He was born at Zürich in Switzerland, the second of eighteen children. His father was John Caspar Füssli, a painter of portraits and landscapes, and author of Lives of the Helvetic Painters. He intended Henry for the church, and sent him to the Caroline college of Zurich, where he received an excellent classical education. One of his schoolmates there was Johann Kaspar Lavater, with whom he became close friends.
After taking orders in 1761 Fuseli was forced to leave the country as a result of having helped Lavater to expose an unjust magistrate, whose powerful family sought revenge. He first travelled through Germany, and then, in 1765, visited England, where he supported himself for some time by miscellaneous writing. In the course of time, he became acquainted with Sir Joshua Reynolds, to whom he showed his drawings. By Sir Joshua's advice he then devoted himself wholly to art. In 1770 he made an art-pilgrimage to Italy, where he remained till 1778, changing his name from Füssli to Fuseli, because it was more Italian-sounding. Early in 1779 he returned to Britain, taking Zürich on his way. He found a commission awaiting him from Alderman Boydell, who was then organizing his famous Shakespeare gallery. Fuseli painted a number of pieces for Boydell, and published an English edition of Lavater's work on physiognomy. He likewise gave William Cowper some valuable assistance in preparing a translation of Homer. In 1788 Fuseli married Sophia Rawlins (originally one of his models), and he soon after became an associate of the Royal Academy. Two years later he was promoted to Academician.
In 1799 Fuseli exhibited a series of paintings from subjects furnished by the works of John Milton, with a view to forming a Milton gallery corresponding to Boydell's Shakespeare gallery. There were 47 Milton paintings, many of them very large; they were completed at intervals in the space of nine years. The exhibition, which closed in 1800, proved a commercial failure. In 1799 Fuseli was also appointed professor of painting to the Academy. Four years afterwards he was chosen as keeper, and resigned his professorship; but he resumed it in 1810, and continued to hold both offices till his death. In 1805 he brought out an edition of Pilkington's Lives of the Painters, which did little for his reputation. Antonio Canova, when on his visit to England, was much taken with Fuseli's works, and on returning to Rome in 1817 caused him to be elected a member of the first class in the Academy of St Luke. Fuseli, after a life of uninterrupted good health, died at Putney Hill, at the advanced age of eighty-four, and was buried in. the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral. He was comparatively rich at his death.
As a painter, Fuseli was daringly inventive, and always aspired to the highest forms of excellence. He often spoiled his ideas on the canvas by exaggerating the due proportions of the parts, and throwing his figures into contorted attitudes. He favoured the supernatural, and pitched everything on an ideal scale, believing a certain amount of exaggeration necessary in the higher branches of historical painting. "Damn Nature! she always puts me out," was his characteristic exclamation. In this theory he was confirmed by the study of Michelangelo's works and the marble statues of the Monte Cavallo, which, when at Rome, he liked to contemplate in the evening, relieved against a murky sky or illuminated by lightning. He took this idea to extremes; and the violent and intemperate action which he often displays destroys the grand effect of many of his pieces. A striking illustration of this occurs in his famous picture of "Hamlet breaking from his Attendants to follow the Ghost": Hamlet, it has been said, looks as though he would burst his clothes with convulsive cramps in all his muscles. This intemperance is the grand defect of nearly all Fuseli's compositions.
On the other hand, his paintings are never either languid or cold. His figures are full of life and earnestness, and seem to have an object in view which they follow with rigid intensity. Like Rubens he excelled in the art of setting his figures in motion. Though the lofty and terrible was his proper sphere, Fuseli had a fine perception of the ludicrous. The grotesque humour of his fairy scenes, especially those taken from A Midsummer-Night's Dream, is in its way not less remarkable than the poetic power of his more ambitious works. As a colourist Fuseli has but small claims to distinction. He scorned to set a palette as most artists do; he merely dashed his tints recklessly over it. Not unfrequently he used his paints in the form of a dry powder, which he rubbed up with his pencil with oil, or turpentine, or gold size, regardless of the quantity, and depending for accident on the general effect. This recklessness may perhaps be explained by the fact that he did not paint in oil till he was twenty-five years of age. Despite these drawbacks he possessed the elements of a great painter.
Fuseli painted more than 200 pictures, but he exhibited only a minority of them. His earliest painting represented "Joseph interpreting the Dreams of the Baker and Butler"; the first to excite particular attention was the "Nightmare," exhibited in 1782. He produced only two portraits. His sketches or designs numbered about 800; they have admirable qualities of invention and design, and are frequently superior to his paintings.
His general powers of mind were large. He was a thorough master of French, Italian, English and German, and could write in all these tongues with equal facility and vigour, though he preferred German as the vehicle of his thoughts. His writings contain passages of the best art-criticism that English literature can. show. The principal work is his series of Lectures in the Royal Academy, twelve in number, commenced in 1801.
Many interesting anecdotes of Fuseli, and his relations to contemporary artists, are given in his Life by John Knowles (1831).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.