Henry Fuseli: A Romantic Painter of the Dark & Supernatural

Henry Fuseli was an 18th-century Swiss painter and draftsman of Romanticism who greatly influenced artists like William Blake.

Jun 25, 2023By Susanna Andrews, BA Interdisciplinary Arts

henry fuseli


The Romantic artwork painted by Swiss artist Henry Fuseli has lived on long after his lifetime in the 18th-19th centuries. His most well-known painting, “The Nightmare” is characteristic of the supernatural and dark subjects he was drawn to depict. Spending most of his life in Britain, he painted for Boydell’s famous Shakespeare Gallery and created his own Milton Gallery. He was associated with the Royal Academy for many years, holding the titles of Professor of Painting and Keeper. With influence over well-renowned artists like William Blake, his artistic career was illustrious. Here is an outline of his background, an overview of his drawing and painting styles, and a look into four of his most famous paintings.


The Life of Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli by James Northcote, 1778, via Wikipedia


Fuseli was born in Zürich in 1741 to a large family. His father was Johann Casper Fuseli, a well-known portraitist and landscape painter. Henry was sent to Caroline College in Zürich by his father who wanted his son to be an ordained Zwinglian theologian. In 1761, Henry helped his schoolmate and friend Johann Kasper Lavater expose a judicial officer which forced him to flee the country due to the magistrate’s powerful family’s threats. His interest in classical philology, influenced by the Swiss author Johann Jakob Breitinger and Homer’s mentor Johann Jakob Bodmer, led him to pursue a literary career.


During his travels, he met the English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds in England. The famous painter took an interest in Fuseli’s drawings. This encouragement inspired Henry to devote himself to art, so he moved to Italy in 1770 where he admired classical sculpture, Michelangelo’s works, and mannerist art. Fuseli became associated with the Swedish sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel and a major part of an up-and-coming group of young artists. Nine years later, he returned to Britain and was commissioned by the publisher Alderman Boydell to paint for the Shakespeare Gallery.


Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (Sophia Rawlins) by Henry Fuseli, 1790, via Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest


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In 1788, he became a member of the Royal Academy and started teaching as a professor of painting in 1799. Fuseli married a model called Sophia Rawlins around this time, although he was in love with Lavater’s niece whom his father disapproved of. After four years of teaching, he was appointed a Keeper and continued to be involved in the Academy until his death in 1825.


The same year that he began teaching, 47 of his paintings were featured in an exhibition that illustrated the works of the famous English poet John Milton. The exhibition was, however, a failure. Although he faced defeats during his career, Fuseli’s immense influence is evident through the works of his pupils like John Constable and William Blake and many English artists’ whose styles reflect the work of Fuseli.


Paintings and Drawings

Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head by Henry Fuseli, 1793, via Folger Shakespeare Library


Fuseli was influenced by the Mannerists while studying in Rome. This is evidently seen in the melodrama produced by chiaroscuro lighting and foreshortening. Instead of laying out a palette in an organized manner like his contemporaries, he randomly arranged the colors. This was unique to him compared to his colleagues at the Academy. His primary medium was dry powdered pigments combined with oil, turpentine, or gold size. Another element he possessed as an artist that set him apart was his association with the German literary group called Sturm and Drang. As a member, Fuseli denounced rationalism and translated this attraction to the experiences of the senses instead of objectivity through his artwork.


He was a proponent of delving into dream worlds, sexuality, and the supernatural. Achieving this exploration through his interpretations and perceptions of poetic and literary works, he is considered a forefather of Surrealism. His pieces were often created on an exaggerated and ideal scale to emphasize these supernatural components. He often portrayed helpless women being taken advantage of by demons. This led to an established genre of gothic horror in literature. His sexual relationship with his wife Sophia also informed much of his work. There’s even an erotic collection depicting his wife posing to satisfy their fetishes.


Fuseli produced over 200 paintings and 800 sketches, many of which were never exhibited by him. He still incorporated exaggerated disproportional human figures in his drawings. One method he used to achieve this was drawing random points and connecting the dots to create the limbs. He hardly ever drew bodies from models, preferring to use antique pieces and works of Michelangelo as references. Fuseli never created landscapes and only painted two portraits. Here are some of the works made by Fuseli that you should definitely know!


1. Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783)

Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma by Henry Fuseli, 1783 via, Tate, London


Instead of basing his historical paintings on well-known stories found in literature, mythology, or religious texts, Fuseli sometimes chose to depict his own tales. The purpose of history paintings was often to place a moment on a pedestal to explore morality or nobility. This would enhance the viewer’s pre-existing knowledge of the characters and their symbolic roles. For Fuseli, the meanings behind his paintings were typically rooted in exaggeration and stimulation rather than lessons. In Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma he developed the characters and the story himself.


