The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery

Henry Fuseli - "Shakespeare's Painter"

by Petra Maisak, Freies Deutsches Hochstift, Frankfurt am Main

Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1741-1825) completed nine paintings for John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery, several in a very large format.[1] Six of these paintings have been destroyed or are missing, and therefore are exclusively known from the engravings. This casts a telling light on the meaning of the gallery painting in its historical reception: the graphic reproduction of the original not only made the work available to a broader public, but in the event of its loss the work could still be passed on to posterity. In order to give an overview of Fuseli's cooperation with the Shakespeare Gallery, his contributions will be presented in their original sequence:

  1. The Tempest I.ii. Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ariel. Engraved by Jean-Pierre Simon, 1797 (Cat. I:4). Only a single fragment, with Prospero's head, survives of the painting that was completed on November 25, 1789. [2]
  2. A Midsummer Night s Dream IV.i. Titania and Bottom with an Ass's Head. Engraved by Jean-Pierre Simon, 1796 (Cat. I:20). Painting dated 1780/90. [3]
  3. A Midsummer Night s Dream IV.i. Titania awakening. Engraved by Thomas Ryder and Thomas Ryder, 1803 (Cat. I:21). Painting dated 1785/90. [4]
  4. Macbeth I.iii. The Witches appear to Macbeth and Banquo. Engraved by James Caldwall, 1798 (Cat. I:37). The painting dated 1785/90 is missing. [5]
  5. Henry IV, Part 2, II.iv. Prince Hal and Poins surprise Falstaff with Doll Tearsheet. Engraved by William Satchwell Leney, 1795 (Cat. II:8). The painting dated 1795/90 is lost. [6]
  6. Henry V, II.ii. King Henry V sentences Cambridge, Scroop and Northumberland. Engraved by Robert Thew, 1798 (Cat. II:12). The painting is lost, but there exist two smaller versions dated 1786/89. [7]
  7. King Lear, I.i. King Lear casting out his daughter Cordelia. Engraved by Richard Earlom, 1792 (Cat. II:38). Painting dated 1785/90; in addition there is a smaller version dating from the same period (Fig. 12).[8]
  8. Hamlet, I.iv. The Ghost appears to Hamlet. Engraved by Robert Thew, 1796 (Cat. II:44) The painting is lost. [9]
  9. A Midsummer Night s Dream, II.i. Robin Goodfellow Puck. Engraved by James Parker, 1799 (Fig. 14; Quarto 21). The whereabouts of the painting dated 1787/90 is unknown. [10]

The paintings and the sequence of the engravings for Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery represent only one chapter within Fuseli's lifelong exposition of the poet. By itself, the chapter does not adequately explain the peculiarity of his interpretation. It is therefore necessary to begin at an earlier stage in his career and make some preliminary remarks about his personality, his artistic development, and his theoretical views concerning the arts. Fuseli's own writings [11] provide a useful source which can also be supplemented with the contemporary biography written by John Knowles. [12] While earlier works can be used to document his development leading up to the paintings for Boydell, subsequent works, such as the contributions to Woodmason's New Shakespeare Gallery or Chalmer's edition of Shakespeare, cannot be taken into consideration.

1. The Roots

Fuseli's friend, physiognomist and theologian Johann Caspar Lavater, drew on November 4, 1773 a portrayal of the character of the artist in a letter to Herder, which although emphatic, is very revealing:

Fuseli in Rome has one of the greatest imaginations. He is extreme in everything he does, always original; Shakespeare's painter a blast of wind and tempest! [...] He seldom acts without pencil and brush. but if he acts, he needs a hundred paces' space not to crush everything. He has devoured all the Greek, Latin, Italian, and English poets. His glance is lightening, his word a storm his pleasantry death, and his revenge hell. When he is near, he is unbearable. He cannot breathe the common air. He does not draw portraits but all his traits are true and yet caricature. [13]

What is referred to in the latter comment is evident in the extreme exaggeration of his self-portrait en face in a skeptical, brooding pose, which clearly departs from the traditional portrait of an artist in the eighteenth century and replaces the representation of profession with the psychological interpretation of a difficult character torn by inner conflict. [14] With regard to this uncompromising analytical ability Lavater had asked Fuseli for some precisely revealing motifs for his Physiognomische Fragmente (1775-1778), whereupon he received an answer just as shattering as characteristic. "The biggest mistake you made in all the subjects you proposed to me, is that you always prescribe how it should be executed. You need to know that the soul of the painter is invention, and that a painter without that belongs to the shoemaker's guild. Our conceptions may be the same, but to realize them in painting, they must be conceived in my head and not in yours." [15]

With these words an artist introduces himself as one who seems to have anticipated the autonomous thinking of Modernism, but who nevertheless had his roots in the genius-cult of the Storm and Stress period: impetuous, highly talented, he is self-assured to the point of arrogance; a primitive rock, so to speak, who is energetic, witty, artistic, whose inspiration becomes powerful (perhaps even violent), and who turns aside everything which threatens his artistic liberty. This corresponds perfectly to the typological pattern with which the Storm and Stress opposed the conventional image of an artist in propagating its idea of original genius, the "Kraftkerl" or the rebellious Prometheus. In Fuseli the true protagonist was found, and as such he was celebrated from a safe distance, i.e. in the flourishing epistolary culture of the period. Young Goethe, for example, expressed his amazement: "What an ardour and rage burn within this man." [16]

Two levels of interpretation combine here: on one hand Fuseli's reputation was based on the provocative approach of his art, but on the other hand it was also based, at least in his youth, on his very eccentric life-style, about which he was accustomed to express himself candidly. In England, his adopted country, people called him "the wild Swiss." We must not forget, however, that he nurtured his reputation as enfant terrible from the lofty position of a highly cultured intellectual. As Lavater's appraisal anticipated, he could perform agile tricks of juggling with his fulminating wisdom.

Figure 8

Characteristic of Fuseli's self-conception is the sovereign image of himself in The Artist reading to the Sisters Hess, a pen-and-ink drawing of a formal design magnificent in its abstraction. In this drawing as well as in his self-portrait he introduces himself en face with his crucial symbolic accoutrement: not the brush or pen of traditional iconography, but with a book declaring his affinity with literature (Fig. 8). [17] Moreover, he is reading from it, that is, he is portrayed in the act of interpreting the text to an interested audience, an act which also distinguishes his endeavor in the visual arts. It is not by chance, that the candle spreads a secularized halo around his head; the motif of the radiating light suggests the artistic inspiration, which takes flame within his mind and reveals him as the genius that he is in the eyes of his contemporaries (and, of course, in his own eyes as well). The two precious listeners with the voluptuous hair-styles are symptomatic of his images of women as they appear again and again in his art.

Fuseli was born in 1741 into an old established and respected family of artists of Zurich. Solomon Gessner, artist and poet of the idyllic, was his godfather. His father, Johann Caspar Füssli, friend of Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Antony Raphael Mengs, dealt with the history of Swiss painting, an interest which guided as well the art collection he had assembled. He let his son collaborate on his publications and make copies from his collection, which stimulated young Fuseli to develop his own images in the artistic style of the Swiss mercenaries. Young Fuseli changes the crude mannerism of these models into the grotesque-expressive, tending strongly towards aggression and brutality, but also to burlesque and satire. These images are worlds apart from the art of his time, from the Rococo or bourgeois Enlightenment and Sensibility, and equally far apart from the immediate example of nature. The ductus already seems brisk and impulsive, and the human figures reveal that determination to typify and stylize which will later predominate later, and also that inclination toward the piquant or fascination with the Femme fatale.

Despite his obvious talent, Fuseli, in contrast to his brother, who, although less gifted, was allowed to become a painter, was determined to become a member of the clergy. At his father's wish he started to study theology at the Carolinum. What this study might entail in a parish such as Zurich - shaped as it was by Protestant, Calvinist, Pietist reformation - would in itself be worth examination. Whatever it entailed, Fuseli endured it with a suffering that continued long after he left Zurich. He referred to himself as "a victim of irresponsible prejudice" as he expressed it a letter in 1770 "weaker eyes than those of my father's would have been able to see that painting was my inexorable urge." [18] In 1761 he was ordained and delivered an inaugural sermon on "The Vice of Curiosity," but before the ensuing year came to a close, his theological career was abruptly terminated when Fuseli published with Lavater and Hess a harsh pamphlet against Grebel, a corrupt provincial governor. As a result the latter was reprimanded by the authorities, but at the same time the young rebel was told to leave Zurich so that public order might be maintained.

2. Foundations of a Theory of Art

Accompanied by Johann Georg Sulzer, Fuseli went at first to Germany and started a second career as a writer, art critic and theoretician, and collaborator on Sulzer's Allgemeine Theorie der Schönen Künste (General Theory of the Fine Arts), which became what is probably the most influential aesthetic compendium of the closing years of the eighteenth century. [19] As Fuseli was well read, he was perfectly prepared for this task especially since he had taken advantage of opportunities for discourse with an intellectual elite in his parental house and during his studies. Crucial, too, was his acquaintance with the scholars Bodmer [20] and Breitinger, who established the reputation of Zurich as a literary and philological center and helped to prepare the aesthetic positions of the Storm and Stress period. They were lead by the idea that poetry is "the mother-tongue of the human race" (Hamann), and they searched for the sources of an original art beyond baroque and rococo, and brought literary treasures to light: they translated Homer, published the songs of Manesse manuscripts as well as parts of the Nibelungenlied, and brought Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare to their German audience. Here Fuseli found the themes for his later work, moreover he found the specific approach to representation.

