Aesthetic Analysis

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henry fuseli

Artist: Johann Heinrich Füssli (Henry Fuseli)

Born: February 7, 1741

Died: April 16, 1825

Nationality: Anglo-swiss


○ Romanticism,

○ Sturm und Drang,

○ Neoclassicism,

○ Classicism

Most Prominent Works:

○ The Nightmare (1781),

○ Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis (1796),

○ Henry Fuseli in Conversation with Johann Jakob Bodmer (1781),

○ Titania and Bottom (c. 1790),

○ Christ Disappearing at Emmaus (1772),

○ The Shepherd’s Dream (1793),

○ The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (1796), …

Mediums: Painting, Drawing, Writing, Poetry

brief summary

Both a painter and a writer, he showed a particular attraction for fantastic subjects very early in his career – new themes at the time. From his fifties, he lived in England where he produced illustrations of works by Shakespeare, Dante, as well as the Germanic epic of the Nibelungen.


Johann Heinrich Füssli more commonly known as Henry Fuseli is considered one of those unclassifiable artists who is often called a visionary, he can be considered a Neoclassicist, but his work is clearly Romantic, subjective and emotional. For this reason, he’s officially considered recognized by the Surrealists as one of their predecessors. One of his admirers, William Blake, stated that “he is a hundred years ahead of the current generation.”

Fluent in multiple languages, he could write and speak French, Italian, English and German. Fuseli stood out — especially during his youth — both as an artist and as a poet, with a pre-romantic poetry very close to the Sturm und Drang. He had an enormous knowledge of art which he reflected in various treatises, such as Lectures at the Royal Academy (1801), A History of Art in the Schools of Italy and Aphorisms (1831). He didn’t in fact consider himself an artist, but an illustrator of literary subjects.

Self-portrait (1790).

Born in Zürich, the second born of 18 children, he began as a writer and poet linked to the Sturm und Drang, a pre-romantic movement that sought the expression (or rather explosion) of feelings. He studied theology to please his father, who sent him to the Seminary to become a priest, but Fuseli was expelled for the audacity of his sermons. Despite not becoming a priest after attending Caroline College in Zurich, he became close friends with one of his colleagues: Johann Kaspar Lavater. In 1763, he then left for Germany, for political reasons – he was forced to leave the country after helping Lavater to expose an unjust magistrate, whose powerful family sought revenge. Soon he became more attracted to artistic environments and his independent interests and ideas turned to painting and literature. Beginning to paint, he already reflects a taste for dark and grotesque themes. At the age of 23, he moved to London, where he immediately showed great enthusiasm for classical antiquity that came to him through the works of John Milton and William Shakespeare. There, Thomas Coutts, George III’s banker, would become one of his main patrons. There, he started to write varieties, including translating Winckelmann’s works. After traveling to Rome and polishing his increasingly particular style, he built a career that, although not highly appreciated on a popular level, did serve him in the upper classes to achieve honors as a scholarly expert in art. During his long stay in Italy, he even decided to change his name from Füssli to Fuseli (which, according to him, sounded more Italian). A while later, he became a member of the Royal Academy, in 1790, professor of painting in 1799 and then keeper of the Academy in 1804. He also became a member of the National Academy of San Luca in 1817, when Antonio Canova returned to Rome, after being enchanted by his paintings during his stay in England.

Painter of difficult classification, he has been described as neoclassical, neomannerist and pre-romantic. In his works, styles coming from the Classicist and Mannerist traditions converge with others that are specific to English and Nordic painting, reflecting a conception of the sublime that manifests itself in 18th century English art and literature.

art style

His first master was his father, Johann Caspar Füssli, who was also a painter and art historian. In Germany, he met his new master, Johann Georg Sulzer, who taught him on aesthetics. Upon moving to England, he meets Sir Joshua Reynolds, an important English portrait painter and one of the founders and first presidents of the Royal Academy of Arts. Fuseli showed his drawings to Sir Joshua, who, impressed, advised him to dedicate himself only to art. He also had contact with great names in painting and literature; like Willian Blake and Goethe, to name a few. During his artistic pilgrimage in Italy a few years later, he delved into the study of classical antiquity and Michelangelo. This greatly changed the way he created his compositions – his figures became elongated, stylized, highlighting them over the whole, with hardly any space or perspective, with low horizons and pronounced contrasts of light and shadow.

