The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli
Blake's Illustrations to the Poems of Gray
There is more than a touch of irony in the relationship between Henry Fuseli and William Blake—between the fiery little cosmopolitan Swiss who became Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy in London and the peculiarly English, entirely independent, violently anti-academic poet and visionary. They moved in much the same social circle but differed from each other too widely and on too many issues to become close friends. Yet Blake had a fond regard for Fuseli,
The only Man that e’er I knew
Who did not make me almost spew….
In 1806 he boldly wrote to The Monthly Magazine to defend Fuseli from hostile criticism.
Fuseli was less warm and generous to Blake. His recorded remarks are seldom without a dash of acid. But from the height of his fame Fuseli occasionally extended a helping hand to the struggling painter and engraver. For it is important to remember that, in their lifetimes, while Blake’s name was hardly known outside a very restricted circle in England, Fuseli enjoyed European fame. “Fuseli is a man of genius,” George III remarked to Benjamin West in 1804. “He is not only an able man in his profession,” West replied, “but he is distinguished as a literary character and known to all Europe.”
Posthumously the tables were turned. Though remembered as a writer on art and perhaps even more as a “character,” Fuseli was soon forgotten as an artist, whereas the small group who treasured Blake’s work gradually grew with the nineteenth century. As early as 1843 the young John Ruskin was tempted to buy some of Blake’s water colors. Dante Gabriel Rossetti discovered his art and poetry at about the same time. Gilchrist could still call him Pictor Ignotus in the biography published in 1863, but this work, Swinburne’s essay of 1868, and the large exhibition of his paintings at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1876 fully established a reputation which has never diminished.
The almost total eclipse of Fuseli’s fame after his death was followed by a long period of twilight. He re-emerged many years later, first as “Blake’s friend,” then in the wake of surrealism in the 1920s.
Nowadays Fuseli’s work makes a strong appeal for the very reasons that occasioned its neglect—its extreme individuality, its weird phantasmagoric atmosphere, and its, to us, unmistakable overtones of sado-masochism. That his drawings should have returned to favor before his paintings is hardly surprising, for he was a skillful draftsman and his many vigorous sketches of fantastically dressed, preposterously coifed women coquetting at their dressing tables or at their pianos were preserved, even when his reputation was at its nadir, in what were then termed the “cabinets of the curious.”
But his paintings now seem equally arresting—those large dark canvases on which the spot-lit figures of gigantic muscle-bound athletes and frantic hard-faced, hard-bosomed Amazons enact scenes from ancient and modern literature. In 1930, however, even so perceptive a historian as W. T. Whitley could remark:
Fuseli’s pictures have long since gone out of fashion, probably never to return, and some years ago one of them, of very large size and framed—The Flood ten feet by eight—was knocked down for a guinea at Christie’s.
Rumor has it that in 1945 another huge canvas was used to repair the roof of a farm building because no museum was prepared to accept it as a gift. And as late as 1950 the art critic of the London Times solemnly declared that Fuseli “is not to be taken seriously as an artist and there could hardly be a sillier movement of taste than that which has made him increasingly fashionable since he was elected a surrealist under Rule 2.”
Peter Tomory’s Life and Art of Henry Fuseli provides the first well-illustrated monograph on Fuseli in English. There have been general studies in French and German, but books in English have been concerned only with selected aspects of his life and work—Eudo C. Mason’s The Mind of Henry Fuseli (1951), Nicolas Powell’s The Drawings of Henry Fuseli (1951), and Frederick Antal’s posthumous Fuseli Studies (1956). Very soon, however, we can expect Professor Gert Schiff’s eagerly awaited major work in German, Johann Heinrich Füssli 1741-1825 (Verlag Berichthaus, Zurich, and Prestel Verlag, Munich). This consists of a very full art-historical and biographical account of Fuseli’s career followed by a catalogue raisonné of all his paintings and drawings. To judge from the proofs of the former part, which I have been allowed to see before publication, it is a definitive work which combines scrupulous scholarship with rare psychological insight and which is unlikely ever to be superseded. It is a pity that this important but also very expensive work will probably have less currency in English-speaking countries than Mr. Tomory’s book.
Although it includes relatively little new information, Mr. Tomory’s Life and Art of Henry Fuseli presents Fuseli in relation to the art of his time. It is clearly organized and well illustrated (13 color and 254 black and white plates) with photographs of works of art which influenced, or reveal the influence of, Fuseli, as well as a balanced selection of his own drawings and paintings.