Bodmer and Breitinger were profoundly convinced of the principle kinship of the arts, which they defined with the Horatian formula "ut pictura poesis." In accordance with traditional art theory, they interpreted painting as mute literary work and poetry as a speaking image; they saw in it the sister arts, which spring equally from the mimesis and develop analogous effects. Fuseli adopted his belief in the immanent interplay of the arts, even granting primacy to poetry. He regarded it as an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the visual arts, but also as a touchstone against which art must be measured. There is virtually no picture among his works, which does not, in some sense, originate from a literary theme. With regard to mimesis, his practice was to give priority to poetry over the fine arts; this means that he not only imitated nature itself, but also a nature already ennobled by poetry, a process which he was accustomed to observing analytically. Fuseli did not condescend to take notice of Lessing's Laokoon: oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (1766) with its clear-cut division of the two kinds of art: "I don't know Lessing's Limits [...] and if I knew it, I would not want to review it," he wrote to Lavater on June 25, 1766. [21]

Bodmer and Breitinger compelled Fuseli to examine critically the affective aesthetics of the sublime, an undertaking which had a decisive influence on his conception of art. [22] Derived from classical rhetoric, especially from the programmatic Peri hypsos of Pseudo-Longinus, the sublime in the English philosophy of nature and arts during the eighteenth century took on new meaning and became central to the thinking of the era of Storm and Stress. Bodmer, whom Fuseli called "Bodmer-Longinus", was inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost to write his Critischer Abhandlung von dem Wunderbaren in der Poesie und dessen Verbindung zum Wahrscheinlichen (Critical Treatise on the Marvelous in Poetry and its Relation to the Verisimilitude, 1740), in which he defends the sublime as belonging to the concept of the "marvelous." He thereby assumed a position directly opposed to the rationalist system of rules developed under Gottsched's provenance: in addition to the real, Bodmer declared realm of the possible also worthy of artistic representation, provided that representation did not extend beyond the realm of the probable. Analogous to Leibnitz, he supported the thesis of "other possible world structures" which spring solely from the creative imagination of the artist. He thereby posited the play of fantasy in opposition to the principle of reason, and he defended the mythical and the fairy-story elements present in the works of poets such as Homer, Milton, or Shakespeare. The entire Pandemonium, which Enlightenment had banished as an obsolete phantasmagoria, could now return through the backdoor of literature declared to be reflexively filtered aesthetic fiction.

Fuseli considered it self-evident that a work of art should not draw solely from banal reality: "Common-place figures are as inadmissible in the grand style of painting as common-place characters or sentiments in poetry." [23] In his opinion, the observer's attention could only be captivated by the unusual and the striking. Nothing seemed more suitable to him than the sublime or, in Bodmer's sense, the marvelous. In order to express a subjective conception of art, which is as well aimed against the "prodesse et delectare" of the Enlightenment, as against Winckelmann's "disinterested pleasure," he postulates the arousal of passion. It replaces the idea of harmonious beauty with a distressing magnificence which manifests itself in elemental powers, exceeding human measure and throwing the individual back on himself. The aim is to stimulate the emotions with the highest intensity so as to provoke astonishment and even fear: "What amazes and shakes us has always a greater impact than what persuades or pleases," as the Pseudo-Longinus had already observed, [24] because: "The moderate is modest, only from excess, from the extraordinary, does the sublime arise." Dressed in pathos, the sublime "seems like splendor." Extremes of stylistic artifice are recommended for the artistic representation; so that their effect is not diminished, however, they must be made to appear completely natural. All of this has to be kept in mind when one examines Fusei's interpretations of Shakespeare.

In his case theory preceded practice, namely in the article on the sublime, which he wrote in 1763 for Sulzer's Allgemeine Theorie der Schönen Künste, which clearly followed the text of Pseudo-Longinus, but also analyzed the arguments of Quintilian, Shaftesbury, and Burke. The article already contains the sum of his views on art: "Every affecting power of extraordinary dimensions possesses something admirable", he argues. "It seems that among the works of taste only the one which is much bigger and stronger than we had expected can be called sublime. The sublime works with strong strokes, it is enchanting and irresistibly moves the soul." It expresses elemental powers coming from the depth of consciousness or from the boundlessness of the cosmos and provokes immediate emotions: "In art, therefore, it is the greatest." [25] Fuseli agrees with his mentors, and also with the Storm and Stress movement, that bringing forth what is greatest in art remains the privilege of genius.

The genius, the great artist, was considered to be a creative power, a second nature, because he produces works, following his immanent law, which are thoroughly original and which lend their epoch its characteristic form. In accord with this premise, Shakespeare was exalted, along with Homer, as the paradigm of poetry: the creative power attributed to him was as great as that of nature itself; his virile energy was regarded as a remedy for the effeminization of a decadent culture. One could find in his works everything that conventional literature was missing: a powerful imagination, dynamic action filled with suspense, distinctive characters, passion which does not ask for reason, and an exuberant abundance of fantasy. [26]

Thanks to his gift for languages, Fuseli from his early youth was able to read the poet's works in the original English. He was always critical of translations: "I wish," he protested on one occasion, "Wieland has been consumed by his Swabian flame before he touched Shakespeare with his sinful hands!" [27] At Carolinum in Zürich he had himself attempted a translation of his favorite piece Macbeth an effort which has not been handed down. He approached Shakespeare from all sides; his study of the poet can be traced like a red thread woven through his life. Perceiving in terms of Shakespeare's poetry became second nature to him, and provided him images of poetic transformation more worthy of artistic representation than any reality. In his work he always sought this nature above nature.

3. London and Theater

Provided with references from Bodmer, Breitinger, and Sulzer, Fuseli moved to England in 1764. London offered him a suitable breeding-ground for the development of his versatile talent. He wrote about Rousseau, translated Winckelmann, started drawing again, and went to the theater with growing enthusiasm.

In 1747 David Garrick directed the Drury Lane Theater. He replaced the formal pomp of baroque performances with a more natural way of moving. This revolutionized dramatic art and was most fully realized in his brilliant productions of Shakespeare. In his leading roles Garrick enchanted the audience with his complex portrayal of character and passion; he even managed to cast his spell over such a sarcastic a critic as Lichtenberg. In letters from London, Lichtenberg conveyed a lively picture of the theater, and he never tired of describing Garrick in his great Shakespearean roles. The actor made a similar impression on Fuseli, for whom theater marked the intersection between art and life. To him the stage made Shakespeare more of a real-life experience, which inspired his artistic imagination and gave tangible shape to the idea of the sublime. During this phase he absorbed new influences which had a lasting effect on his development and which found their expression in the paintings of the Shakespeare Gallery.

Garrick's maxim was to ignore everything unnecessary and to concentrate the play on the main characters in order to increase the intensity of the impression. Fuseli laid claim to this reduction to the essentials, recapitulating the Pseudo- Longinus, when he said: "The copious is seldom grand." [28] Fuseli turns each scene into a stage with sparse scenery, where characters act in dramatic motion; first in contemporary costumes, later in robes which seem to grow out of the body. The light of the scene does not correspond to natural lighting conditions but it is effectively used like spotlights radiating like a fluid from the characters themselves. The perspective usually corresponds to the view-point of a spectator sitting in the parterre, whence the action seems to have a greater impact than if viewed from a common level.

Figure 9
Figure 9

Fuseli developed a special feeling for the dramaturgy of his performances. He knew how to take hold of the moment of highest tension Lessing's fruitful moment and how to express this by the dynamics of the composition. This is proved in the early writing Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after the Murder of Duncan (Fig. 9). [29] It is known from contemporary reports that his performance of Macbeth reached a climax in the dagger-scene Garrick, as Macbeth, stares in almost insane terror at the bloody murder weapon after having killed the king, while Mrs. Pritchard, acting coldly and with evil determination, urges him on. Just as he recommends in one of his numerous aphorisms, Fuseli chooses the moment where the action bundles up: "The middle moment, the moment of suspense, the crisis, is the moment of importance, big with the past and pregnant with the future." [30]

At this time Fuseli commenced his third and true career: as a visual artist. Only now did he turn to painting. His unorthodox career, which had kept him apart from the traditional training among artisans or in the academy, was an important condition in the characteristic direction he was to follow. It also explains his carefree, basically self-taught way of dealing with the techniques of painting, influencing negatively the appearance today of the surface of some of his paintings. As the paintings become increasingly darkened and cracked, considerable problems arise for the effort to conserve them. His paintings for the

Shakespeare Gallery are not without such problems. [31]

4. Rome and Classical Antiquity

In 1770 the house in London where Fuseli lived burned down, and with it all his belongings, his paintings, and his writings. This was a dramatic turning point in his life; shortly thereafter he left England and went to Italy, to the "great school" of art. Being in Italy had different consequences for Fuseli than for Winckelmann or Goethe. In Rome he moved primarily in a circle of artists from the north of Europe, including Tobias Sergel, whose Bacchanal found its correlate in Heinse's Ardinghello. His studies came first, and, following customary practice, Fuseli sketched from antique sculpture and Renaissance painting. In his copies from classical antiquity, he was especially fond of the Steed Tamers of the Quirinal, attributed at the time to Phidias. He was impressed by the powerful masculinity, a characteristic he emphasized by rendering the pedestal figures from a low-angled perspective. [32] He also devoted himself to the canon of classical sculpture which were regarded at the time as models: the Belvedere Apollo and Antonious, the Laokoon group, the Farnese Hercules, the Medici Venus, the Vatican Torso, the Barberini Faun, and the Borghesian Fencer. Nature thus idealized by art was far more important to him than the study of actual nature, which he confessed he found irritating. His figures he preferred to model after classical sculpture and the so-called "Muscle Men" with their musculature fully exposed to the observer. The most famous of these was the Ecorché by Houdon, which was displayed in the in the gallery of nudes of the French Academy in Rome.

