Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Fuseli, Henry

(1741-1825) Swiss painter, born Johann Heinrich Füssli. He lived in Italy 1770-1778 and subsequently in the UK, where he enjoyed considerable success, becoming Professor at the Royal Academy in 1799; the Italian form of his surname is normally used. Very early in his career, he translated Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke (1755) by Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768) as On the Imitation of Greek Works (trans 1765), and never fully repudiated Winckelmann's Neoclassical approach to the canons of art, retaining to the end of his own career a sense of proportion and distancing that gives his most violently Romantic paintings an impersonal, narrative clarity. Though his most famous works – like The Nightmare (1781; many later versions exist) – are not illustrations as such, they are not, at the same time, subjective visions. What is depicted in The Nightmare, for instance, is not envisioned by the sleeper, who sprawls with her arms hanging down and her head thrown back, her sleeping face turned away from the ape-like Goblin squatting on – almost between – her thighs, and from the horse (i.e., the "night mare") gazing through the curtains: none of the "actors" in the scene are looking at each other. The nightmare is what those who view the painting catch sight of; it is, in other words, a frozen moment out of Story. More than one fantasy writer subsequently attempted to put that icon into words: Charles Nodier's Smarra (1821) is an example, as is Fitz-James O'Brien's "What Was It?" (1859).

HF was deeply attracted to the works of William Shakespeare, and his versions of scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600) – most remarkably perhaps, Titania and Bottom (circa 1790) – once again alarmingly freeze moments in canvases that seem almost to burst with held Story. The erotic intensity of his portrayals of women, which is clear in his Shakespeare illustrations, becomes engagingly explicit in his numerous portraits of courtesans, many using his wife as model. She is directly portrayed in Mrs Fuseli Seated by a Fireplace (The Rosy-Cheeked Medusa) (1799), in which Medusa herself can be seen in a Mirror: the fact that Mrs Fuseli is gazing at the real Medusa, but has not turned to stone, complicatedly relates this drawing to the Romantic obsession with the Femme Fatale, which was about to burgeon. [JC]

Henry Fuseli

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This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.