Tag Archives: Henry Fuseli

Pre-Romanticism: Ruined Abbeys, Erotic Dreams and Strange Visions

29 Oct

In this post we’ll explore Pre-Romanticism through its main themes and occupations; ruined abbeys, erotic dreams and strange visions. There’s a strong Gothic vibe in early Romanticism; dreams, visions, vampires and hallucinations, and artists sought inspiration in myths and ballades of the past, Celtic and Germanic fairy tales, and everything that evoked the spirit of the Middle Ages. Compared to the flashy second generation of Romanticism, art of Pre-Romanticism is shrouded in thousands of veils, in it an insurmountable mountain, a misty lake in a desolate countryside, it’s a dream of Albion. Pre-Romanticism is a gentle plant that grew from the imagination of the people of the North; from their gloom soothed by the roaring of the sea and their melancholy which enabled them to look within and to transcend the darkness of their surroundings.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794

Romanticism developed very early in British art and literature. In the same years when fashion and interior design were ruled by Rococo exuberance, and visual arts were dominated by Classical ideas imposed by the French painter David, a new sensibility was arising from the mists of Albion. Strongly opposing the cold and rational age of Enlightenment, artists of the new generation, represented by Thomas Gray, James Macpherson and Ann Radcliffe in literature, and Henry Fuseli, Turner and William Blake in visual arts, praised imagination and strong feelings, and advocated the return to nature. ‘Sturm und Drang’ in German literature and writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were also very important in creating the new spirit.

These artists found inspiration in everything otherworldly, dreamy and shrouded in mystery. All of a sudden, the artistic and literary stage of Europe was swamped with vampires and other ‘dreadful creatures’ (a tendency further developed by Mary Shelley). Proneness towards melancholy, strange visions, thoughts of death and transience, sleep and dreams, old ruins, long forgotten castles – all these themes suddenly pervaded the artistic landscape. Interest in the cold and gloomy North revealed to early Romanticists the beauty of old Icelandic sagas, the charms of the Scottish bard, the allure of dark Germanic, Celtic and Scandinavian legends and fairy tales, and drew their attention to everything ‘Gothic’; sombre, gruesome, frightening, because that’s how the folkloric and historical legacy of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages was perceived as.

Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794

Old ruins

As I’ve already mentioned, old ruins were an interesting subject for painters to incorporate in their sublime landscapes, and for poets they served as starting points for contemplation about life and death. William Wordsworth wrote verses inspired by the famous Tintern Abbey, and J.M.W. Turner captured its delicate beauty overgrown with ivy a few time. We could say that this ‘old ruin’, a symbol of some other times, was a muse for early Romanticists. You can easily picture a young man resting in the shadow of the Abbey, thinking of his lovely maiden, treasuring a lock of her hair, and thinking of the day they will finally be together. You can also imagine the Abbey in the stillness of the night, above it the shining full moon and stars. Ruins were popular because they were perceived as ‘pictures of despair and destruction’, further developing the sensibility of sublime.

1790-91-henry-fuseli-the-nightmareHenry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Erotic Dreams

Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote that ‘Gleams from remote world visit the soul in sleep’, and the main focus of Fuseli’s art lies in dreams. He believed they were the most unexplored areas in art, which isn’t really a surprise because, firstly – how do you paint dreams, and secondly – until Romanticism there wasn’t really a concept of artist as a genius, a visionary, and because they were considered mere craftsmans, themes of their artworks were limited.

This isn’t the original version of this painting. Due to the popularity of the original, painted in 1781, Fuseli painted a few more versions and this is one of them. It shows a young woman sleeping and experiencing a nightmare. In a restless sleep, her arms are stretching, her golden ringlets falling down. Poor maiden, as helpless in her sleep as a virgin from one of Hammer production vampire films. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. Fuseli took inspiration from Germanic folkloric beliefs that demons and witches posses people who sleep alone. Lady’s pose was considered rather erotic when it was painted, but Fuseli was known to have had a collection of erotic drawings that might have served as an inspiration.

Still, what’s so appealing about this painting isn’t the composition or the colours, but its ability to anticipate the hidden and restless world of nightmares and the unconscious.

1790s ‘The Wandring Moon.’ Watercolour by William Blake (1757-1827).

William Blake (1757-1827), The Wandering Moon, Watercolour, 1816-20

Strange Visions

Eternity is in love with the creations of time.‘ (W.Blake)

Ah, finally, the visionary, the revolutionary-mystic, the rebel, the pot-head of Romanticism – William Blake, important for poetry and paintings alike.