Fuseli never went into that euphoria for ancient Rome promulgated by contemporary classicists who were intoxicated with classical antiquity. In spite of his admiration, his attitude remained ambivalent. The prevailing mood is characterized by a reserved melancholy which is subtly expressed in the painting created at the end of his stay in Rome, The Artist in despair over the size of Antique Fragments. [33] Seated in a melancholy attitude before the overwhelming relics of antiquity, a male figure, intended as a self-portrait, resigns himself to the incapacity of artistic imitation to reproduce the vanished greatness. The ensemble consists of fragments of the huge statue of the emperor Constantine, exhibited in the courtyard of the Conservatory Palace in Rome. With the gigantic foot of Constantine, Fuseli visually puns on the diminutive of his own name (Füssli = little foot) to emphasize the discrepancy of the relationship.

Figure 10

Having already taken the strategies of the theater as principle of composition in London, Fuseli in Rome now laid the foundation for his figurations. He used iconographic patterns, adopting them at his own discretion. Once a motif was chosen, it went through numerous metamorphoses, but its origin was always recognizable. Typical of this evolution were the selection of Macbeth drawings, which lead up to the eighth painting of Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. In 1771 he sketched the titular hero in the form of two nude figures, one behind the other in stark counterposition with upstretched arms, as in the Steed Tamers. [34] This shows Fuseli's method of paraphrasing established patterns: he uses them in a sense as material to play with, from which may extract prototypes in free variation and later adapt them to a specific purpose. The drawing The Witches show Macbeth the Descendants of Banquo, 1773 (Fig. 10), [35] again reveals his skill in using the model of the Steed Tamers. In this drawing he negates Shakespeare's medieval setting as well as the contemporary London stage-costuming, as in his portrayal of Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard in their dramatic roles. Instead, he chooses the nude-figure, the time-transcending classical ideal. Fuseli thus inaugurated a new mode of depicting Shakespearean scenes emancipated from the theater, an emancipation that could have been brought about only in Rome. Also in his own peculiar way, under the mannerist influence of Luca Cambiaso, he shaped the round dance of the ghosts in the background. As suits the gloomy subject, the visual space remains undefined. The composition defined by the movement radiating forth from the main character's center of energy, and it is given shape by the chiaroscuro of the wash-drawing.

The representation of the supernatural through a transparent, almost dance-like grace, is altered to a cruder and more compact form in The Witches appear to Macbeth and Banquo on the heath, the fourth painting of the Shakespeare Gallery. As the painting has been lost, it is available to us only in the engraving by James Caldwell (Cat. I:37), the question of its actual quality must therefore be left open. [36] The three witches, whose characteristics Fuseli had portrayed as early as 1775 in the old woman with the wrinkled hood in his paraphrase of the Pompeiian fresco, Sale of Cupids, now burst forth from looming clouds, shrouded in their ghostly hooded cloaks like the three Fates prophesying doom. [37] The witches predict that Macbeth will be crowned, adding further foment to the idea of regicide.In this scene Fuseli has certainly found a "pregnant moment" in the play, whose disastrous outcome is anticipated by the skulls and bones lying on the ground. To learn his fate, Macbeth confronts the "weird sisters" in yet another variation on the Steed Tamers as heroic nude of classical antiquity. His dynamic body-language is emphasized by the baroque swing of his coat, while Banquo signals anxious repulsion.

5. Macbeth: The Image of the Hero

Fuseli, in his review of the Shakespeare Gallery published anonymously in the Analytical Review (1789), explained his intention: "This is a sublime scene and the figure of Macbeth uncommonly grand: a character too great to be daunted by an extraordinary event betrays no sign of fear or even astonishment; the slumbering fire of ambition is roused, and the firmly-nerved hand of power raised to command those to stay and say more, from whom a dastard would have fled. At this moment only one passion agitated the soul of Macbeth: a daring hope was laboring for birth in a shape he had but a glimpse of; as the bubbles melted into air, in a moment, he reflected, undisturbed by jarring emotions, and darted towards his future grandeur. The figure and attitude of Banquo appear rather strained and inferior to the rest of the composition, which, like a stupendous feature in nature, seizes the whole mind, and produces concentrated calm of admiration, instead of dilated pleasurable sensations which arise from contemplating grace and beauty." [38] The scene with the witches, in his opinion, combining natural and supernatural horrors, is an exemplary instance of the miraculous and the sublime: an extraordinary human being is confronted with an extraordinary fate, which demands an extraordinary portrayal.

Fuseli therefore creates a specific type of hero, appearing again in the drawing, The Witches show Macbeth the Descendants of Banquo: they are vigorous, dynamic, with classical proportions, clearly articulated musculature, and grand gesture, yet without individual features. "He who aims at the sublime," he states, "consults the classes assigned to character by physiognomy, not its anatomy of individuals." [39] The grandeur manifests itself in the depiction of passions which are so great as to outshine every personal feature and create a universally valid mask of character expressing solely this passion. In a lecture at the Royal Academy, Fuseli expressed to his students these thoughts on classical art: "when passion or suffering become too big for utterance, the wisdom of ancient art has borrowed a feature from tranquillity, though not air. For every being seized by an enormous passion, be it joy or grief, or fear sunk to despair, loses the character of its own individual expression, and is absorbed by the power of the feature that attracts it." [40]

On the basis of the theory of passions, Charles Le Brun had developed a series of schematized studies of expression, relating a typical expression to each strong emotion. His systematics had a profound, even though often latent, effect on the artists of the eighteenth century who had been schooled in the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Fuseli, like Hogarth, had been influenced by these models; numerous stylized types of faces testify to Le Brun's influence. The gesture and facial expression of his actors and heroes were to reflect those unmixed and unmistakable feelings which could be delineated in a concise, expressive formula. Fuseli drew as well from physiognomical and psychological knowledge, which, like his capacity of abstraction, significantly augmented Le Brun's baroque way of externalizing the passions. It was even more important to Fuseli to convey the passions using a language of gesture, which was intended to be so clear and expressive as to express a character's entire apprehension of the world. Combining rhetoric, physiognomy, and eloquentia corporis according to the principle of synergy, he transformed the classical tradition into a new inviolable unity designed to achieve the most effective representation possible. Classical rhetoric offered schemes appropriate to his purpose and which he could incorporate in his artistic work. Further, Fuseli drew from pathognomy, which dealt with the "eloquence of the body" and had influenced acting technique as well as visual arts in the eighteenth century. [41]

Following these premises, Fuseli crystallized a type of hero who was a figure of pathos, from whom, like Macbeth, was to radiate a maximum of expression. Because the report of superhuman power remains the same, the mythic hero is one of the universal archetypes which endure in the subconscious mind and which have many different, yet interchangeable names. To show this, Fuseli chooses a dominating posture, sweeping movements, and a curved line of the body, which corresponds to Hogarth's theory of the wavy "line of beauty." The extreme length of the limbs and the dynamic torsion depart from the classical ideal of latent power and beauty, and turn instead to movements sought in mannerism. This break with the norm in favor of a dynamic principle is as characteristic of Fuseli as are his variations on established formulae, which can even become stereotyped repetition. Whether he paints the heroes of classical myth or the Nibelungenlied or illustrates scenes from Dante, Milton, or Shakespeare, his type of hero always remains the same. He uses the heroic figure as an established sign within his pictorial grammar, by means of which he endeavors to construct his composition as if it were a readable text.