The author is no newcomer to the subject. He made a sensational debut in Fuseli studies some ten years ago when he discovered in New Zealand a set of thirty-seven important drawings subsequently acquired by the Auckland City Art Gallery. His approach is generally levelheaded, indeed he is perhaps too cautious in steering clear of psychological investigation when considering the dominant themes in Fuseli’s art. He has a good eye for spotting sources for what Fuseli himself called “the judicious adaptation of figures in art.” But sometimes his comparisons are far-fetched and unconvincing. When he cites a drab print of Education from Ripa’s Iconologia as a “source” for a drawing of Mrs. Fuseli brandishing a switch and smiling maliciously we can only rub our eyes in amazement. And when he goes on to say that this “proves” Fuseli’s intentions to have been “more allegorical than sexual,” the proof we can accept is only of the purity of Mr. Tomory’s mind.
Yet in spite of his generally prudent tone he is sometimes slightly rash in his discussion of Fuseli’s relations with other artists. He states, for example, that the last years of Fuseli’s residence in Rome were “stimulated” by the presence of J.-L. David. It is true that David was on his first visit to Rome at the time and that Fuseli later said that he remembered meeting him. But David’s work of that period (he did not make his breakthrough with the Oath of the Horatii until his second stay in Rome, 1784-1785) could hardly have stimulated anyone as hostile to French art and culture as Fuseli. Similarly,’ he remarks that Fuseli “must” have met Blake soon after returning to England in 1779 “if for no other reason, because Fuseli was too good a judge to pass up an artist of imagination whatever his age.” But at this date the twenty-two-year-old Blake had still to demonstrate that he was an artist of imagination.
A chink, though hardly a ray, of new light is shed on the subject of Fuseli’s friendship with Blake by Mrs. Irene Tayler’s Blake’s Illustrations to the Poems of Gray. For she plausibly suggests that Fuseli may have encouraged Blake to illustrate—or perhaps one should say illuminate—a volume of Gray’s poems for the sculptor John Flaxman (also a friend of Fuseli’s), who gave it to his wife. The volume, now in the collection of Paul Mellon, consists of 116 pages on which Blake surrounded panels of printed text with fluid compositions of figures which swoop and soar and come to rest beneath weeping willows or gothic arches.
Though she makes high claims for them as works of art, Mrs. Tayler has little to say about the artistic origins of these strange images. Her approach is literary rather than visual, and her book is devoted mainly to a patient and exhaustive analysis of the relationship between the drawings and, line by familiar line, the poems they illustrate, treating them as the comment of one poet on another. Since it was first reproduced in 1922, this series of watercolors has been largely ignored even by specialists. Mrs. Tayler’s book, in which all are illustrated in black and white (one in color), will surely be welcomed by Blake enthusiasts and perhaps will help to allay their impatience for the Trianon Press facsimile which has been announced. (It is regrettable that so handsomely produced a volume should be marred by the serious printing errors on page 11.)
The influence of Fuseli can be detected on more than one page of Blake’s illustrations to Gray, as in many of his other works. Blake had a high regard for Fuseli’s drawings, their strength, vigor, and spontaneity. “No Man can Improve An Original Invention. Nor can an Original Invention Exist without Execution, Organized & minutely delineated & Articulated, Either by God or Man,” he wrote in about 1810. “I do not mean smooth’d up & Niggled & Poco-Pen’d, and all the beauties pick’d out & blurr’d & blotted, but Drawn with a firm & decided hand at once like Fuseli & Michael Angelo, Shakespeare & Milton.”
Fuseli’s remark that Blake was “damned good to steal from” is notorious. Indeed, some reflections of Blake have been traced in his work. But the problems of interdependence are tricky and can hardly be solved until study as careful as that lavished on Blake and Fuseli has been extended to such other members of their circle as Richard Westall, Stothard, Flaxman, William Young Ottley, James Northcote, Maria Cosway, and so on (a basis was provided by the memorable William Blake and His Circle exhibition held at the British Museum in 1957).
Fuseli and Blake can no longer be seen as isolated figures. The artistic and political beliefs and attitudes that they had in common were shared by other members of a small group in London at the turn of the century. Within this general framework, however, their points of agreement were probably fewer than their divergences. They differed in their very outlook; for while Fuseli was a littérateur turned painter, Blake provides an almost unique instance of the wholly integrated painter-poet. Unique, at any rate, outside China. Blake’s works were “visions of eternity” of deeply personal, almost secret, significance. Fuseli’s art was in every sense exhibitionist. And his complaint that, although Blake had a great deal of invention, “fancy is the end and not a means in his designs,” seems to reveal a complete lack of understanding.
In a Royal Academy lecture in 1820, Fuseli quoted with approval Sir Joshua Reynolds’s dictum that “those who court the applause of their own time must reckon on the neglect of posterity.” The doctrine of sour grapes was a new commonplace of the late eighteenth century, given wider currency in Schiller’s remark: “The artist is indeed the child of his age; but woe to him if he is at the same time its pupil or, still worse, its favorite.” When his greatest project, the Milton Gallery, failed, Fuseli may himself have derived some comfort from the notion, clinging to the hope that time would avenge him. Blake in 1810 suggested that Fuseli was “a hundred years beyond the present generation.” With the hindsight of history we can now see that he was in fact behind, rather than in advance of, his time. There can be little doubt that he had previously set out to court the applause, not of the gallery, of course, but of the intellectual minority to which he himself belonged.
