Narr mit Narrenkappe wird von bibrillten Maler porträtiert
Introduced to poetry, literature, theology and philology by his father, Füssli began drawing assiduously while he was an adolescent. In this phase he was particularly drawn to the works of William Hogarth (1697-1764) who was known in Europe for the many prints that he made himself. Probably Füssli did not immediately grasp Hogarth’s innovative message. Rather, he picked up the swiftness and incisiveness of line, the strong expression and the ability to deform the image to the point of rendering it grotesque as we can see from this sheet that has an obvious farcical and theatrical meaning.
Bonconte da Montefeltro
This drawing is based on Dante’s Purgatory (canto V) that Füssli read before he ever came to Rome in 1770. The erudite Johann Jacob Bodmer (1698-1783) was his tutor and introduced him to Shakespeare, Milton and Homer’s epics. The dramatic attraction that the Divine Comedy exerted on him, increased during his stay in Italy where Füssli could admire Michelangelo’s frescoes of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, and the stirring images of the damned souls in Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgment in the Orvieto cathedral that were also inspired by Dante. To these references we must add his observations of ancient statuary, specifically those in which strong sentiments, capable of moving the viewer prevailed, such as the Laocoön or the Dioscuri in the palazzo Quirinale.
The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins
This drawing contains a condensation of the complex relationship Füssli had with the city of Rome, cradle of Christianity, and the culture of antiquity. The child of a Protestant environment Füssli grasped the most dramatic side of the classical world in which the expression of passion and feeling prevailed rather than the sense of gravity and what Winckelmann had defined as the “tranquil grandeur” of the ancients. The title and subject of this drawing accurately reflect the emotions that the artist felt when looking at the legacy of the past, not only with respect to the enormity of the hand and foot of the Colossus of Constantine, but in relation to the emotional impact that these fragments could still create.
The Oath of the Rütli
This painting was commissioned by a wealthy Swiss to commemorate the historic pact sealed on 12 August 1291 between three representatives of the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden to free themselves from Austrian dominion. It is the only painting that he ever signed and dated. He received the commission when he was passing through Zurich, his native city, after he had returned from Rome and before he moved to London. The painting is particularly important in Füssli’s career because it creates a sort of equilibrium between the artistic training he had received in Italy through contact with ancient sculptures and the Renaissance masters, from which he drew the proportions, rhythm and heroic emphasis of the gestures.
Queen Catherine’s Dream
This painting is based on the episode in Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII in which on the eve of her execution the king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, dreamt of spirits that comforted her and assured her happiness in eternity. The painting was one of a group of seven commissioned by Sir Robert Smyth whom Füssli had met in Rome in 1778. The entire composition is like a theatrical set that highlights the contrast between wakefulness and sleep. Griffith, the jailer watches the sleeping queen’s unconscious movements from the back of the room, much like Patience, the lady-in-waiting who is surprised by Catherine’s sudden movements.
Füssli showed The Nightmare at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy of London in 1781. This is the first version of a subject that he would paint five more times, revealing his predilection for the subject of the dream, the moment in which the most profound regions of the soul come to the surface. The artist maintained that dreams were the personification of feelings. For this reason, in addition to the sleeping figure we see the dreams materialize, a horrible dwarf on the stomach and the ghostly, white-eyed mare behind the curtain that creates a pun on the title, nightmare.
Here Füssli painted a portrait of Robin Goodfellow-Puck, the elf who “worked” for Oberon in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as he wandered through the night looking for ways to amuse his master. This small painting was commissioned by John and Josiah Boydell for their Shakespeare Gallery. The elf’s dual nature, playful yet mischievous and wicked is rendered by his demonical gaze and the fun he had in agitating the horse at the bottom and in confronting the fairy pursued by fantastic figures. Füssli returned to the same theme years later in a painting that is in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington in which Puck is even more diabolical in appearance.
Der Alp verlässt das Lager zweir schläfender Mädchen [An Incubus Leaving two Sleeping Women]
Füssli returned to the theme of dreams, sleep and nightmares several times. In this scene one of the two sleeping girls is awakened from sleep upset by a nightmare whose face we can perceive face as she rides a nocturnal mare fleeing through the window as the sun begins to rise. The anguished dream in this case also has a carnal and erotic overtone. Füssli gave particular weight to expression as a revelation of the subject’s state of mind, based on Johann Caspar Lavatar’s theory of the face. In fact, his friend maintained that it was a science that studied the relationship between facial features and motions and the person’s character and pulsions.
