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Fuseli, Henry

    Image Credit: Wikipedia

    Full Name: Fuseli, Henry

    Other Names:

    • Johann Heinrich Füssli

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 06 February 1741

    Date Died: 16 April 1825

    Place Born: Zürich, Switzerland

    Place Died: Putney Hill, Surrey, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: Switzerland

    Subject Area(s): German (culture, style, period)


    Painter and Royal Academy teacher; translator of German art histories and art historian. Fuseli, born Heinrich Füssli, was one of eighteen children (five living to adulthood) born to Johann Caspar Füssli (1706-1782), in later life a city clerk, and his wife, Anna Elisabeth Waser (Füssli) (1714-1759). His father devoted his life to art, painting portraits, writing on art and collecting master drawings and prints. The father’s correspondence with theorists such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann and artists inspired the young Heinrich; the elder Füssli’s Geschichte der besten Künstler in der Schweitz (History of the Best Painters in Switzerland) (2 vols. 1755-1757) may have been written or researched in part by his son. After home tutoring by his mother, Fuseli attended Caroline College, Zürich, studying literature, aesthetics, Greek, and Latin under Johann Jakob Bodmer (1698-1783) and Johann Jakob Breitinger (1701-1776). He gained a strong command of Greek and Latin. Fuseli was ordained a minister in 1761, according to his father’s wishes. In 1762 he and two colleagues issued a pamphlet accusing the corrupt Zürich magistrate Felix Grebel of graft and Fuseli was forced to flee to Prussia in 1763 to avoid retribution. There he met another Swiss expatriate, the art theorist and mathematician Johann Georg Sulzer (1720-1779). Fuseli assisted Sulzer with his book Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste (General Theory of the Fine Arts), 1773, published in 1774. In 1764 Sir Andrew Mitchell (1708-1771), the British chargé d’affaires in Berlin, took Fuseli to London with the hopes that Fuseli would broaden British knowledge of German-language literature through writing and lectures. In England, Fuseli met the publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809) who provided him support through journalism and book illustrations. Fuseli translated one of the first serious art histories, Winckelmann’s 1755 Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst, as Reflections on the Painting and the Sculpture of the Greeks in 1765. A published poety, he entered the work of theory with his work, Remarks on J. J. Rousseau, 1767, which endorsed Rousseau’s views on the separation of art and morality. He met Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1768, who urged him to return to painting, which he did, continuing his study of art literature as well. His translation of the Delle virtù e dé premj, 1766, by Giacinto Dragonetti (1738-1818) appeared as Treatise on Virtues and Rewards in 1769. After a disasterous house fire, Fuseli traveled to Rome in 1770 to study art further, though he did not take classes there. His Rome experience led him embrace the mannerists and Michelangelo, particularly their use of line and emotional, discarding the Winckelmann canon of cool classicism. Rome, too, afforded him multiple sexual forays, rendered, perhaps, in Fuseli’s erotic drawings, eventually purchased by art historian Herbert P. Horne for his museum in Florence (Weinglass). Fuseli returned to England with a pause in Switzerland, 1778-1779. In Zürich, he fell deeply in love with the 21-year-old niece of the scientist Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801), Anna Landolt (Lavater) vom Rech, unrequited. He and his father brought out a book on selected Winckelmann letters, Winckelmanns Briefe an seine Freunde in der Schweiz. In London, Fuseli exhibited enough history paintings at the Royal Academy between 1780 and 1786 to establish him a reputation in this important genre. He also reacquainted himself with Reynolds, now the president of the Royal Academy. Fuseli’s most famous painting, “The Nightmare,” was painted during this time, bringing him celebrity status and eventual posthumous fame as a forerunner of Romanticism. A cycle of forty-one paintings devoted to Milton’s life and works in 1799 was a financial failure. During this time, he authored more than sixty anonymous critiques of books and exhibition reviews in Johnson’s Analytical Review (1788-1798). In 1788 Johnson published Fuseli’s translations of Lavater’s Vermischte unphysiognomische Regeln as Aphorisms on Man, heavily modified by Fuseli. William Blake met Fuseli around 1787 and became close friends, engraving occasional works for Fuseli. The same year, 1787, he was elected associate of the Royal Academy. Fuseli married Sophia Rawlins (1762/3-1832), a woman more than twenty years younger than him in 1788. About the same time Fuseli met the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) who fell deeply in love with the painter, eventually approaching Fuseli’s young wife’s to share the man between them. Fuseli was elevated to Royal Academician in 1790 (though opposed by Reynolds) and professor of painting in 1799. His three lectures on painting were published in 1801. The final period in Fuseli’s life focused on teaching and formulating his art-historical ideas. A supporter of the French Revolution, he visited Paris in 1802 during the brief Peace of Amiens, visiting the Musée Napoleon and drafting a commentary for British visitors of the paintings looted from Italy as well as other pictures in the museum (present Musée du Louvre). The guide was never published. However, Fuseli revised and published a new edition of Dictionary of Painters originally by Matthew Pilkington in 1805 and issued a radically reworked version in 1810. The new work was noted for its accuracy if occasional personalized view of art (Fuseli disparaged Albrecht Dürer, for example). In 1818 John Knowles (1781-1841)–his future biographer–collaborated with Fuseli in compiling the artist’s notes for the book, Aphorisms on Art and a drafted of Italian Renaissance art history. In 1816 Fuseli, Sir Thomas Lawrence and John Flaxman were elected honorary academicians of the Accademia di San Luca at Rome, likely through the urging of Antonio Canova. He died at the home of the countess of Guilford at Surrey in 1825 and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Knowles’ posthumous biography included Fuseli’s Aphorisms and A History of Art in the Schools of Italy. Fuseli’s painting students included the leading artists of the next generation, including John Constable, Edwin Landseer, William Mulready, Charles Robert Leslie and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Fuseli’s brother, Rudolf (1737-1806), named his son Johann Heinrich Füssli, who assumed editing a dictionary of painters after Rudolf’s death in 1806. Fuseli’s reputation as an important artist overshadows his work as an art historian and documenter of art. His “uncommonly tenacious visual memory helped him become one of the most perceptive art historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (Weinglass). He introduced scores of new art-historical terms into English. Neither trained formally in studio or art history, Fuseli’s tastes could be uneven; he failed to recognize the worth of the Elgin marbles.