Madame de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine),writes that people living in the North were more prone to melancholy, at the same time naming it as the reason that made their imaginations more vivid, more restless than it was with nations in the South. I’ll quote the book: ‘The people of the North were less engaged in pleasure than in its opposite sensation; and this rendered their imagination more fertile: the prospects of nature had almost unbounded influence over them; but it affected them as it appeared in their climate, always dark and gloomy.‘ (Madame de Staël, The Influence of Literature Upon Society, Volume 1, page 271)

William Blake is one of the finest examples of fertile imagination of the people of the North, as his poems and drawings were not only original and unique, but also very strange, mystic and flamboyant in terms of colours and ideas. His lonely and unreachable imagination produced drawings and watercolours that perfectly combine themes from Milton, Dante and the Bible, made with a prophetic vigour in strong and bitter colours. As an example of Blake’s wonderful imagination I’ll mention his portrayal of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell, Canto V, where he shows two sinful lovers, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, painted in deep blue and luminous white greyish shades. Namely, Dante reserved the second circle of hell for sinful lovers; Cleopatra, Paris, Helena, Tristan, Paolo and Francesca, who are carried away by the wind as a symbol of passion that guided them during their lives. Blake here used the motif of wind and created the composition as strange as it is imaginative.

1824-27-william-blake-the-lovers-whirlwind-francesca-da-rimini-and-paolo-malatestaWilliam Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

I love Pre-Romanticism, the mystic gloominess of it, and I have to stress this point again – it is characteristic for Northern nations; mainly England and Germany. While the playful, sweet and flowery aesthetic of Rococo ruled the court of France, British artists had already dipped their fingers in the sea of Pre-Romanticism, and later elaborated it to the finest detail because they naturally had an eye for wild and untamed nature, picturesque seashores, lovely gardens lush with greenness. Even Thomas Gainsborough added a slight romantic sensibility in his portraits by painting nature as a background, whereas his French peers preferred a salon to showcase their wealth and luxury. Even with painters such as John Constable who are a tad more traditional with landscapes, you see that romantic spirit. In his painting ‘Stonehenge’ he chose to capture the old, mysterious pagan ruins, and the wild majestic sky over them. I think with Romanticism and British art and literature, it was just a question of time when it would raise to the surface, but it was a sensibility deeply woven into the art of the island. I’ll quote Madame de Stael again, it’s a bit long citation, but I couldn’t resists adding it because it perfectly captures the spirit of Pre-Romanticism.

Melancholy poetry is that which accords best with philosophy. Depression of spirits leads us to penetrate more deeply into the character and destiny of man, than any other disposition of the mind. The English poets who succeeded the Scots bards, added to their descriptions those very ideas and reflections which those description ought to have given birth to: but they have preserved, from the fine imagination of the North that gloom which is soothed with the roaring of the sea, and the hollow blast that rages on the barren heath, and, in short, every thing dark and dismal, which can force a mind dissatisfied with its existence here, to look forward to another state. The vivid imagination of the people of the North darting beyond the boundaries of a world whose confines they inhabited, penetrated through the black cloud that obscured their horizon, and seemed to represent the dark passage to eternity.‘ (page 271)*

1835-stonehenge-john-constable-1John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835

If you survived reading this very long post, I congratulate you!

Gothic Imagination of Henry Fuseli – Shakespearean Scenes

23 Oct

Henry Fuseli not only announced the art movement of Romanticism with his painting The Nightmare, but also created one of the most original, fantastical and darkly beautiful paintings of Romantic era, influenced some other Romantic minds such as William Blake, and indulged his Gothic imagination and his interest in Shakespeare by illustrating some of his plays in a beautiful macabre manner. Also, Fuseli’s work is ideal for all you lovers of sublime in art.

1790. Henry Fuseli - Titania and Bottom Titania and Bottom, Henry Fuseli, 1790

Although Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was born almost thirty years before the majority of Romantic painters, his most famous work ‘The Nightmare‘ (1781) is almost avant-garde; very progressive in many aspects – its theme, dark eroticism, dreams, the unconsciousness, mysteries, all announced the arrival of a new art movement that would put emphasis on the subjective, intimate, mysterious and emotional – the Romanticism. One of the four main themes of Romanticism is the ‘mystical and occult’; a theme which seems to have been a particular favourite of Henry Fuseli, a lover of the night sky and supernatural in art.

As an artist Fuseli connects the spirit of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. While his paintings are conventionally executed, and his compositions fairly classical, his themes are certainly not. Es evident from his most famous work, The Nightmare, he was fascinated with fantastical and horrifying motifs, and, just like Romanticists, he showed a particular interest in history and illustrated scenes from Shakespeare’s plays just like William Blake who created drawings and paintings under the influenced of Fuseli. It’s not surprising that Shakespeare’s vivid imagination was appealing to Fuseli, if we think about some of the plays he has written: gloomy Scotland in the 11th century, a selfish and ambitious king, three witches and a ghost of a murdered man – Macbeth, tragic lovers and victims of two families in feud, passions and suicides – Romeo and Juliet, a play about jealousy, reality and surreal events, lovers and death of Desdemona – Othello, and of course the first existentialist character in literature, insanity, skulls, ghosts, poor maiden Ophelia – Hamlet: it’s easy to see why Shakespeare’s themes would be appealing to Fuseli and Romanticists in general who considered Shakespeare as their role-model.

