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Henry Fuseli RA (1741 - 1825)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

A Swiss artist known for fantastical paintings inspired by classic literature, Henry Fuseli served as Keeper of the RA Schools for 21 years. He was a friend of William Blake, who made engravings of several of his works. Fuseli oversaw the education of many students in the RA Schools including John Constable, Benjamin Haydon, William Etty, and Edwin Landseer.

Henry Fuseli was born Henry Füssli in Zurich, Switzerland. The son of a painter and author Johann Caspar Füssli, Fuseli showed an interest in art at a young age, but his father persuaded him to become a minister. He completed his training and was ordained in 1761, but abandoned the priesthood soon after.

In 1764 Fuseli travelled to London, where he met the Royal Academy’s first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who encouraged his artistic ambitions. Between 1770 and 1778 Fuseli studied and worked in Rome—where he italianised his name to Fuseli. After a short stay in Zurich he returned to London in 1779.

Fuseli’s best-known work, The Nightmare, was first exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1782. Depicting a woman asleep with a malevolent imp crouched on her chest, the painting is characteristic of Fuseli’s imaginative style. In 1783 an engraving was made of the work, which helped to popularise the image and encouraged Fuseli to continue painting variations on this theme.

Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, Fuseli was commissioned by the publisher John Boydell to paint scenes from Shakespeare’s plays for Boydell’s short-lived Shakespeare Gallery, which opened in London in 1789. Fuseli had at least nine works exhibited in the gallery, depicting scenes from plays including Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear. Inspired by this venture, Fuseli began work on a series depicting scenes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost and opened his own Milton Gallery to exhibit them in 1799. Both galleries aimed to profit from selling prints of the works on display, but failed to generate enough income and closed in the early 1800s.

Fuseli was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1788 and a full Academician in 1790. His Diploma Work (given to the RA on his election) depicts a scene from Nordic mythology, Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent.

Fuseli served as Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools between 1799-1805, and 1810-1825 and was also Keeper of the Schools from 1804 until his death in 1825.

RA Collections Decolonial Research Project - Extended Case Study

Henry Fuseli was an intellectual who moved in the elite literary and artistic circles of his day. Despite his radical ideals, he also developed friendships with individuals whose wealth and status were dependent upon colonial exploitation. On moving to London in 1764, one of Fuseli’s first contacts and long-term supporters in London was the banker, Thomas Coutts (1735–1822). The Coutts family, originally from Montrose in Scotland, partly derived its wealth from tobacco plantations in Virginia (see Notes, 1 and 2). It was Thomas Coutts who funded Fuseli’s journey to Rome in 1770, where he resided until 1777, a very important period for his artistic and intellectual development.

Many of Fuseli’s close friends and patrons, however, were progressive intellectuals who espoused anti-slavery views and, in some cases, actively campaigned for abolition. One of his closest associates in London was the radical bookseller and publisher Joseph Johnson (1738–1809), who promoted books opposing enslavement and supporting religious tolerance and the rights of women. Johnson notably organised the publication of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) – a memoir by a formerly enslaved Black African living in Britain that was also a treatise against the evils of enslavement.

Another key patron and ally of Fuseli was Robert Smyth, fifth Baronet (1744–1802), whom he met during his years in Rome in the 1770s. Smyth, a radical with anti-monarchist and pro-revolutionary views, became Fuseli’s principal patron during his Rome period and in the following years when he returned to London.

In the late 1790s, Fuseli was supported financially by William Roscoe (1753–1831), the Liverpool-born anti-slavery campaigner, banker, lawyer and patron of the arts who authored many anti-slavery writings. Among these, he published The Wrongs of Africa (1787-8), a multi-volume poem, the profits from which he offered to the newly formed Abolition Committee in parliament (see Notes, 3). Fuseli was also partly responsible for Roscoe’s enthusiasm for Italian art, encouraged through their friendship after the former returned from Rome.

The following paragraph refers to an artwork and a poem that use offensive language in their titles. We have kept the original wording to preserve its historical significance.

In 1806-7, Fuseli painted a work making clear his opposition to enslavement, The Negro Avenged (Hamburg Kunsthalle), illustrating William Cowper’s anti-slavery poem The Negro’s Complaint (1788). The work was engraved by Abraham Raimbach in 1807 and published in Poems by William Cowper (1808). The volume circulated widely and the poem and its illustrations became popular with supporters of abolition in Britain. The painting and engraving illustrate a stanza of the poem conveying the idea that the storms and extreme weather that struck British colonies were divine retribution for Britain’s role in enslavement. Fuseli depicts three Black figures in the foreground of the image, two standing on a cliff-edge while a third is seated nearby, looking on. The standing figures look out to the stormy sea beyond. The male figure is dressed in a loincloth with his fists raised in triumph, and the female figure wears a white dress, raising her index finger as if in warning. A wild storm rages around them; in the background a wrecked slave ship is struck by lightning. Fuseli presents the two main figures as defiant protagonists; this proactive show of strength is unusual in abolitionist visual material of the time, which more commonly depicted Black Africans as powerless victims (see Notes, 4).

Notes

  1. https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/scotlands-slave-trade-and-montroses-key-role-1479125 (accessed 1 March 2022).
  2. https://www.coutts.com/about/history.html (accessed 1 March 2022).
  3. Ferguson, Moira. “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery.” Feminist Review, no. 42 (1992): 82–102. https://doi.org/10.2307/1395131 (accessed 1 March 2022).
  4. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O127381/the-negro-revenged-print-fuseli-henry/ (accessed 1 March 2022).

Relevant ODNB entries

Weinglass, D. H. “Fuseli, Henry formerly Johann Heinrich Füssli, painter and writer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-10254

Healey, Edna. “Coutts, Thomas (1735–1822), banker.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-6469

Hall, Carol. “Johnson, Joseph (1738–1809), bookseller.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-14904

Weinglass, D. H. “Smyth, Sir Robert, fifth baronet (1744–1802), patron of the arts and radical.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-62976

Macnaughton, Donald A. “Roscoe, William (1753–1831), historian and patron of the arts.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-24084

Profile

Royal Academician

Born: 6 February 1741 in Zürich, Switzerland

Died: 16 April 1825

Nationality: Swiss

Elected ARA: 3 November 1788

Elected RA: 10 February 1790

Keeper from: 1804 - 1825

Professor of Painting: 1799 - 1805

Professor of Painting: 1810 - 1825

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting

Works by Henry Fuseli in the RA Collection

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Works after Henry Fuseli in the RA Collection

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Works associated with Henry Fuseli in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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