In this endeavor, however, he runs the risk of allowing the overdone pathos if his figures lapse into unintended comic effects, for, as the Pseudo-Longinus warns, if the means of art miss the right measure, the sublime is but a small step from the ridiculous. The situation becomes even more problematic should the hero-icon be duplicated and transferred from painting into the medium of graphic reproduction. This is evident in The Witches appear to Macbeth and Banquo. The engraver, who fails to capture the inner dynamics as well as the color of the composition, paralyzes the contours, exaggerates the sculpturesque modeling of the muscles, and renders the gestures too pretentious, so that the distinction from caricature, from Superman and consorts, is blurred. This impression is even intensified by the serial production, which allows direct comparison of the different paintings. Because the sale of the graphic prints to the general public had to avoid any moral offense, Fuseli's classical nude male had to be neutered, deprived of his sexuality and modestly presented as a muscle-bound eunuch. His actual conception can only be guessed at.

It is remarkable how Fuseli deals with the relations of form and content. Macbeth, the negative hero and king-killer whom Shakespeare has set upon the stage with dubious traits, is transformed by Fuseli in the positive form of the Steed Tamers, thus reversing the iconography in its ethic meaning. [42] Considered in comparison to the depiction of Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard, the difference becomes even more obvious: the characteristic attributes of the role portrayal have given way to the impressively beautiful, because, as an aspect of the sublime, evil is not necessarily connected to the ugly. Also testifying to this fact are Fuseli's illustrations to Milton's Paradise Lost, where a heroically handsome Satan dominates. In this manner Fuseli began to formulate an aesthetics of horror at odds with the bourgeois conventions of the time (at odds, as well, all with the physiognomic convictions of his friend Lavater), but which found a parallel in England's "black" Romanticism. Fuseli's interpretation seemed perfectly suited as an approach Shakespeare, who had himself developed in his works a masterly apparatus to play with the aesthetics of terror and to let entire worlds break asunder.

6. The Model of Michelangelo

In addition to English theater and classical sculpture, another important influence needs to be mentioned: Michelangelo, who became Fuseli's idol in Rome and who influenced his art to such an extent that visual reminiscences recur throughout his works. The "divine" Raphael pales in comparison; the judgment of neo-classicists opinion was repealed; and the then famous Mengs subsided into unimportance. His biographer, Knowles, reports that Fuseli spent weeks lying on his back in the Sistine Chapel to study the frescos on the ceiling. His numerous copies and paraphrases of Michelangelo's prophets, sibyls, or his ignudi, prove the intensity of this examination.

The legendary , the profoundly concentrated expression of the soul which radiated through the posture and gesture of Michelangelo's figures, aroused Fuseli's admiration, but also his desire to achieve similar effects in his own way. "Genius may adopt, but never steals," [43] he claimed, thus legitimizing his numerous adaptations from Michelangelo. Indeed he did not reproduce the models poorly. He tried in each instance to distill from his source his own distinctive achievement laden with emotion. The seated woman from one of the sections on the vault of the Sistine chapel provided a formal incentive for his composition of Constance in Shakespeare's King John, to which he added the motif of the reclining youth, reminiscent of Michelangelo's ignudi. The frontal figure, seated on the ground, went through a further metamorphosis and was no doubt under the influence of William Blake changed into the boldly expressive picture entitled The Silence. [44] Here Fuseli's art of reduction is at its peak, producing an image with emanating power, like the signature of a lost melancholy world.

In the Master of the Sistine Chapel, Fuseli beheld the unsurpassed creator of the sublime in the visual arts. Because he was accustomed to thinking in reference to literature, he placed Michelangelo, who had created his own cosmos with his overwhelming range of expression, alongside Shakespeare, encouraging their respective worlds of images and ideas to intermingle. Through his continuing pursuit of this intellectual fusion he developed works of his own, displaying Shakespearean themes in Michelangelesque forms. Towards the end of his stay in Rome he conceived an adventurous project. On the model of the Sistine Chapel, Fuseli planned a commemorative hall with a complete cycle of frescos in homage to Shakespeare. A contemporary of Fuseli reports: "He imagined a magnificent temple, which he [...] would fill with the pictures of his favorite poet." Dramatic scenes from the plays would decorate the walls with allegories of the sublime on "the all-crowning cupola." [45] His intention to establish a memorial to Shakespeare in the manner of Michelangelo was grandiose, but so swollen with hybris that its practical realization was doomed to fail. Four surviving sketches reveal how the compositional arrangement of the lunettes and pendentives schematically follow the architecture of the Sistine, its divisions projected, however, onto the flat surface of the sketch. Fuseli has conceived this architectural space filled with scenes from Macbeth, King Lear, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night, with the dramatis personae played by figures from Michelangelo. Jonah, for example, appears in the role of Macbeth. [46]

The idea itself casts a revealing light on the artist and his period. The adaptation of the papal chapel with the most important frescos of Christianity to glorify a poet raises an unprecedented claim, implying nothing less if we choose to ignore, that is, Fuseli's own presumption as rival to Michelangelo than the deification of Shakespeare. As the eighteenth century drew to a close the way was already paved for such a cult. As Georg Christoph Lichtenberg had observed during his stay in London, Shakespeare was not simply popular but holy; Gottfried Bürger called his works "the bible of poets." In 1769, Garrick had celebrated a Shakespeare jubilee for over ninety nights. The culmination was a procession of "living images," consisting of individual scenes and culminating in fitting allegoric performances. It is not unlikely that Fuseli was inspired by this event. [47] In his project manifested, as well, the "cult of genius" of the Storm and Stress, which elaborated from Spinoza's "deus sive natura" an analogy between the artist, nature, and deity, because they share the same creative potency.

7. Shakespeare Gallery: Painting and Engraving

Following his pretension to demand the very highest of art, Fuseli considered himself a history painter. In the hierarchy of the arts history painting still held absolute priority and was regarded as the only appropriate form of expression for the sublime. The central theme of the Classicists, the exemplum virtutis, played for him a less important role. He rejected moral judgments, and in the great world-theater of the arts he acknowledged no difference between good and evil. The reputation as history painter which he had acquired in Italy was based mainly on the his numerous scenes from Shakespeare, which had been highly praised and had inspired Lavater to give Fuseli the epithet, "Shakespeare's Painter." Upon his return to London in 1780, Fuseli continued to work on Shakespearean themes. He would later claim later that it was this work, especially his idea of frescos for a hall commemorating Shakespeare, which prepared the way for Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. From 1785-1789 he devoted himself intensively to his project. It was an artistically productive period for him, in which his individuality came into its full development.

In his reviewof the Shakespeare Gallery, published anonymously in the Analytical Review (1789), Fuseli was neither stingy with self-praise himself, nor did he fail to heap harsh criticism on the other painters Reynolds, West, Hamilton, Opie, Barry, Northcote for their often pompous theatricality. [48] Characteristic is his devastating critique of Reynolds's version of Macbeth and the Witches (Cat. I:39). Reynolds had staged an ostentatious, baroque spectacle of hell, but instead of the horrific he had produced only the ridiculous. One of Fuseli's ironic remarks, even though it exposes his crave for fame, shows that he was also well aware of his unique status among these painters: "If they wish an image of nature as it is, they go see to Opie; if they wish an image on how it once was, they go see Northcote; but if they wish representations of what never has been and never will be, they come to see me!" [49] The accuracy of such an utterance is evident in his paintings of Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream concerning which more will be said later.

He did not always succeed in finding such extraordinary solutions. The scene from Henry V, in which the young king sentences the traitor Cambridge and his companion to death, seems surprisingly conventional (Cat. II:12). Here the impression of a "living image" is created through the rhythmical combination of the larger group of actors in which the continuous movement has been segmented into a series of constituent frozen moments. The robes and the suits of armor do not seem well suited to the muscular bodies; their purpose, of course, is to evoke the late Middle Ages. Similar reliance on costuming may be seen in Falstaff with Doll Tearsheet, King Lear casting out his daughter Cordelia, and The Ghost appears to Hamlet. After the reduction and abstraction of his artist mode in Italy, and after his concentration on the ideal of classical nudity, which dominates in Macbeth, it is surprising that Fuseli now sets the scenes in the external frame prescribed by Shakespeare and turns to historicizing costumes and fully formed characters. It can be concluded from the theatricality of the composition and the decor, that in London he again responded to the powerful influence of the stage.

In his work for the Shakespeare Gallery, it must also be recognized that Fuseli, accustomed to working independently and only for a small circle of connoisseurs and enthusiasts, was suddenly confronted by Boydell with a normative claim totally new to him: scenes of the celebrated poet had to be visualized in such an impressive and engaging way so that the broadest possible public audience would feel their tastes personally addressed and would be willing to harmonize their own conception of Shakespeare's world with the artist's. Fuseli, as individualist, could not always fulfill these expectations. The construction of some pictures seems forced and the pathos exaggerated.