Titania and Bottom and the Fairies
Inspired by Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this painting portrays the moment in which the fairy Titania, surrounded by elves and fairies wakens to the sound of Bottom’s song and finds herself irresistibly attracted to him in spite of the fact that he has an ass’s head. This was due to Oberon’s spell. He wanted the young page whom Titania had kidnapped, and so, he made her fall in love with the first creature she saw upon awakening. This is one of a group of five paintings that Füssli did for the Shakespeare Gallery of the publisher James Woodmason who dictated the vertical arrangement as opposed to the horizontal that Füssli preferred because he believed that a large surface was needed to express the imaginary and sublime.
This painting is one of a group of sketches Füssli did to illustrate William Cowper’s Poems (1806), and specifically The Task. The scene captures the moment when Kate is maddened by grief at not seeing her beloved return from a sea voyage. Füssli concentrated on the expressive elements to reveal the deep distress: eyes wide open, hair and clothes agitated by the wind, and arms paralyzed by anguish. The influence of Lavater’s theories (Füssli had translated his works into English in 1788-1789) about faces is always evident in his quest for a relationship between facial expressions and altered mental state. The theme of madness, also in light of the debate on physiognomy, fascinated several artists from the period, including Goya and Géricault.
Ugolino and his Sons Starving to Death in the Tower
nspired by Canto XXXIII of Dante’s Inferno, the original is known through Haughton’s engraving. Füssli’s passion for Dante dated from the years prior to his sojourn in Rome, when he was studying with the erudite Johann Jacob Bodmer (1698-1783) who, along with the artist’s father, belonged to a circle of avant-garde intellectuals. Bodmer had translated the works of Milton, Shakespeare and Homer into German. In this setting Füssli developed his interest in the evocative power of the Divine Comedy, and this was further strengthened in Italy after he studied the works of Michelangelo.
This drawing is most probably based on Samuel Richardson’s first novel, Pamela, about a young maid seduced by her master, with which the writer won over the English public in 1740. To force her to yield he kept her imprisoned until she agreed to marry him. For this reason, the girl on the right has a noose around her neck as she does her chores. The women with her seem to be pushing her to yield to the master’s demands. Their expressions reveal a wicked complicity: they are rendered with an almost caricature-like touch, much like the merciless Hogarth who reveals the baseness of their spirits, much like the eccentric hairdos that are a symbol of vanitas.
Johan Heinrich Füssli was born on 6 February 1741, son of a civil servant and amateur painter and collector, Johann Caspar and Elisabeth Waser. The young Heinrich was raised in a cultural environment that allowed him to meet some outstanding figures such as the Protestant theologian Johann Caspar Lavater, the educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and the scholar Johann Jacob Bodmer who introduced him to the writers who would become an inexhaustible source of ideas for his art Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. According to his father’s wishes he completed his divinity studies and in 1761 was ordained a Zwinglian minister. In 1763 he traveled through Europe, first to Berlin and then London where he was welcomed in the capital’s literary circles. There he met Joshua Reynolds who encouraged him to paint. During the same period he devoted himself to translating Winckelmann’s works that did not, alas, meet with any success (1765). During his stay in Paris as tutor to the young Lord Chewton he met David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and became such an ardent supporter of the latter that he published an anonymous essay on his theories that was published in 1767. In 1770 he departed for Italy. He spent a short time in Genoa and in Florence before reaching Rome where he continued his studies of classical antiquity and was enthralled by the art of Michelangelo as we can see from the many drawings he did during those years. Upon his return to Zurich in 1778 he painted The Oath of the Rütli. Some bitter disappointments in love prompted him to leave for London where, the following year, he met William Blake with whom he became friendly. His first success artistic success came in 1781 when he painted The Nightmare, a subject that he repeated several times. During these years Füssli alternated between art and literature: he illustrated the French edition of Lavater’s Physiogmische Fragmente (1781), painted some canvases with Shakespearian subjects for a series of engravings (1786) In 1788, translated a book by Lavater and he married Sophia Rawlins of Bath-Easton that same year. Between 1790 and 1799 he worked industriously on a series of paintings for the Milton Gallery that were later shown in an exhibition at Christie’s. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1790 to become a professor in 1799 and then “keeper” in 1805. In 1816 Canova had him elected to the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. He continued his literary works and wrote the lectures he gave at the Royal Academy between 1801 and 1823, and the Aphorisms that he completed in 1818. The artist died on 16 April 1825 at Putney Hill, the country home of the countess of Guilford.The works