Johann Heinrich Füssli was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1741, into a family of artists. Despite his early inclinations towards artistic disciplines, he studied classics with the aim of becoming a pastor and was ordained in 1761. In 1764, he arrived in London, having had to flee Switzerland for having denounced the malpractices of a Zurich magistrate. He then turned to drawing and painting and trained as an autodidact, quickly encouraged by Joshua Reynolds, then president of the Royal Academy. In the 1770’s, he travelled extensively in Italy where he was impressed as much by ancient art as by Michelangelo and Mannerism.
He is a scholarly and eclectic artist who develops a very personal style, which moves away from academic rules.
In this rare self-portrait, the painter engages in an exercise in introspection. He expresses a form of anxiety and melancholy by insisting on the eyes, with hollowed out orbits, the large worried forehead and the chin resting in the hollow of the hands. He may have been influenced by his friend, Johann Caspar Lavater, inventor of physiognomy, a pseudoscience that relates facial features to character traits.
Füssli was a great lover of literature (Homer, Dante, John Milton etc…) and he particularly liked Shakespeare’s theater. When he arrived in London he regularly attended theatrical performances and discovered the new staging effects of the time (light effects, costumes, expressions of passion…) which quickly had an effect on his painting.
In the second half of the 18th century, Macbeth became one of Shakespeare’s most popular and widely performed plays. This episode is taken from Act V, in which Lady Macbeth, after convincing her husband to murder the king and haunted by remorse, has a sleepwalking attack, in front of her physician and her maid. It is a monumental figure that occupies almost the entire height of the canvas. The violent lighting is inspired by theatrical lighting and emphasizes the face of the character, with its exorbitant eyes. The large arm gesture also accentuates the dramatic effect.
In order to render Hamlet’s emotion in front of his father’s ghost, Füssli plunges us into an imprecise, sober setting, with little indication of the space occupied by the characters. The atmosphere is bathed in a nebulous light. The artist plays on the contrast between the forms: the stiff position of the ghost facing an unbalanced Hamlet, with a raised foot. The figure of Hamlet is built on intersecting diagonals, which accentuates his unstable position. The frightened face, with its hair standing up, is inspired by a famous contemporary actor, David Garrick. He was known for his very expressive performances. It is known that he had a mechanism that allowed him to make the hair on his wig stand up.
Here again Füssli draws his subject from Shakespeare by depicting the three witches in Macbeth. He concentrates on the faces, with their androgynous and disturbing character. The figures are aligned in a frieze in the manner of an ancient bas-relief. Füssli was very influenced by ancient sculpture but also by Michelangelo (here the very « male » side of the witches can refer to the sybil figures of the Sistine Chapel).
Füssli was not only a great lover of Shakespeare. He was also interested in ancient myths (especially Homer) and Norse legends, at a time when Scandinavian literature was still relatively unknown. To a lesser extent, he painted stories from the Bible, subjects he knew well as a former pastor. He always treats them in an original way by drawing them towards a fantastic universe.
Achilles, asleep, is trying to catch the spirit of his friend Patroclus, who died during the Trojan War. We find a frieze composition. The very muscular bodies are reminiscent of Michelangelo. The scene is treated like a theater scene, especially with the rock on the left that evokes a stage curtain.
The scene is taken from Norse mythology, of which Siegfried is a legendary hero and Alberich, a sorcerer. The treatment of the bodies and their postures reminded me of a painting by Rosso, a Mannerist painter whom Füssli had admired during his trip to Italy.
Here again the subject comes from Norse mythology. Thor, the god of thunder, is fighting against a mythical snake. In this low-angle composition, the body of the god is treated as if it were a marble sculpture. This painting was the painter’s reception piece at the Royal Academy.
This subject, taken from the Bible, is not frequently represented. The painter draws the motif towards the fantastic by evacuating any decor, landscape or religious symbol that is too present. The large figure dressed in white could just as well be the dream of an anonymous sleeper prostrate at his feet.
But Füssli was not just an illustrator of literary texts. He created his own universe of hybrid creatures, monsters, fantastic and supernatural atmospheres. He is fascinated by everything that has to do with dreams and the unconscious.
This copy is one of the multiple versions that followed the « Nightmare » presented in 1781, which caused a scandal while ensuring the fame of the painter. The meaning of the painting is still unclear. A young woman is asleep and an incubus is sitting on her stomach. Is it her dream, her nightmare, her fantasy, that of the viewer? The nightmare hypothesis is favored because of the horse’s head, which is a play on words in English: nightmare and night mare. There is undeniably an erotic component: the incubus ( demon who sexually abuses women) which contrasts with the white dress, symbol of purity, or the position of the sleeper, closer to an orgasm than a quiet night…
This other version of the nightmare shows rather the border between dream and reality. The young women wake up as the monster flees through the window. The erotic allusion is still very present with the head bent over in ecstasy and the hand underlining the bare chest of one of the figures.
With this work illustrating a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost, the painter plunges us into the disturbing world of witchcraft and horror. The witch of the night comes to interrupt a witch who is about to sacrifice a baby.
This sleeping young man, whose body is held in a semicircle, is reminiscent of the Saint John painted the same year.
Füssli is a great illustrator of literature, which he enhances by drawing as much on his Italian influences as on the theatrical staging of his time. He is also and above all the painter of visions, apparitions and other witchcraft. He is a sort of counterpoint to the spirit of the Enlightenment that ran through his century and a forerunner of the concerns of the Romantic artists.
To be seen at the Jacquemart André Museum, Füssli, between dream and fantasy, every day until January 23, 2023