He believed in the power of self-expression, and is known to have claimed that only expression “can invest beauty with supreme and lasting command over the eye.”  As a painter, he favoured the supernatural, the dramatic and emotions of terror defined his conceptual frame of reference. He painted over 200 works but exhibited only a small number of them, which is a testament to his exclusive nature. His wife, Sophia Fuseli, burned numerous of his erotic paintings after his death – works that were not made for public display. His works, torn between sex, fear and violence, brought to life a series of typically romantic and imaginary beings, such as giants, witches, ghosts, etc. reflecting what Burke had theorised in his book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), in which he saw horror as a source of sublimity. His passion, emotionalism, and subjectivity – what we call ‘romanticism’- took his style towards the irrational. His work has a strong theatrical character, the shapes of his figures depart from the rules of anatomy lessons and give rise to new fantastic and sensual creatures. Thematically, despite his establishment in England, Fuseli represented a fully German sense of romanticism: his terrifying nocturnal world parallels that of the “dark romanticism” of Novalis, Hölderlin, Jean Paul and Hoffmann. All of this places him as a fundamental figure for the transition between neoclassicism and romanticism, and as one of the pioneering artists in the exploration of the irrational, a reason why some art historians compare him to Goya.

The Nightmare (1781).


Symplegma of a man and a woman with a helping servant (c. 1770-1778).
(Symplegma – term used in classical archaeology to describe erotic group, especially in sculpture)

His sketches and drawings count around 800, are known to have admirable qualities of invention and design and are often considered superior to his paintings. Despite not being noticed as a colourist, he was also described as a master of light and shadow. His works lie, above all, in the expressiveness of the faces, as evidenced in his drawing of Three Crouching Girls (1782), in which the bodies of three women are simply hinted at by a line, while the faces are much more elaborate as they are the centre of the expression of horror. In a later work, Titania and Bottom (c. 1790), the traditional system of Renaissance perspective is replaced by an indeterminate space of gloomy lighting in which Titania, the queen of the fairies, has conjured a legion of gnomes, fantastic creatures and pixies, with the intention of submitting them to the service of Bottom. In this work it can be seen that Fuseli, almost a contemporary of the Marquis de Sade, entered the same areas of passion and sex. Similarly, Titania’s Awakening (1794) demonstrates that romantic mix of voluptuousness, eroticism and fatality.

Titania and Bottom (c. 1790).

Titania’s Awakening (1794).

Because of his clumsy pigment preparation, he didn’t paint with oil until the age of 25. Instead of methodically defining his palette like most painters, he simply distributed the colours randomly. He often used pigments in the form of a dry powder, which he quickly combined at the end with oil, or turpentine, in unmeasured quantities, depending on the accidental effect. In his drawings, as in his paintings, his method included setting everything up on an ideal scale, deliberately exaggerating the proportions of the human body and throwing his figures into contorted positions, believing that a certain amount of exaggeration was necessary in the higher branches of historical painting.

Thor Battering the Mid-gard Serpent (1788).


Greatly influenced by Michelangelo, Flemish Painting and the Renaissance sculptures he saw in Rome – he would contemplate the marble statues of Monte Cavallo at night, relieved against a dark sky or illuminated by lightning. His theatrical style paintings consist of large canvases with themes drawn from works and authors such as the Bible, the Iliad and Homer’s Odyssey, the Nibelungs or Shakespeare. The shapes are inspired by Michelangelo, while the plain colours are reminiscent of the Flemish. He was fascinated by Shakespeare, and much of what he produced was inspired by the works of the great English poet and playwright. Producing some of the most terrible personifications of horror, as can be seen in his paintings of witches inspired by Macbeth.

Day (1524-1527) by Michelangelo.

A visionary, his style influenced many younger British artists, including William Blake and had a notable influence on later (and more eccentric, obscure and peculiar) artists and movements too. He influenced artists like Fortunato Duranti and was a master of famous painters like Edwin Landseer and the all-important John Constable, known for his beautiful landscapes. Other great admirers include: HP Lovecraft; Edgar Allan Poe, who even mentions Fuseli’s name in The Fall of the House of Usher, when the visitor admires Roderick Usher’s drawings and paintings; and Salvador Dalí, who makes a clear reference to Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781), in his painting Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion (1930). Although shortly after his death his work fell into relative oblivion, his figure was vindicated by the expressionists and surrealists, who considered it a predecessor.


“Art, like love, excludes all competition and absorbs the man.”

“Nature is a collective idea, and, though its essence exist in each individual of the species, can never in its perfection inhabit a single object.”

“Life is rapid, art is slow, occasion coy, practice fallacious, and judgment partial.”

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significant works

Artist: Henry Fuseli
Title: Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent
Date: 1788
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 131 x 91 cm
Location: Royal Academy of Arts, London, England

Artist: Henry Fuseli
Title: Titania’s Awakening
Date: 1794
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 222 x 280 cm
Location: Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland

Artist: Henry Fuseli
Title: Titania and Bottom
Date: c. 1790
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 217.2 x 275.6 cm
Location: Tate Britain, London, England

Artist: Henry Fuseli
Title: Self-portrait
Date: 1790
Medium: Drawing with black and white chalk
Size: unknown
Location: Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England

Artist: Henry Fuseli
Title: The Nightmare
Date: 1781
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 102 x 127 cm
Location: Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, USA