Artist: Fuseli, Henry
FUSELI [fyoo-zuh-lee]. HENRY, was the son of John Caspar Füessli of Zurich, Switzerland, but he chose to write it Fuseli, by which name he is universally known. This extraordinary man was born, according to his biographer, John Knowles, F.R.S., at Zurich, in Switzerland, Feb. 7th, 1741, which city had been the native place of his family for many generations.
He exhibited a passion for the fine arts from early infancy, but his father, having determined to educate him for the church, did all he could to thwart the natural bent of his genius, and prohibited him from drawing. This opposition met with the fate which usually attends all such attempts.
Young Henry contrived to devote to his favorite pursuit every moment in secret that he could withdraw from his other occupations; and later in life he used to tell of his purloining candle ends from the kitchen, to enable him to sit up at night, and pursue in solitude and secrecy his darling studies. His father had an extensive collection of prints, after the old masters, and by frequently copying them, he rendered himself familiar with their styles and merits. Michelangelo was his favorite, even at this early age, which shows the natural bent of his genius.
He did not confine himself exclusively to copying, but frequently varied his drawings according to his own fancy, and even designed originals. In order that he might be duly qualified for the sacred office for which he was destined, his father placed him, at the proper age, in Humanity College, where his old friends, Bodmer and Breitinger were distinguished professors. Here he became acquainted with the celebrated Lavater, his fellow-student in theology, with whom he formed an intimate friendship that lasted till death. It was here, also, that he began to cultivate knowledge of the English language, in which he made such proficiency as to be able to read the English poets with ease and delight. Shakespeare and Milton were his favorites.
At this time, also, he translated Macbeth into German, and subsequently, the Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague. It may be observed here, that Fuseli possessed such extraordinary powers of memory that when he had read a book once, he thoroughly comprehended its contents; and he not only wrote in Latin and Greek, but spoke them with the fluency of his native tongue. He also acquired such a perfect knowledge of the several modern languages of Europe, especially of the English, French, and Italian, that it was indifferent to him in which he spoke or wrote, except that when he wished to express himself with power, he used to say he preferred the German. It was at college, too, that he made himself acquainted with the writings of Klopstock and Weiland, and imbibed their intense love of poetry, which attended him through his life; and he wrote several poems in German, which met with considerable applause.
Having finished his collegiate course, and obtained the degree of Master of Arts. Fuseli, with his friend Lavater, went to Vienna, and from thence proceeded to Berlin, where they placed themselves under the instruction of the learned professor Sulzer, author of a celebrated Lexicon on the Fine Arts. Sulzer and other learned men of Germany had formed the design of opening a channel of communication between the literature of Germany and England.
The ready and apprehensive talents of Fuseli, and his thorough knowledge of the English language, together with his enthusiasm, recommended him to Sulzer as a person peculiarly fitted to carry out this plan, and the proposition was made to him. Sir Robert Smith, the English ambassador at the Court of Berlin, having seen some of Fuseli’s drawings, illustrative of scenes in Shakespeare, and pleased with his genius, strongly recommended him to go to England. The occurrence of so many favorable circumstances at once determined his course. Before parting with his friend Lavater, the latter gave him a testimonial of his high appreciation of his talents, by presenting him with a piece of paper, beautifully framed and glazed, on which he had written in German, “Do but the tenth part of what you can do.” “Hang that up in your bedroom, my dear friend,” said Lavater, “ and I know what will be the result.”
Arriving in London early one morning in 1767, before the people were stirring, the vast metropolis of the British empire seemed-to his vivid imagination a solitude; and being impressed with his forlorn situation, a stranger in a strange place, without any fixed plan of obtaining a livelihood, “ he burst into a flood of tears,” as he expresses himself. He did not long continue, however, in this desolate condition. Sir Robert Smith had given him letters of introduction to Mr. Coutts the banker, to Mr. Johnson and Mr. Cadell, the booksellers, and to others, all of whom received him with great cordiality, and through their advice and influence he was enabled to fulfill his mission in a satisfactory manner. Through their influence, also, he obtained the situation of tutor and traveling companion to a nobleman’s son, with a liberal salary, and proceeded with him as far as Paris, when the youth refusing to obey his injunctions, and giving him insolence, he threw up his situation in disgust, and returned to London. A little incident now decided his career. Among the men of talent and genius to whom he was introduced in London, was Sir Joshua Reynolds, then in the zenith of his fame. On Fuseli’s showing him some of his drawings, the President of the Royal Academy inquired how long since he had returned from Italy, and expressed surprise on learning that he had never been in Italy. Reynolds tendered him his hospitalities, and would occasionally buy of him one of his little pencil sketches, in which there was so much poetic conception and power displayed, that at last he could not refrain from saying, “Young man, were I the author of those drawings, and were offered ten thousand a year not to practice as an artist, I would reject the proposal with contempt.” Fuseli had been offered a living if he would take orders, and he was balancing with respect to his future career, when this unequivocal opinion, proceeding from so high and disinterested a source, instantly determined him to devote his life to painting. Fully aware of the importance and necessity of having recourse to the foundation of excellence, he went to Italy in 1770 where he resided eight years, and studied with great assiduity in the numerous galleries, particularly the works of Michelangelo, whose fine and bold imagination, and the lofty grandeur of his works, were most congenial to his taste.
