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Henry Fuseli

1741–1825

Swiss Painter


Satan And Death With Sin Intervening
by Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli Biography

  He was born into a large artistic family, he had seventeen brothers and sisters, in Zurich, Switzerland. His father and uncles were well known portraits painters.  According to his biographer, John Knowles, "Henry Fuseli not only profited in his early years by the instruction of his parents, but also by the society which his father kept; indeed, he may be said to have been rocked in his cradle by the Muses,—for Solomon Gessner was his godfather. This poet and painter was the intimate friend of the elder Fuseli, and addressed to him an elaborate letter on landscape-painting, which is published in his works. But it was to his mother that Henry considered himself chiefly indebted for the rudiments of his education: she, it appears, was a woman of superior talents, and possessed, in a high degree, the affection and gratitude of her children. Even in the latter days of his life, when Fuseli has spoken of his mother, I have seen tears start into his eyes."

While in college studying to be a minister, Fuseli was forced to flee Switzerland in fear for his life after helping a friend to expose a corrupt Swiss official.  The ruling magistrates vindictive family vowed to cut off the young painters hands and poke out his eyes  so he could no longer paint. Fuseli escaped to Germany, working as a writer and illustrator. 

In 1765 he journeyed to Great Britain where he met the legendary English painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous artist convinced Fuseli to dedicate his life totally to art.  John Knowles  states "On Fuseli's return to England, in 1767, there was every prospect that the society which had been formed for the promotion of the fine arts would receive royal protection and patronage, and become a chartered body.[9] And it was then the general opinion, that great public encouragement would be given to artists. This still increased his wish to become a painter. He sought for and obtained an introduction to Mr. (afterwards Sir Joshua) Reynolds, to whom he showed a portfolio of drawings, and some small etchings, which he had recently made from subjects in the Bible, and an etching on a large scale from Plutarch,—"Dion seeing a female spectre sweep his hall." Sir Joshua,[43] who was much struck with the style, grandeur, and original conception of his works, asked him how long he had been from Italy? Fuseli answered, "he had never seen that favoured country;" at which the former expressed much surprise; and, to mark how highly he estimated his talents, requested permission to have some of the drawings copied for himself. This was readily granted, and he was induced, by the solicitations of Fuseli, to accept some of the etchings. The interview ended by Reynolds assuring him, that "were he at his age, and endowed with the ability of producing such works, if any one were to offer him an estate of a thousand pounds a-year, on condition of being any thing but a painter, he would, without the least hesitation, reject the offer.""

Fuseli's paintings were boldly original for their time. He was drawn to the mystical, and believed that his art-works were divinely inspired. According to his biographer, John Knowles, "On one occasion, the conversation turned upon ghosts and witches, in the existence of which he believed, and his argument was "that great and good men in all times had believed in them."

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