Belisane is dressed in white and clings to Percival, the central figure in the painting. Percival holds a sword above his head, preparing to strike a cloaked man on the floor. The man is chained to the wall by his hand, accompanied by another prisoner in the corner. Fuseli’s signature use of contrasting lighting is apparent in the work. Combined with the dramatic poses, the scene has major theatrical elements. Similar to the rest of his early works, it was common for him to paint knightly heroes and legends who were unfamiliar to the public or were his own pure invention. The purpose of these paintings wasn’t to resonate with the audience or inform a popular tale, but to invoke feelings that didn’t depend on established associations or references.


2. Titania and Bottom (1790)

Titania and Bottom by Henry Fuseli, 1790, via Wikipedia


During his time as a student in Zürich, Fuseli became interested in Shakespeare’s plays due to the teachings of a Swiss scholar called Jacob Bodmer. A Midsummer Night’s Dream always stuck with him, specifically because of its emphasis on supernatural realms. Titania and Bottom is illustrating a scene from the play. The moment portrayed shows the spell being cast on Queen Titania by Oberon, who disciplines her due to excessive pride. Her punishment is falling in love with Bottom, a character whose head has quite literally been transfigured into his name. The queen speaks sweetly to the object, with romantic soliloquies reserved for objects of desire.


In line with his trademark artistic style, Fuseli took creative liberties to produce his own version of the famous scene. The multitude of women depicted around Titania are fairies that are wearing contemporary dresses and pampering Bottom. Pease-blossom, Mustard-seed, and Cobweb all contribute to fulfilling his needs, whether it’s scratching his head or delivering fresh honey. The young woman and the dwarf-life creature she leads by a leash are interpreted as representing senses and emotions over reason. The sources of inspiration for this painting seem to come from Leonardo da Vinci’s Leda and Botticelli’s illustration of Canto XXX from Dante’s Paradiso.


3. Christ Disappearing at Emmaus (1792)

Christ Disappearing at Emmaus by Henry Fuseli, 1792, via Wikimedia


In addition to inventing his own stories and illustrating literary scenes, Fuseli also took inspiration from biblical narratives. The Gospel of St. Luke tells of Jesus’ day of resurrection and his walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus with his two disciples. The two men don’t recognize Jesus until he breaks bread around the table. The Supper at Emmaus has been a popular scene in art history. However, Fuseli’s version stands apart. After Jesus stated I am the bread of life, he disappeared. This act of disappearance is often left out of paintings, yet this is the moment that Fuseli chose to focus on.


There is a plethora of renditions that exist emphasizing the meal shared by Jesus and his ecstatic disciplines after finding out about his true identity. These works often have a joyful mood and an air of celebration. In contrast, the mood of Christ Disappearing at Emmaus is shrouded in darkness and melancholy. Christ is the central figure while his two disciples sit at the table in despair on either side of him. A glowing halo surrounds Jesus’ head as he begins his ascent up to heaven. The moment focuses on the downfall of emotions from elation at the resurrection and Jesus’ return to the brutal letdown and harsh reality of his sudden departure. Fuseli was the master of transforming a traditional, significant story and revealing a side that was hidden in the shadows.


4. The Debutante (1807) by Henry Fuseli

The Debutante by Henry Fuseli, 1807, via Tate, London


Fuseli’s obsession with women and his fantasies about their domination over him was evident throughout his oeuvre. The majority of women he painted were characterized by their cruelty as sexual predators. Many were adorned in elaborate costumes and luxurious headdresses. Fuseli wanted to show the power dynamic he dreamed of in his relationships. The Debutante is a watercolor painting with graphite that shows Fuseli’s perverted, twisted imagination.  It’s inconclusive if the characters in this piece were based on real women, but they are assumed to be high-class sex workers or courtesans. Some believe the piece could have been inspired by a scene from the novel Pamela which was written by Samuel Richardson in 1740.


The woman on the right is seen sewing while tethered by a rope around her neck. Seated on the left is what some have interpreted as the head of the brothel. The other women around the tea table seem to be older, mocking the younger woman bound to the wall. His attraction to the female figure and women’s extravagant hairstyles and fashion pervaded his artworks as well as many those of other Romantic artists in late 18th and early 19th century Britain. This obsession with women was one of many elements of his work, which together with his interest in the supernatural, defined his unique style and established him as an inspiration for many painters who followed.

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By Susanna AndrewsBA Interdisciplinary ArtsSusanna is an artist passionate about generating concepts for creative writing pieces and short films. During this process, she loves to research topics related to art history and philosophy to inform her ideas. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts and lives in Southern California.