Henry Fuseli

Portrait of Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli was a painter, draughtsman and writer on art. Although Swiss he spent much of his life in Great Britain. He was born in Zurich, Switzerland on 7th February 1741 and died in Putney, London on 16th April 1825 aged 84.

Major Works

“The Nightmare” (1781)
“Christ Disappearing at Emmaus” (1772)
“The Shepherd’s Dream” (1793)
The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches” (1796)

Biography Timeline

Henry Fuseli (originally Füssli) was born on 7th February 1741 in Zurich, Switzerland. He was the son of the portrait painter, Johann Caspar Füssli and was the second of eighteen children. His father intended for him to enter the Zwinglian church and he was educated at the Caroline College of Zürich, where he received a full classical education. He became friends with the future poet Johann Kaspar Lavater.

1761: He takes holy orders but after he and Lavater expose a corrupt Magistrate he is forced to renounce the priesthood and leave the country.

1764: He travels through Germany and in Berlin at the suggestion of the British Ambassador there, who is impressed with his drawings, he moves on to London, England. He works on a translation of Winckelmann’s “Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks”.

1765: In London meets Sir Joshua Reynolds who encourages him to take up painting.

1770: At Reynold’s suggestion he leaves England to study painting in Italy. In Rome he is particularly influenced by the works of Michelangelo Buonarroti. He decides to adopt the more Italian sounding surname Fuseli.

1779: Early in the year he returns to London after a short stay in Zurich.

1781: He paints perhaps his most famous picture “The Nightmare”.

1782: “The Nightmare” is shown at the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London for the first time and is an instant success. His father dies.

1783: An engraving is made of “The Nightmare” which further popularises the image and encourages him to continue painting variations on a similar theme. 

1786: John Boydell asks several artists to contribute works for his proposed Shakespeare Gallery and he is one of the original contributing artists. He paints several pictures including “Macbeth”. The poet, painter and visionary William Blake declares him to be the only painter he can appreciate.

1788: He marries Sophie Rawlins who was originally one of his models. His new wife puts an end to the relationship he had had with the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft whose portrait he had once painted. He writes essays for the “Analytical Review” and is a constant visitor to the home of publisher Joseph Johnson along with Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin and Wollstonecraft herself. He is elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.

1789: Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery opens in London but is not a success with the public.

1790: He is elected as a Full Academician at the Royal Academy offering “Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent” as his diploma work.

1793: He paints “The Shepherd’s Dream”.

1796: He paints “Night-Hag visiting the Lapland Witches.” 

1799: He opens a Milton Gallery in Pall Mall in London focussing on the works of the poet John Milton. He exhibits forty-seven of his paintings including “Paradise Lost”. It too is a commercial failure and closes in 1800. He is made Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy.

1801: He begins a series of twelve lectures on art and painting at the Royal Academy which are later printed.

1804: He is appointed Keeper of the Royal Academy and resigns his professorship. His friend William Blake makes engravings of several of his works.

1805: He publishes an edition of Matthew Pilkington’s “Lives of the Painters” but again this does not sell well.

1810: He is again elected as professor of painting at the Royal Academy and amongst his many students are John Constable, Benjamin Haydon and Edwin Landseer.

1817: The Italian painter Antonio Canova, on visiting England, is impressed with Fuseli’s work and when he returns to Rome arranges for him to be elected a member of the First Class in the Accademia di San Lucca.

Henry Fuseli died on 16th April 1825, at the house of the Countess of Guildford on Putney Hill in London, England. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral crypt, London next to Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Further Information

Examples of paintings by Fuseli.