    Selected Bibliography

    translated, Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks: with Instructions for the Connoisseur, and an Essay on Grace in Works of Art. London: Printed for the Translator, and sold by A. Millar, 1765; and Sulzer, Johann Georg.Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste. 5 vols. Leipzig: Weidemann & Reich, 1774 ; andFüssli, Johann Caspar. Winckelmanns Briefe an seine Freunde in der Schweiz. Zürich: bey Orell, Gessner, Füesslin u. Comp., 1778; and Pilkington, Mathew. A Dictionary of Painters from the Revival of the Art to the Present Period. London: J. Johnson, 1805; [reorganized ed,] London: J Walker, 1810.


    [complete bibliography:] “Füssli-Literatur.” in Schiff, Gert. Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1741-1825. Zürich: Verlag Berichthaus/Munich: Prestel, 1973, vol. 1, p. 683; Knowles, John. The Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli. London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1831; Tomory, P. A. The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli. New York: Praeger, 1972; Schiff, Gert. Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1741-1825. 2 vols. Zürich: Verlag Berichthaus/Munich: Prestel, 1973; Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art; de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986 p. 378; Schiff, Gert. “Essay, Catalogue Entries and Biographical Outline.” in, Hofmann, Werner. Henry Fuseli, 1741-1825. London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1975;Weinglass, D.H. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Lentzsch, Franziska Fuseli: the Wild Swiss. Zürich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2005.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Fuseli, Henry." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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