Henry Fuseli: Biography, Paintings & The Nightmare

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Swiss-born artist, Henri Fuseli, and his unique imagery. Trained as a minister but determined to be an artist, Fuseli moved to England, where he was known for fantastic paintings with strong supernatural elements and became an early important figure in British Romantic art.

Early Years

Henry Fuseli, who lived from 1741 to 1825, was a British Romantic painter born in Switzerland. Although his father was a painter and writer, he insisted that Henry study theology, possibly because his two other sons were artists. Dutifully, Fuseli did as his father asked and became an ordained minister. His academic training exposed him to philosophy and a wide range of literature, which would serve him well in later years. But when he accused another theologian of illegal conduct, he was forced to flee Zurich.

After leaving Zurich, Fuseli traveled through Germany, immersing himself in the culture, before moving to England in 1764. At first, he tried to make his living as a writer and translator, but eventually grew frustrated and turned his attention to art.

In England, Fuseli met the esteemed British artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, to whom he showed his drawings. Reynolds encouraged him and, at age 27, Fuseli shifted his career focus from translation and writing to art. He traveled to Rome, where he explored ancient ruins, studied the works of the 15th-16th century Italian architect and artist, Michelangelo, and taught himself painting.

Fuseli was elected to the Royal Academy in 1804. In his later years, he served edited and wrote art historical texts, continued to paint, and taught. His students included leading British Romantics, John Constable and William Blake. Fuseli died in England in 1825.

Influences and Style

Around 1800, some artists, such as Fuseli, began to reject many of the elements found in neoclassical art and embraced romanticism. Neoclassical art, a style unique to the mid-18th and early 19th centuries, was inspired by ancient Greek and Roman culture. By comparison, Romanticism was defined by its 'anticlassical' influences and style, including its emphasis on beauty, emotion and individualism.

Many of Fuseli's paintings were based on literary themes, including Greek and Norse myths and the works of the famous English playwright, William Shakespeare, and the poet, John Milton. As a result of their influences, Fuseli's own works are full of emotion, as evidenced by his expressive figures with exaggerated and wild gestures. Although Fuseli was a Romanticist, some of his muscular figures bring to mind the paintings and sculpture of Michelangelo.

In Fuseli's paintings, events often employ strange foreshortening, heightened by dramatic lighting and darkness and a strong dose of the supernatural. In addition to ordinary humans, we also find fantastic creatures, like changelings and monsters. Fuseli also included elements of edgy sexuality and violence, which along with his unusual creatures, would never have been found in neoclassical painting!

'The Nightmare'

Fuseli's most famous painting is 'The Nightmare, painted in 1781, which caused something of a sensation and a scandal when he first exhibited it at the Royal Academy of London in 1782.

The Nightmare

In the painting, a woman in a flowing white garment lies prone across her bed, leading us to wonder if she has fainted from fright or rapture. Her body is weighed down by a crouching ominous being that stares at the viewer. Is it an ogre or a demon? The ghostly head of a horse, which some scholars believe represents the 'night-mare' of the title, peers through a curtain, eyes aglow.

Although 'The Nightmare' originally met with some criticism, the image became so popular that Fuseli painted several versions, and the original was reproduced as prints. It was often used as the basis for caricatures and lampooning cartoons in the press.

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