It was a story he loved to tell in after life, how day after day, and week after week, he lay upon his back, with upturned and wondering eyes, musing on the splendid ceiling of the Sistine chapel, and the unattainable grandeur of the great Florentine. During his residence abroad, he made notes and criticisms on everything he met with that was excellent, which he left among his manuscripts at his death, but; much of which he wove into his lectures before the students of the Royal Academy. His talents, acquirements, and his great conversational powers made his society courted, and he formed some valuable acquaintances at Rome, particularly among the English nobility and gentry, who flocked there for amusement, and who heralded his fame at home. He also sent some of his choice drawings, illustrating Shakespeare and Milton, to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy.
In 1778, he left Italy and returned to England, passing through Switzerland and his native city. We must pass over the rest of the life of this extraordinary man with rapidity, and confine ourselves mostly to a criticism on his character and works. No one ever doubted his great talents; his society was courted by the learned and the great, and he was a lion at their tables; but his works were not appreciated in his day, nor did he meet with that success to which he was eminently entitled. His numerous subjects are from the greatest poets, or of writers of wild and wonderful fictions. Some people looked upon his powerful delineations of Shakespeare and Milton, admired and praised them for fashion’s sake, with as little appreciation as they praised those immortal writers themselves. Others, more matter of fact, who could appreciate an ornamental tea-tray, and admire Dutch boors, put down his lofty imaginings as wild extravagances, or ridiculous fancies. His sublime pictures of Hamlet and Lear, and his Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which his imagination is as playful and airy as the poet’s, were entirely above their comprehension.
His Milton Gallery, of forty-seven pictures, which occupied him ten years, from 1790 to 1800, was closed after two years’ exhibition, with loss. Alderman Boydell was almost his only liberal patron, for whom he painted eight pictures for the Shakespeare Gallery. Yet Fuseli had his faults. The following criticism by one of his biographers, Allan Cunningham, who seldom spares the lash, gives a good idea of his character and of his works: “As a painter, his merits are of no common order. He was no timid or creeping adventurer in the region of art, but a man peculiarly daring and bold, who rejoiced only in the vast, the wild, and the wonder¬ful; and loved to measure himself with any subject, whether in the heaven above, the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth. ‘His main wish was to startle and astonish—it was his ambition to be called Fuseli the daring and imaginative, the illustrator of Milton and Shakespeare, the rival of Michelangelo. Out of the seventy exhibited paintings on which he reposed his hope of fame, not one can be called commonplace; they are all poetical in their nature, and as poetically treated. Some twenty of these alarm, startle, and displease; twenty more may come within the limits of common comprehension; the third twenty are such as few men could produce, and deserve a place in the noblest collections; while the remaining ten are equal in conception to anything that genius has hitherto produced, and second only in their execution to the true and recognized masterpieces of art. His coloring is like his design, original; it has a kind of supernatural hue, which harmonizes with his subjects—the spirits of the other state and the hags of hell are steeped in a kind of kindred color, which becomes their character. His notion of color suited the wildness of his subjects; and the hue of Satan and the luster of Hamlet’s Ghost, are part of the imagination of those unnatural shapes. The domestic and humble realities of life he considered unworthy of his pencil, and employed it on those high and terrible themes where imagination may put forth all its strength, and fancy scatter all her colors. He loved to grapple with whatever he thought too weighty for others, and assembling round him the dim shades which imagination readily called forth, sat brooding over the chaos, and tried to bring the whole into order and beauty.”
Fuseli died in 1825. For twenty years he ably filled the office of Professor of Painting, and Keeper of the Royal Academy; and the series of lectures he delivered before that institution, show a profound knowledge of the history and principles of art. In 1805, his critical powers were displayed in a new and enlarged edition of Pilkington’s Dictionary of Painters. In 1817, he was honored with a diploma of the first class, from the academy of St. Luke, at Rome. He was a ripe scholar and a poet. He continued to paint till the last week of his life. He had a remarkably good constitution. “I have been a very happy man,” he was accustomed to say, “for I have always been well, and always employed in doing what I liked.” He left many manuscripts, some complete and others imperfect. His life was one of great industry, and he had on his hands at the time of his death upwards of sixty pictures, most of them of large size, many of which had been exhibited.