Fuseli was convince, that a magnificent subject could only be expressed in a large format. Monumentality seemed to him the indispensable condition of an aesthetically effective portrayal of the sublime, especially in history painting. His drafts and studies with their sovereign, abstract, characteristic style are often superior in quality to the paintings, yet are limited by a common middle-sized format. For the actual painting he preferred a gigantic canvas. The largest painting of the Shakespeare Gallery, King Lear casting out his daughter Cordelia, measures 259x363 cm. This coincidence of inner and outer dimensions was always self- evident to him; in 1773, for example, he wrote to Lavater: "I leave it to the 'most soulful' graphic artist in Europe to draw the Ilias in a nut-shell or to color Elia's cart and horses on the wing of a fly. I need space, height, depth, length." [50] In aphorism No. 238, he declares: "He never can be great, who honors what is little." [51]

Boydell's transformation of the pictures into graphic plates in Fuseli's eyes meant capitulating to diminution; the separate reproduction in the folio-format was nevertheless a far better and more lavish solution than mere vignettes integrated within the published text. A more difficult problem, however, is raised with the question whether its is at all possible to reproduce a painting in a graphic medium without sacrificing its artistic substance. The wish to make original works available to a broad public had, during the Enlightenment, nurtured advances in the printed facsimile. Engravers developed progressively more refined methods to achieve as accurate a copy as possible. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution the engraving trade blossomed in England. [52] When the technique of aquatinta was perfected, it became possible to imitate drawings remarkably well, but the reproduction of paintings were constrained by the absence of the color and texture of the original. One has to assume, however, a slightly different point-of-view, remembering that spectators of that era were typically acquainted with a given work of art only through graphic reproduction, which also provided a major source for art criticism and led to many errors of judgment. The lack of color was scarcely recognized as a deficiency; the attention was directed instead to the disegno, the linear framework of the representation, which in the recent debate among art critics had been elevated above coloring.

Boydell had decided in favor of a method of reproduction which would approach the original as closely as possible in its concrete function of illustration. Aquatint etching allowed the engraver to recreate the effects of wash drawing with chiaroscuro contrasts and sculpturesque modeling, thus capturing the external attributes of composition. An alternative would have been to foreground the disegno, to reproduce the contours of the work of art in line engravings. Such was the method of Flaxman, who sought to realize not the outer form, but the ideal substratum. It has often been charged that Boydell failed to recognize the contemporary change in taste to line-drawing and this misjudgment contributed to the failure of his Shakespeare Gallery. [53]

The plan to illustrate Shakespeare's plays was given a skeptical reception principally because visual arts did not seem suited to the exposition of dramatic content. "Copper and poetry usually parody one another," as Goethe put it in 1805. [54] If the artistic hand which transposes poetry into painting is then subjected to another medium of transformation and is mechanically engraved, the result can hardly evoke the original spirit of the poem. At best it can only reverberate as a weak echo. The inevitable flattening effect in the engraving is all the more evident in Fuseli's compositions when he tries to translate the language of the poet into the visual images charged with dramatic passion. What he brought to canvas with an energetic brush, often ignoring all technical rules of painting, defies efforts at concrete reproduction by an engraver, who cannot capture the artist's individual style and, even exerting all his skill, can achieve at best only a superficial copy. Boydell did not seem to attach much importance to this problem, because he fully trusted in the success of the engravings, which he considered his real source of income. Compared to what the engravers were paid, the fee given to Fuseli for his paintings were, without exception, significantly less. For his Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ariel, for example, he was given 200 Guineas, while the engraver was paid 300 Guineas; for King Lear casting out his daughter Cordelia he received 250 Guineas, the engraver 400 Guineas. [55]

8. King Lear: Aesthetic Judgment and Creative Process

For his contribution to the Shakespeare Gallery, Fuseli was to some extent able to resort to his Italian drafts for example in the portrayal King Lear casting out his daughter Cordelia. The freely painted water-color sketch of 1774 lightly alludes to the action in effective chiaroscuro, but already emphasizes the central figure of Lear. [56] In the subsequent painting Fuseli intensifies the ambiance into an archaic throne room, in which an exceptionally large group of people forms sort of a "living image," spatially dominated by the looming figure of Lear, a pathos-figure modeled on the God of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Virtually snorting with rage, Lear springs up from his throne to condemn Cordelia, who draws back startled by his indignation at her honest, but homely reply to his request to be told how much she loves him (Cat. II:38). A cleverly devised rhythm of movement reverberates through the crowd to exhibit their reaction to this dramatic moment. The interpretation completely revises that of the earlier sketch: where Fuseli had originally chosen a moment of weakness, with Cordelia sinking down pleadingly before an old man bent with age, he now shows Lear starting up in full virility: "Every inch a king." While the malicious sisters are watching, Cordelia will not allow herself to break down. The image of pride and power, although typical of Fuseli, was not what the public expected.

As Shakespearean scholar and translator, Ludwig Tieck demanded fidelity to the text; he rejected Fuseli's drastic exaggeration (which he knew only in the engraved reproduction), and he expressed his criticism harshly in his commentary of 1795:

Among all the imitators of great Michelangelo, Fuseli might be among the worst. Few works of art afford the eye such a repugnant sight. All the bodies are strained in an unnatural manner, all muscles are put into activity without need. Lear, the major figure, is of them all the worst, because he is the most exaggerated: instead of the strength and energy of Shakespeare one sees here only affectation and bombast. Lear utters here his curse of Cordelia in the most extreme rage, with no trace of the weak and childish old man as described by the poet. Here he is a giant. It is most insipid that in his feet and through his clothing one can study the anatomy of his muscles. His outstretched hand is affected. Even here the painter only wanted to demonstrate his academic mastery. [...] Cordelia, whom the poet describes as meek and loving, is the basest creature in this assembly. One could almost suspect that the painter painted this scene without knowing the play [...] Everything in this composition seems so affected and mannered that one does not know how to judge the characters. [57]

The utter rejection evident in this last remark seems absolutely unjustified if one takes into consideration how precise Fuseli was, as connoisseur of Shakespeare, in depicting his psychological interpretation with the help of physiognomy and pathognomy. He draws upon the proven patterns, established by Le Brun, for the portrayal of affects; Lear's head, therefore, not only follows Michelangelo, but also Le Brun, who had himself adapted from Michelangelo and among whose studies of expression Fuseli may have found as well a model for Cordelia. Furthermore Fuseli uses ideas of Lavater and Petrus Campers as well as contemporary theory on body languages.

Of course it is not surprising that Fuseli's judgment of the painting is diametrically opposed to Tieck's

Perhaps there is not a picture in the room that tells the story more directly and faithfully than the renunciation of Lear. Our poet's words may be repeated: `Yes, every inch a king.' The ungoverned rage of a man accustomed to see all things bend so quickly to his will, that he never considered why they did so, contrasts with the rough earnestness of Kent, who, by an abrupt interposition, irritates the wrath he wished to appease, and makes the cloud burst with tenfold fury over the slight impediment that stopped without allaying the storm. Goneril and Regan, with unblushing fronts, stand erect; but we own we expected to the gentle Cordelia with downcast eyes, shrinking from the anger which terrified even while it wounded her ingenuous mind. The content which the hypocrisy of her sisters inspired might naturally dictate her answer; but at the moment the painter has chosen she may be supposed to be overwhelmed with fear and tender compassion for her still dear, but mistaken father. [58]


Figure 11
Figure 11

King Lear casting out his daughter Cordelia allows useful insight into Fuseli's creative process, because, in addition to the early water-color sketch already mentioned, and the large painting for the Shakespeare Gallery just described, we have available a second, smaller version of the painting (Fig. 11) as well as the engraving as final product (Cat. II:38). In the large version the force of the dramatic action is best developed best. The characteristic lines show a vehemence which seems to be mastered in the small painting. The engraving falls victim to the very process of meticulous reproduction. In the large painting, the characters as well as the entire atmosphere are intensified until they become almost threatening; the somber effect of the scene has resulted, however, from the gradual darkening of the surface, an effect caused by the use of bitumen. Some details of the architecture and the costumes have therefore been shrouded in deep shade or have become virtually invisible, like the dog on the painting's extreme left. It is a great advantage, here, that the engraving reproduces the motif with such precision that the missing motifs can be deduced with its help. [59]

The same is true for the smaller, in conception completely identical, painting, which has also become much darker and has been painted over as well. During recent restoration, the overpainted areas and the yellowed varnish were removed. The surface of the painting, it was discovered, had been grounded in white and covered with a squared net, like that used in copying a composition to scale. On the white surface, a small but strong preparatory pencil sketch appeared, which even showed such details as the dog which had become invisible in the darkened paint. During the restoration the original color was reconstituted, so that the painting is now much clearer, cooler and more shining than the former brownish surface had indicated.


The relation of the two paintings and the engraving poses riddles. The square net and the preparatory sketch on the smaller portrait could lead to the conclusion that it is the original version, which Fuseli then copied to the large format by means of squaring. The painting King Henry V provides a similar case. The large painting for the Shakespeare Gallery is lost, but there is a second version, supposed to be the draft for the large painting, in almost the same format as the smaller King Lear. [61] Curiously, the dimensions of the smaller paintings are almost the same as the corresponding engravings, which suggests some internal connection. The ideal circumstance for preparing an engraved copy is to have a model of the same size. Because of the mirror-reversal in printing, the engraver needs only to transfer the model inversely on the copper-plate. Squaring is not necessary in this process. It is therefore conceivable that Fuseli first created the large painting, which the more generous ductus of King Lear would seem to indicate. To provide the engraver a scale model, he might have then transferred the large format by means of a reversible square net applied to the smaller painting surface. Perhaps he had another order which made the work on the replica worthwhile. This painting reveals all the traits characteristic of Fuseli, even the carefree use of color; the precision with which the motifs are repeated is nevertheless surprising for one of his temperament. Perhaps the preparation for the Shakespeare Gallery, as an exhibition project, led him to this resolution of the problems.

