to be more prone to nightmares when sleeping on their back. The Nightmare represents the moment of the assault, depicting a woman, sprawled on her back in fitful sleep, with the fiendish figure perched on her chest. The Incubus, meanwhile, exhibits a significant shift in psychological focus, representing the immediate aftermath, when the victim awakens, disorientated and anguished, and the incubus flees on horseback through the window.
Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft,
John Opie (c. 1797)
“I hate clever women.
They are only troublesome”
Portrait of Mrs. Fuseli,
Henry Fuseli (1880)

The newly Neopolitan Fuseli returned, via Zürich to London where he found a commission waiting for him from a publisher named John Boydel who was setting up his soon to be famous Shakespeare Gallery. The circles Fuseli now moved in were like a Who’s Who? of the London at the time; he helped the poet William Cowper with a translation of Homer; and he was romantically pursued by the English writer, philosopher, and female rights advocate, Mary Wollstonecraft. Fuseli married his model, Sophia Rawlins instead, saying later, “I hate clever women. They are only troublesome”. Sophia was much younger than her husband and more beautiful, less fiesty than Mary. In spite of their social and intellectual differences Sophia’s compelling allure ensured their marriage was long-lasting.

Fuseli became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1790 and by 1799 he was planning a gallery dedicated to imagery based on the works of Milton. As well as Shakespearian and Miltonian themes, he favoured, perhaps preferred, the supernatural. He leaned right into this, elevated it on an idealistic, epic scale, believing a high level of exaggeration was essential for successful historical painting

The Nightmare (1781)

The Nightmare made its debut at The Royal Academy exhibition of 1781 and its remarkable evocation of terror – as well as its strong sexual overtones – shocked and titillated both the art world and wider public alike. The painting presented no moral or message but, unlike anything presented before, was a mere projection of Fuseli’s imagination. It frightened and fascinated the public and became so popular that it was reproduced in print form and widely circulated. The Nightmare inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, William Blake’s Jerusalem and the poems of Edgar Allen Poe and became
an enduring symbol of the Romantic era.

A taste for fantastic and supernatural themes permeated culture in Britain from around 1770 to 1830 and Fuseli – with his predilection for the horrific and the erotically charged – emerged at its center, as master. 

The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (1796)
‘Macbeth’, Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters (c.1783)
Perseus Starting from the Cave of the Gorgons (c.1810–1820)
Reclining Nude And Woman At The Piano (c.1799-1800)
Oedipus Cursing His Son Polynices (1786)
Macbeth consulting the Vision of the Armed Head (1793)
Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent (1788)
This painting was Fuseli’s diploma work for the Royal Academy.
Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis (c.1794–1796)
The Fairy Queen Appears To Prince Arthur (c.1785-1788)
The Shepherd’s Dream, from ‘Paradise Lost’ (1793)
The two murderers of the Duke of Clarence (c.1780–1782)
Satan and Death with Sin Intervening (c.1799-1800)
Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (exhibited 1783)

Fuseli admitted that he invented this saga of Percival and Belisane. His paintings tended to emphasis spectacle and sensation rather then the noble themes and moral lessons which Joshua Reynolds’s view of the “Great Style” of the time demanded.
Titania and Bottom (c.1790)
A Mother With Her Family In The Country (c.1806-07)
Milton Dictating to His Daughter (1794)

Henry Füssli-turned-Italian-Fuseli died a very wealthy man at the Putney Hill home of the Countess of Guildford in his 84th year and was buried in the crypt at St. Paul’s Cathedral London. 

His pupils too, read like a who’s who of English art legends; Constable, the cosmic William Blake and William Etty (the best English painter of nudes ever) were all influenced by the supernaturally enthused holy man hounded out of Zürich.

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