Dark, dreamy and fantastical is the atmosphere of Fuseli’s illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays. It seems like the characters on the painting are brought to focus, painted in a typical late eighteenth, early nineteenth century manner, while the rest of the scene is engulfed in darkness: this way Fuseli shows his specialty in painting technique, the play of light and shadow. It suits perfect for these Shakespeare scenes because it seem like the characters live in a world of darkness, and also, Fuseli may be reminding us that these paintings portray scenes from plays. Characters are in the spotlight, and the surrounding darkness perhaps symbolises the far corners on the stage. Fuseli excels in setting his figures in motion, and he spent seven years in Rome so his paintings of bodies are all due to studying Michelangelo’s work.

The Dream of Queen Katherine (from William Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’, Act IV, Scene 2) (fragment), Henry Fuseli

1809. Romeo stabs Paris at the bier of Juliet - Henry FuseliRomeo stabs Paris at the bier of Juliet – Henry Fuseli, 1809

1793-94. Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head. By Henry Fuseli,Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head, Henry Fuseli, 1793-94

1780-85. Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost of Hamlet's Father. Henry Fuseli,Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, Henry Fuseli, 1780-85

1812. Johann Heinrich Füssli - Lady Macbeth with the DaggersLady Macbeth with the Daggers, Henry Fuseli, 1812

Henri Fuseli – The Romantic Nightmare

22 Oct

“One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams.” – Fuseli

1781. The Nightmare - Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli painted ‘The Nightmare‘, which remained his best-known work, in 1781. and the most interesting thing about this painting is that it simultaneously portrays a sleeping woman and the content of her nightmare. At the time it was painted, the overt sexuality repelled the critics. Later, however, the subject of the painting was interpreted as anticipating Freudian ideas about the unconscious.

The Nightmare was first exhibited in 1782. at the Royal Academy of London, and it instantly became famous. Painted in chiaroscuro, the painting depicts a woman stretched on the bed and sleeping. The sleeper seems lifeless, lying in a pose that was believed to encourage nightmares, and her face expression indicates the nightmare she has. The interior is contemporary and fashionable, and so are the sleeper’s clothes. While the foreground is light, elegant and rational, the background is darker, painted in deep reds, yellows and ochers, and it’s where the nightmare resides; both the mare (horse) and the incubus peek on the sleeper from the background.  That conflict between the light, clean, formal and rational; the foreground, and the mysterious, imaginary, dreamy and wild background marks the contrast between Classicism and Romanticism.

The subject itself is ‘Romantic‘; sleep and dreams, mysteries and the unknown; something very appealing to artists in Romanticism. The painting was likely inspired by Fuseli’s waking dreams, which were experienced by his contemporaries as well. Fuseli considered those dreams to be related to folkloric beliefs like the Germanic tales about demons and witches that possessed people who slept alone. The early meaning of ‘nightmare’ included the sleepers experience of weight on the chest, along with sleep paralysis and a feeling of dread. This painting includes many of the ideas associated with these folkloric tales and beliefs; a demon is crouched on woman’s chest and a horse is peeking through the curtain.

The image of a woman on the painting, and her very expressive pose, especially for those times, was inspired by Fuseli’s unrequited love, a young woman named Anna Landholdt whom he wanted to marry but whose father strongly objected. Also, Fuseli was known to have had numerous erotic prints in his possession. However, in the twentieth century, the painting was interpreted as anticipating Freudian ideas about the unconscious. Sigmund Freud believed that the purpose of dreams is to look in to unconscious urges and seek to fulfill them subconsciously.

The Nightmare inspired many other artists ever since it was painted, most notably Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe; both of them Romantic authors. A scene in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus where the Creature murders Victor’s wife Elizabeth, and she’s seen lying death on the bed – “She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by hair.” Also, the story in the novel has some similarities with Fuseli’s life; just as Fuseli’s incubus is infused with the artist’s emotions in seeing his beloved Anna marrying another man, Shelley’s Creature promises to revenge on Victor on the night of his wedding.

Edgar Allan Poe mentions Fuseli’s work, or style of painting, in his story The Fall of the House of Usher (1839.) Story’s narrator compares one of the paintings in the Usher House with Fuseli’s painting, and reveals that “irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm.” Both Fuseli and Poe shared an unusual interest in the subconscious; the land of dreams, death and imagination.