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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.