Figure 13
Figure 12

Figures 12 - 13

9. Falstaff: Varieties of Comedy

In his interpretation of Shakespeare, Fuseli also allows for a distinctive undertone in the comic subjects which sets him apart from the other artists. This is evident, for example, in the extensively washed pen-and-ink study of Falstaff with Doll Tearsheet in the Castle, executed in Rome in 1771. Falstaff, delineated with sparse but effective strokes, assumes gargantuan physical presence, while Doll is shown as translucent and dainty as a spirit of the air (Fig. 12). [62] The painting is defined by its chiaroscuro contrasts. The unsettling tension created by the light-infused Doll and the shadow-mottled Falstaff effectively capture the character's unabashed display of his bodily impulses. Fuseli returned to this motif for the Shakespeare Gallery and, in a painting that has been lost, introduces the actor John Henderson playing Falstaff. The engraved reproduction (Cat. II:8) reveals no trace of the dubious atmosphere of the earlier pen-and-ink wash. It seems cozy and harmless, but therefore closer to the text of Shakespeare's burlesque tavern scene.

What Fuseli is capable of doing when he gives free reign to his imagination, is apparent in a painting of exquisite coloration, Falstaff in the Laundry Basket, dating from about the same period but not painted for Boydell. To punish him for his lecherous advances, Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford put the "gross watery pumpion" in the laundry basket and cover him with foul linin (Fig. 13). [63] The composition is restricted to a few actors and fixes the action in an abstract framework; if one draws in the diagonal lines indicated by the extended limbs of Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, Falstaff's head will be caught directly below their intersection. This optical trick intensifies his entrapment. His sad and ridiculous predicament he is a standard theme of Fuseli's work, which often depicts the male victimized by cruel, coquettish women, typically costumed in the exaggerated finery of London fashion. He made many portraits of his wife dressed in such finery, an in clever variations, from the playful pretense of childlike innocence to femme fatale and domina. This refinement with the unmistakable piquant traits of Mrs. Fuseli is introduced here in the figure of the woman whose head is turned away and whose half-profile is reflected in the mirror. With the mirror motif, drawn from established iconography, he begins his complicated game with the levels of reality which permeate the entire composition. It is continued in the second mirror with a console on which sits a small monster with a beak-nose, like an obscure, small ornament, seeming to have wandered from a painting by Bosch or Breughel. The mirrors are mounted onto the stage-prop wall with a Louis-Seize decor that peculiarly resembles stage-curtains; what drama may be playing within their recesses remains unexplained. Falstaff's page Robin, who peers around the corner with a sinister grin, is no longer a character from Shakespeare's play, nor from the real world; he looks, rather, like a herald from the realm of shades.

What Fuseli shows in this painting may takes the stage-reality as its starting-point, but it reveals a theater behind or beyond actual theater. Comic aspects are mixed up with moments of distress, and the artist/stage-manager knows how to use them well. Here his way of approaching the poet is manifest in its best form. He does not pretend to transpose the scene into an image of "life" with an artist's pseudo-realism; instead, he takes the author at his word in presenting the comedy with its theatricality intact. The result is neither a stage-design nor a painting which describes what is acted in the theater, but rather a representation of various levels of transitory reality. On an actual existing canvas the painter calls Shakespeare's poetry into being; on an imaginary stage under his own theatrical direction, he stages, not without irony, his own meta-theater.

10. Dream Worlds

With the two paintings for A Midsummer Night's Dream Titania caresses Bottom with the Ass's Head and Titania Awakening Fuseli's work for Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery reached its high point (Cat. I:20 and 21). He used the opportunity, under the rubric of the marvelous, to represent what had never been seen, to dive in the world of fairies and to elaborate Shakespeare's poetic imagination through his own artistic fantasy. After upbraiding one another for their mutual infidelity, Oberon, king of fairies, vows to punish Titania by pouring the juice of a flower upon her "sleeping eye-lid," so that under its magic spell she will fall in love with the first creature she beholds upon awaking. This creature is Bottom, the clumsy weaver, whom Puck has given an ass's head. Smitten with love for Bottom, Titania calls forth her retinue of fairies: Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed. This is the moment which Fuseli has chosen to stage upon his canvas. Setting the action in a forest near Athens, Shakespeare has drawn from classical and northern mythology. The ambiance of the "haunted grove" in which Titania holds court Fuseli suggest only in shadowy details. In the meantime, with same darkening witnessed in his other paintings, they have become even more shadowy, so that the motif of the arbor and the little water-mirror in the foreground can only be reconstructed by consulting the engraved version. Fuseli is not interested in portraying the magic forest. A backdrop of a few props of scenery sufficed to conjure the arbor as aptly symbolic love-nest. His entire skill is devoted to the figuration.

Fuseli develops syncretically a private mythology, mingling motifs of art, history, and popular lore with impressions of London society or, to be more precise, the demimonde. He borrows them like quotations from their original context and combines them in a new relationship which suspends the dissonance of the individual motifs through formal unity. Titania, quite the seductress, appears in divine nudity, a Renaissance ideal adapted from Leonardo's Leda, but with a magic wand in her hand. The high sphere of divine love (or lust) is opposed to Bottom's dull, animal sensuality, and between these extremes many intervening possibilities are suggested by the colorful kaleidoscope of imaginary beings. His experience as a dedicated etymologist might have inspired Fuseli to invent the group on the left, surrounding the girl with the butterfly-head. On the lower right he has placed one of the witches from Macbeth with a changeling, and just above the witch, the beautiful Mrs. Fuseli holds a bearded gnome, robed as a hermit or philosopher, in leading-reins.

To reproduce this pandemonium without rendering it shallow, without exaggerating it into ridiculous caricature posed for the engraver it a difficult, perhaps impossible, task (Cat.&nbspI:20). The same is true of Titania's awakening (Cat. I:21). Fuseli's painting captivates with its magical effects of light. The now reconciled King and Queen of fairies shine with a brightness that seems to radiate from their nude figures and casts those gathered around them in the oscillations of a dramatic chiaroscuro. [64] Oberon, who looks like a classical sculpture of Antonious, has liberated Titania from the magic spell. A flower-elf has intruded between them like a golden bud. A dark zones spreads around Bottom, whom Puck has freed by from the ass's head (which still looms above him). He sleeps in the innocent, obscene position of Barberini's Fauns. The little monster, whom we saw before the mirror in the painting of Falstaff, sits between Bottom's legs and makes its sexual character manifest. The Nightmare above Bottom's head brings him wild dreams. To his right, there are three witches with their brood (one clutching to her breast a full-grown man of infant-size with the horns of a ram). Again Fuseli seems to be mocking the London demimonde. The royal couple is surrounded by a merry round of elves with porcelain faces, accompanied by a bagpipe player.

The engraver accurately copies the figures, which appear weightless and almost disembodied in Fuseli's work. He depicts, as well, details no longer visible in the painting, such as the death's-head moth on the right, and the tree behind Titania and Oberon which stands pars pro toto for the "forest near Athens." While the fantastic assembly is given clear contours in the graphic transformation, it also acquires a material presence detrimental to the atmospheric effect. Where the painting is able to enchant with suggestive conjuration, the engraving searches out all details and renders them explicit. In the two paintings for A Midsummer Night's Dream the insurmountable distance between the original and the reproduction is especially obvious, proving the truth of Walter Benjamin's dictum that the reproduction of a work of art is paid for by the loss of its aura.

This reduction by the work of art by reproduction explains much of the unfavorable criticism of Fuseli's contribution to the Shakespeare Gallery, because the critics referred almost exclusively to the engravings. These were also inspected in Weimar. "Looked through the English portefeuille", Goethe wrote in his diary on May 2, 1800: "It can be said of Fuseli, as of every brilliant mannerist, that he parodies himself. In almost all the other prints for the Shakespeare Gallery, the composition and execution are utterly bereft of character and motive." [65] Concerning the project as a whole, this sounds devastating, but it supports Fuseli in his special role as the "genial mannerist" that in essence he was. The sequence of engravings made clear the variations of established figures. It was regarded as the Ur-type of parodic stereotypes, rather than as part of the logical grammar of images that Fuseli had intended. Goethe's attitude towards the artist was ambivalent. The spectrum reached from boundless admiration at the beginning, to rejection during the period of high classicism, and finally to benevolent respect in old age. In the satirical intermezzo, Walpurgisnacht's Dream; or Oberon's and Titania's Golden Wedding, Goethe was not reluctant to adopt ideas from Fuseli's two paintings for A Midsummer Night's Dream; and in The Collector and his Family he mentions the "elf-like images, these strange fairies and ghosts from the work-shop of my friend Fuseli", "[...] these mingling and moving dreams." [66]

Figure 14
Figure 15

Figures 14 - 15

Images from dreams accompanied Fuseli throughout his life. One of them was Robin Goodfellow-Puck, "the merry wanderer of the night," whom he portrayed for Boydell as a demonic child-man with batwings (Fig. 14; Quarto 21). Most are most inspired by literature. Even the famous Nightmare, whose aggravated second version, ca. 1790 (Fig. 15), was created at the same time that Fuseli was working on the Shakespeare Gallery, has its correlate in Shakespeare, namely in Mercutio's dream narrative in Romeo and Juliet. [67] With the Nightmare, Fuseli emancipated himself from the literary text and created an inscrutable image of fantasy. Like the paintings for A Midsummer Night's Dream, it is inspired by many sources and includes quotations from art history as well as elements of Swiss and English popular lore, depth psychology but also Fuseli's private mythology.

