A cynic remembering the Musée Jacquemart-André’s Botticelli exhibition from the fall of 2021 (which I reviewed in The New Criterion’s January 2022 issue) may regard the museum’s current exhibition, “Füssli: The Realm of Dreams and the Fantastic,” as a dip from the sublime into the ridiculous. This thought may be bolstered by the posters seen in metros and on street billboards throughout Paris featuring one of Fuseli’s 1783 paintings of the three witches in Macbeth. In Kenneth Clark’s book and television series The Romantic Rebellion (1973, 1974), the art historian and broadcaster remarks in an acute look at Fuseli that the three witches on the canvas cannot be considered “much more successful” than they “usually are on the stage.” In the painting, they look more masculine than feminine, more warlock than witch. This ambiguity may appeal to an age of sexual confusion.
Fuseli, minor though he may be in art history, was nevertheless a pioneer of Romanticism. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke defined the sublime as “fear . . . become the object of self-conscious relish.” In that context, Fuseli’s work epitomizes the concept. Moreover, the exhibition shows that if Fuseli rarely excelled as a painter, he still possessed an ability as an illustrator beyond dispute.
Johann Heinrich Fuseli (1741–1825) was born in Zurich to a family of artists and scientists, his father a painter, art historian, and firm believer in the neoclassicism that Fuseli later defied. Fuseli’s family wanted him to be a pastor, and he was ordained. While Fuseli was studying Calvinist theology, Johann Jakob Bodmer (1698–1783) introduced him to the works of Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. Fuseli was also influenced in his student days by Johann Caspar Lavater (1741–1801), remembered for his work on physiognomy. He soon renounced the priesthood and made his way to London in 1764, where he met Sir Joshua Reynolds, who suggested he study and practice painting. Nevertheless, Fuseli remained something of an eternal sophomore when it came to his art.
The exhibition opens with several self-portraits. Fuseli was short in height, and Kenneth Clark wrote that, “like many small, fierce men,” Fuseli “was obsessed by greatness—only Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Michelangelo would do for him.” Living in Italy from 1769 to 1778 inspired Fuseli to paint Shakespearean scenes along the artistic lines of Michelangelo and the sixteenth-century Italian Mannerists.
The exhibition includes quotations from Fuseli’s writings and correspondence. In one, he observes that dreams were too rarely used for inspiration in art. Fuseli set about filling this lacuna in much the same way contemporary writers were doing with the Gothic novel. His first great success was with The Nightmare (1782), which Clark dismissed as “a ridiculous work,” its popularity indicating “some hidden neurosis which was awaiting realization.” Fuseli painted several other versions of The Nightmare, including one in 1810. The paintings show a voluptuous beauty in a state of abandonment as incubi enter her window. Another painting shows an incubus leaving two young women in a distracted state. The Nightmare series was a synthesis of classical technique with the Romantic sense of fear. It is no surprise to learn that the painting interested both Freud and Ken Russell, the director who borrowed Fuseli’s nightmare for the poster of his 1986 film Gothic.
The exhibition emphasizes the significance of women in Fuseli’s life and work. His two great muses were Sophia Rawlins (1770–1832), the eventual Mrs. Fuseli (“unbelievably there was such a person,” Kenneth Clark remarked), and the radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who almost persuaded him to leave his wife and join her in France to track the events of the revolution—the real nightmare of the time. The drawing Mrs. Fuseli Standing (ca. 1790–95) depicts his wife in a proud, upright posture and wearing a towering bonnet, the typical garb his subjects wore.
Fuseli’s feminine ideal mixed domination with the erotic. The twentieth-century man of letters Peter Quennell described Fuseli’s women as “apt to being fantastically elongated,” their faces showing “frigid contempt” with small insect-like heads. Quennell also quoted Sacheverell Sitwell’s comparison of one of Fuseli’s women to a “ferocious praying mantis.” The art historian Frederick Antal thought Fuseli’s view of women was influenced by Rousseau and that Fuseli’s erotica was “cold and cerebral.” Portrait-study of a Young Woman Wearing a High Cap and a Neckband (1795–1800), an interesting sketch subtler than most of Fuseli’s erotic and sublime art, shows a young woman, her curved lips closer in style to Leonardo than to Michelangelo, with the usual elaborate headdress and a ribbon about her neck. Fuseli’s drawings show him at his best.
The exhibition presents several of Fuseli’s Shakespearean scenes, in which the figures were inspired by contemporary productions starring famous English theatrical stars such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons. Any suggestion of excess may be due as much to contemporary acting techniques as to Fuseli’s curious tastes. Robin Goodfellow (Puck) (1787–90) is so vivid in its depiction of the imp from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that even those unfamiliar with the play can tell the beast is devilishly mischievous. Romeo and Juliet (1809) is Caravaggesque in its use of light and shade. His 1812 painting Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers and the earlier Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking (ca. 1784) may make us laugh rather than tremble.
“Füssli: The Realm of Dreams and the Fantastic” is well presented, exploring not only the art itself, but also the cultural values and tastes that Fuseli was so keenly aware of. The decision to show a selection of Fuseli’s drafts and drawings—whose quality often surpasses that of his paintings—was a wise one.