Fuseli paints only for learned eyes,” wrote a critic in 1800. He was, indeed, a learned painter, far better educated than most of his patrons and any of his fellow artists in England. He had the education of a cosmopolitan man of the Enlightenment. By the age of twenty-five he was proficient in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English, and French as well as his native German, and widely read in all these languages.
Fuseli was also very much à la page. From his teacher in Zurich, J. J. Bodmer, who was a champion of the creative imagination and opponent of the classical “rules” as they were understood in France, he derived his lasting, almost obsessive, passion for Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton, and the new attitude to their poetry which he shared with the Stürmer und Dränger in Germany. He was an early initiate into the new emotional attitude to ancient art which derived from Winckelmann. He was a friend of the modernist theologian J. J. Spalding, had met Klopstock, who was already exerting a profound influence on German poetry, and was familiar with the ideas of Lessing and Herder.
Within a short while of arriving in England in 1764 he encountered most of the leading personalities of literary London. A visit to France enabled him to meet Rousseau, about whom he published a pamphlet. And when he decided—for reasons that remain obscure—to devote himself to the visual arts rather than literature, he set off for Rome where he promptly fell into the company of an international set which constituted at that date the most advanced group of artists in Europe.
The extraordinary nature of Fuseli’s intellectual education accounts not only for the recondite subject matter of many of his paintings and drawings but also for the more general attitudes which they reflect. Looking through his work one feels that there were hardly any artistic or literary ideas current in the last three decades of the eighteenth century that he did not take up and express—whether they concerned the cults of sensibility and the sublime, interest in folk tales about witches and nightmares, or new scientific notions. He accurately expressed the new attitudes not only to ancient art, Michelangelo, and the post-Renaissance painters, but to Homer and Shakespeare. He may have shocked conservative taste in England, but he succeeded in achieving widespread fame. Prints after his pictures were diffused throughout Europe—sometimes within a few months of the exhibition of the originals. The images he created impressed themselves so firmly on the public mind that caricaturists were able to make use of them immediately for personal and political satire.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, Fuseli, now sixty years old, had become deaf to new ideas. Unlike Goethe—only eight years his junior—he never developed beyond the Sturm und Drang attitudes of his youth. He outlived not only his early friends but many of his juniors who seem to belong to a different world—Géricault and P. O. Runge among the artists; Byron, Keats, Shelley, Schiller, Novalis, and Kleist. The lectures he gave at the Royal Academy between 1799 and 1824 could as easily have been written in the 1760s. There is certainly no hint in them of the exciting new aesthetic ideas being propounded by Friedrich Schlegel and others in Germany.
In his last decades he became the crusty old eccentric of Somerset House reiterating the lessons of his youth in a German accent which generation after generation of academy students had loved to mimic:
The magneeficence of Michael Angelo, the puerity of Raffaello, the splendour of Titiano may sookcessively command the wreverence of the stuedent, and excite emoolation of the accomplished pwractitioner in the same ratio as each should avoid the squabby excwrescences of Wreubens or the fleemsy insooficiency of Carlo Maratti.
Like so many artists who have striven mainly to be up to date, Fuseli fell by the wayside when the ideas he had reflected went out of fashion. (The contrast with Blake, intent only on realizing his visions of eternity, is poignant.) Time has not been so kind to his paintings. Criticized by contemporaries for their harshness of color, they have since darkened without mellowing. Nevertheless some of them rank among the most striking images of their time. The Nightmare, with its victim dressed in virginal white, trembling in the spasms of an imaginary nocturnal violation, while an incubus squats grinning on her belly and a snorting horse thrusts its head through the curtains, is still his most famous work.
Several other paintings are unforgettable—the heads of The Three Witches in reptitive profile, each pointing with one hand and with the other laying choppy fingers upon skinny lips; or his Academy diploma piece showing Thor, a body-builder rippling with tense muscles as he raises his arm to strike the huge and sinuous Midgard serpent; or the dreamlike ladies of Ladies of Hastings, on a clifftop battling against a wind which tears through their diaphanous skirts, while a strange recumbent figure in the foreground stares up at them.
These and many other pictures by Fuseli make an immediate impact on the eye and mind. Yet they cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of his intellectual and artistic background. His work abounds in literary and visual allusions. It almost amounts to an illustrated commentary on the crosscurrents of artistic theory in the later eighteenth century. The complexities and apparent contradictions which may be perceived beneath the surface of many neoclassical paintings leap out from Fuseli’s canvases. An art historian himself, he is par excellence an art historian’s artist, and even today he appeals especially to “learned eyes.” This is his weakness and his strength. He both needs and deserves a monumental work of explanation and interpretation as farranging and deep in its erudition as Professor Schiff’s great book.