Here the painter manages in convincingly to redeem the claims assumed by Bodmer and sanctioned by Pseudo-Longinus. He confronted the spectator with things never seen before and captivated him with the exciting encounter of the sublime in form of the marvelous. Nothing is better suited to provoke strong reactions than horror, the marvelous intensified to fright. Accordingly, Fuseli developed an aesthetic of "delightful horror," which had its parallel in the contemporarily fashionable gothic novel. He is though always striving to keep the representation of horror within the limits justified by art theory and an affective aesthetics. This effort is evident in the brilliant scene, The Ghost appears to Hamlet, which caused a sensation when displayed in the Shakespeare Gallery, and is now preserved only as an engraving (Cat. II:44). Characteristically, these fantastic compositions draw exclusively from "great" literature. Although immediately available, he never chose themes from Ossian or the popular gothic novels.

Fuseli was not a visionary like Blake or Goya; he was a rationalist, who knew how to construct his eccentric compositions with precise calculation. His images, nevertheless, possess something unfathomable. They have their own magic, which can only grow out of a creative imagination. Behind the mask of poetry, they venture into dark areas and bring archetypal ideas to light, which have to be interpreted as the basic pattern of the psyche. In the Nightmare or in the Titania paintings, for example, it is possible to see, among many other possible interpretations, a variation of "la belle et la bête," the myth of the beauty and the beast, which, according to Jung, stands for the battle of the soul with the darkness, with the elemental forces of the self.

Goethe once reproached Fuseli for always having "poetry and painting compete," [68] by which he meant that Fuseli did not develop poetry with the actual means of art, as did, for example, Ruysdale or Claude Lorrain; instead, he literalized and tried to outdo the poet on his own ground. Fuseli himself considered this approach an advantage; without wasting a single thought on Lessing's Laokoon and the presumed limits of painting and poetry, he proudly assumed the role of "literary painter," who practiced his art in rivalry with the poet. He was not concerned at all with merely illustrating a text (in the sense of illuminating or embellishing it); he wanted, instead, to interpret and stage it anew from a subjective point of view. If he managed to open up the creative space a bit wider than the poet had, his aim would be achieved. He referred to familiar iconographic patterns, but he brought them into a totally new context and used them, analogous to the strategies of classical rhetoric, in the sense of surpassing and outdoing what was previously known. If we want to characterize Fuseli in terms of the circle of those who worked for Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery, it is certainly not an exaggeration to refer to him as the ambitious literary and artistic director, or as the choreographer who puts poetry into motion and at its high point transforms it into expressive and atmospherically dense symbols.


[1] The foundation for subsequent catalogues is: Schiff: Johann Heinrich Füssli; a similar accomplishment for graphic reproduction is: Weinglass: Prints and Engraved illustrations By and After Henry Fuseli. For Fuseli's interpretations of Shakespeare and his work for Boydell see: Boase: "Illustraions of Shakespeare's Plays in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries;" Ditchburn-Bosch: J. H. Füsslis Kunstlehre und ihre Auswirkung auf seine Shakespeare-Interpretation; Argan: "Fuseli Shakespeare's Painter"; Friedmann: Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery; Ashton: Shakespeare and British Art; Messina: "Nota a Füssli, Shakespeare's painter;" Hammerschmidt-Hummel: "Füsslis Illustrationen zu Shakespeares `Macbeth'."

[2] City of York Art Gallery, York. Cf. Schiff 1973, Nos. 742 and 743; Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, No. 117

[3] Oil on canvas, 216 x 274 cm, in der Tate Gallery, London. Cf. Schiff: Füssli, Nr. 753; Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, Nr. 118.

[4] Oil on canvas, 222 x 280 cm, im Kunstmuseum, Winterthur. Vgl. Schiff: Füssli, No. 754; Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, No. 119.

[5] Cf. Schiff: Füssli, No. 737; Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, No. 120.

[6] Cf. Schiff: Füssli, No. 724, as well as Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, No. 121.

[7] Oil on canvas, 48.3 x 61 cm, in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (Schiff: Füssli, No. 725); oil on canvas, 51 x 64 cm, private collection in Switzerland. Cf. Schiff: Füssli No. 726); Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, No. 122.

[8] Oil on canvas, 259 x 363 cm in the Art Gallery, Toronto (Schiff: Füssli, No. 739); reduced copy, oil on wood, 47 x 59 cm, in the Goethe-Museum, Frankfurt am Main (ibid no. 740); c.f. Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, No. 123.

[9] It was in the William Earle Collection in Liverpool, oil on canvas, 99 x 132 cm; cf. Schiff: Füssli, No. 731; Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, No. 124.

[10] Oil on canvas. 102 x 82 cm. Cf. Schiff: Füssli, No. 750; Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, No. 125.

[11] See Fuseli's anonymous Review of Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery in Johnson's Analytical Review, London, Mai 1789, pp. 106-12; Füssli: Briefe; Heinrich Füssli: Aphorismen über die Kunst; Barry, Opie, Fuseli: Lectures on Painting by the Royal Academians; Mason: The Mind of Henry Fuseli: Selections from his Writings; Fuseli: The Collected English Letters.

[12] Fuseli: The Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli (ed. Knowles) 1831, repr. with an introduction by Weinglass 1982 (includes: Lectures on Painting 7-XII). See also Haydon: Diary. Significant commentaries on Fuseli's life and works are provided in: Antal: Fuseli Studies; Tomory: The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli; as well as in the catalogue J. H. Füssli. Kunst um 1800, and Füssli: Zeichnungen.

[13] Füssli: Briefe, p. 168. For Fuseli's early development and his connection with the Storm and Stress movement, see: Maisak: "Aspekte der Kunst im Sturm und Drang."

[14] Ca. 1777; in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Cf. Schiff: Füssli, No. 1743.

[15] In May 1771; Füssli: Briefe, p. 166. For the French (1781-1786) and English (1789-1810) editions of Physiognomische Fragmente Fuseli supplied only a few contributions, among them a Head of Satan; cf. Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, Nos. 39-63, and 84-110.

[16] To Herder, 25 March 1775; Goethe: Werke (Weimarer Ausgabe) ser. IV, vol. 2, p. 249.

[17] 1778, in the Kunsthaus Zürich; Schiff: Füssli, No. 580.

[18] To Lavater; Füssli: Briefe, p. 154.

[19] Sulzer: Allgemeine Theorie der Schönen Künste 1778/79 (Erstausgabe 1764); Fuseli contributed the entries on: Allegorie, Ausarbeitung, Anordnung, Gruppen, Anatomie des Homer, Erhabenes, Schönheit.

[20] Cf. Selfportrait of Fuseli with Bodmer and a Bust of Homers (1779/82), in Kunsthaus Zürich. Schiff: Füssli, No. 366); also the study of the head of Bodmer, No. 582.

[21] Füssli: Briefe, p. 135.

[22] Cf. Torbrugge: "Füssli und 'Bodmer-Longinus.'"

[23] Aphorism 55, Fuseli: Life and Writings ed. Knowles, vol. 3, p. 80. "Die Gestalten des Alltags sind in der großen Malerei genaus so unzulässig wie Charaktere oder Empfindungen des Alltags in der Poesie"; Fuseli: Aphorismen, p. 60. The programmatic implications of such a statement may be documented in Fuseli's choice of theme for his inaugural painting at thee Royal Academy in 1790, Thor battling the Midgard Serpent; Schiff: Füssli, No. 716.

[24] Pseudo-Longinus: Vom Erhabenen, p. 29.

[25] Sulzer: Allgemeine Theorie der Schönen Künste, part 2, pp. 77ff.

[26] On the reception Shakespeare and the cult of genius, see: Schmidt: Die Geschichte des Genie-Gedankens, vol. 1, pp. 150ff.

[27] To Bodmer, February 7, 1766; Füssli: Briefe, p. 123.

[28] Aphorism 56, Fuseli: Life and Writings ed. Knowles, vol. 3, p. 81. "Das Überladene is selten erhaben." Fuseli: Aphorismen, p. 61.

[29] Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan, ca. 1766, Kunsthaus Zürich; Schiff: Füssli, No. 341. Fuseli painted this scene again in 1812 in an expressive abstract version, Tate Gallery, London; Schiff: Füssli, No. 1495.

[30] Aphorism 96, Fuseli: Life and Writings ed. Knowles, vol. 3, p. 94; "Der mittlere Augenblick, der Augenblick der Spannung, die Krise, ist der wesentliche Augenblick, schwanger mit der Vergangenheit und der Zukunft noch nicht entbunden." Fuseli: Aphorismen, p. 77. An affinity with Lessing's "pregnant Moment" is obvious here.

[31] Cf. Schiff: Füssli, p. 131-32; Schiff also cites Benjamin Robert Haydon's account of Fuseli: "He was about five feet five inches high, had a compact little form, stood firmly at his easel, painted with his left hand, never held his palette upon his thumb, but kept it upon his stone, and being very near-sighted and too vain to wear glasses, used to dab his beastly brush in oil, and sweeping around the palette in the dark yake a great lump of white, red, or blue, as it might be, and plaster it over a shoulder or face." This refers of course to the later career of the artist and is no doubt exaggerated, but is probably an accurate observation. Most paintings reveal a carlessness in the choice of materials; for his underpainting Fuseli used bitumen, an asphalt paint which inevitably cracks and darkens with age.

[32] Cf. the studies, 1770-1778, of The Steed Tamer; Schiff: Füssli, Nos. 634-636.

[33] Ca. 1778/80, Kunsthaus Zürich; Schiff: Füssli, No. 665.

[34] Ca. 1771, private collection; Schiff: Füssli, No. 454.

[35] Begun in Rome in 1773, completed in Zürich in 1779; Kunsthaus Zürich; Schiff: Füssli, No. 458.

[36] There is also an impressive profile version of The Three Witches (1783) in the Kunsthaus Zürich (see Fig. 39) and further variations; cf. Schiff: Füssli, Nos. 733-735). These "weird sisters," as Banquo said to Macbeth, "look not like inhabitants of the earth" when he observed "each at once her choppy finger laying/ Upon her skinny lips" (I.iii). By capturing this image in a series of profiles Fuseli adds to the uncanny effect. The artist's own added touch, also confirming his interest in entomology, is the death's head moth as wessenger from the shadow realm the supernatural is evoked with a naturalist's scientific precision.

[37] Cf. Schiff: Füssli, No. 655. This figure anticipates Fuseli's rendition of the Three Fates in the painting, Psyche, unpreturbed, passing the Fates (1780/85); No. 715, a figuration only slightly modified as the Witches in Macbeth.

[38] In the anonymous Review of the Shakespeare Gallery (see note 11); quoted in Mason: The Mind of Henry Fuseli, p. 289-90. ("Dies ist eine sublime Szene, und die Gestalt des Macbeth ist ungewöhnlich großartig: Ein Charakter, der zu groß ist, um durch ein ungewöhnliches Ereignis eingeschüchtert zu werden, zeigt keinerlei Furcht oder auch nur Erstaunen; das schlummernde Feuer des Ehrgeizes ist geweckt und die starknervige Hand erhoben, um denen `Bleibt und sagt mehr' zu befehlen, vor denen ein Feigling geflohen wäre." Quoted in Schiff: Füssli, p. 145).

[39] Aphorism 162, Fuseli: Life and Writings ed. Knowles, vol. 3, p. 126 ("Wer das Erhabene will, richtet sich nach den Typen", nicht nach den "Individuen," Fuseli: Aphorismen, p. 114).

[40] Lecture V, 1802; Fuseli: Life and Writings ed. Knowles, vol. 2, 1831, p. 259.

[41] Cf. Kosenina: Anthropologie und Schauspielkunst.

[42] The transformation of the heroic image in traditional iconographie at the close of the eighteenth century is documented, without discussion of Fuseli, in Busch: Das sentimentalische Bild, pp. 24ff.

[43] Aphorism 50, Fuseli: Life and Writings ed. Knowles, vol. 3, p. 79. "Das Genie kann sich wohl etwas aneignen, aber es stiehlt nie", Fuseli: Aphorismen, p. 58.

[44] Ca. 1788/1801, private collection; Schiff: Füssli, No. 908.

[45] Schiff: Füssli, p. 109.

[46] Sketches for the Shakespeare frescoes, 1777, British Museum, London; Schiff: Füssli, Nos. 475-478.

[47] Cf. Tomory: The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli, p. 82.

[48] See note 2 above. The artists of the Shakespeare Gallery were under the persistent influence of the London stage. Schiff: Füssli, p. 130: the stage "verdammte sie alle zu Theatralik in den Gesten, zu Kostümen. die Kulissenhaft auströmen, Räumen die aus Stellwänden gefügt scheinen und Landschaftshintergrunden, die Prospekten gleichen."

[49] Schiff: Füssli, p. 122, quotes from Earland: John Opie and his Circle, p. 59.

[50] On November 4, 1773; Füssli: Briefe, p. 167. The epithet "seelenvollsten Zeichner Europas" is given to Daniel Chodowiecki for the sensibility of his vignettes.

[51] Fuseli: Life and Writings ed. Knowles, vol. 3, p. 148.

[52] Cf. Rebel: Faksimile und Mimesis vol. 2, which also gives attention to developments in England.

[53] Cf. Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, Introduction, p. xvii.

[54] Goethe: Werke (Weimarer Ausgabe) ser. IV, vol. 19, p. 77.

[55] Cf. Weinglass: Prints and Drawings, pp. 134 and 141.

[56] ETH Zürich; Schiff: Füssli, No. 462.

[57] Tieck: "Über die Kupferstiche nach der Shakespearschen Gallerie in London." Schriften, vol. 1, p. 677-78; see also essay by Hölter in this catalogue, pp. 135-141.

[58] In the Analytical Review 1789; quoted from Mason: The Mind of Henry Fuseli, p. 290.

[59] Janet M. Brook, curator of the Art Gallery of Ontario, provided me with the information that an infra-red examination of the painting revealed the othewrwise no longer visible details corresponding to the engraved plate.

[60] Excerpts from the report by Peter Waldeis on the restoration of the painting are quoted in the commentary in the catalogue, Maisak: Das Frankfurter Goethe-Haus zu Gast im Städel, p. 85; see note 26.

[61] Cf. Schiff: Füssli, No. 725.

[62] Kunsthaus Zürich; Schiff: Füssli, No. 435.

[63] Merry Wives of Windsor III.3. Oil on canvas, 1792, 137 x 170 cm, in the Kunsthaus Zürich: Schiff: Füssli, No. 883.

[64] In this picture, the strong contrast of the light incarnate and the dark background is caused by the bitumin ground which has gradually darkened the colouring.

[65] Goethe: Werke (Weimarer Ausgabe) ser. III, vol. 2, p. 289.

[66] Ibid., ser. I, vol. 47, p. 137.

[67] Goethe-Museum Frankfurt; Schiff: Füssli, No. 928; cf. catalogue Das Frankfurter Goethe Museum zu Gast im Städel, 1994, p. 36.

[68] Goethe: Werke (Weimarer Ausgabe) ser. III, vol. 2, p. 289.


Die künstlerisch interessantesten Beiträge zu Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery stammen zweifellos von Johann Heinrich Füssli, der, von der Genie-Ästhetik des Sturm und Drang ausgehend, schon früh Shakespeare-Themen ergriffen und eine eigenwillige, expressive Bildsprache dafür entwickelt hat, die auf die Affekte zielt und sich an der Kategorie des Erhabenen orientiert. Zürich, Rom und London sind die Stationen seiner Entwicklung; hier erwirbt er sich die literarischen und kunsttheoretischen Grundlagen, erfährt Anregungen durch das Theater und findet seine künstlerischen Vorbilder in der Antike und Renaissance bzw. im Manierismus, vornehmlich aber bei Michelangelo. Füssli setzt sich über das Prinzip der einfachen Naturnachahmung hinweg und strebt stattdessen eine Neuerfindung" der Wirklichkeit in der Kunst an, wobei die Dichtung als geläuterte, gesteigerte Natur die Themen vorgibt; er ist ein literarischer Maler" par excellence und besitzt nebenbei ein beachtliches schriftstellerisches Talent. Shakespeare betrachtet er als eines der großen Originalgenies" unter den Dichtern, dessen Werk so viel plastische Bildlichkeit, Leidenschaft und Phantasie enthält, daß es dem Maler eine unerschöpfliche Fülle an Stoff zu bieten hat. Füssli gehört zu den Initiatoren der Shakespeare Gallery, für die er neun Gemälde ausführt, wobei er teilweise auf ältere Entwürfe zurückgreift; seine Intention ist es, nicht zu illustrieren, sondern eine neue Dimension der Dichtung aufzudecken oder sie, wie bei den Bildern zum Sommernachtstraum, mit seinen Möglichkeiten fortzuschreiben. Die Übertragung der Gemälde in graphische Reproduktionsstiche macht die Grenzen dieses Genres evident, denn sie führt zu einem erheblichen Qualitätsverlust, da Füsslis spezifische Mittel hier leicht outriert wirken und die Dynamik seiner Kompositionen erstarrt; das mag auch manche negative Beurteilung durch die zeitgenössische Kritik erklären.