Friday, February 06, 2015

Arty Farty Friday ~ Henry Fuseli and His Nightmare

 Henry Fuseli - portrait by James Northcote (1778)
Certain composers, singers and musicians have been termed "one hit wonders" - the same label could be applied to painters. Looking through a list of arty births in early February, I spotted Henry Fuseli (1741). First thought, "he's too 18th cenury for an Aquarius-type Arty Farty Friday". A quick look at some of his works via Google Image reminded (or rather informed) me that it was he who painted The Nightmare - a painting featured twice in a TV drama series we've watched recently , via Netflix: The Fall (see my post HERE). In that series a serial killer managed to place an image of The Nightmare painting onto the laptop of leading detective Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), and had left a print of the painting at one of the murder scenes. The painting has, according to Wikipedia and others, been used in various novels, films, series, and cartoons over the years. A hit it was, and is! Its value today is said to be in the region of $4 million.

Fuseli may well have influenced a whole new generation of artists, living through a period of traumatic social, cultural, and political revolution, but it is a single painting by which he is remembered best.

 Self portrait
Henry Fuseli, originally Johann Heinrich Füssli, was born in Zurich, Switzerland on Feb. 7, 1741. Some sources give his date of birth as 6 February 1741. He died April 16, 1825 in London, England. He came from an artistic and intellectual family background, initially studied theology. He was ordained as a pastor in the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church. However, political entanglements (he denounced a dishonest magistrate) forced him to flee Zürich for Berlin, and later, in 1764, he settled in London, England. Sir Joshua Reynolds encouraged and inspired him to take up painting. He left England for several years to study in Italy. During time spent in Rome the works of Michelangelo and classical art, became major inspirations and influences.

On returning to England, he renamed himself Henry Fuseli. Soon critical successes brought international acclaim. He painted tragic or violent situations from literature, particularly Shakespeare and Milton, populated by stylised figures with overblown, exaggerated attitudes and a feeling of theatrical intensity over all.

In 1799 Fuseli was named a Royal Academy professor of painting. He was reported to be a popular teacher and much-respected figure.

 In front of him is a small round box, inscribed with 'I.C. box'. On the margin of the book, a later hand has added in pencil John Cartwright. This drawing was originally identified, on the evidence of the inscriptions, as a portrait by Fuseli of John Cartwright (1763-1808), a minor painter and friend of the artist. Comparison with other self portraits by Fuseli, and the directness and intensity of the image, make it plain that the subject is Fuseli himself. The initials on the box suggest that the drawing was made in Cartwright's house and given to him. (National Portrait Gallery, UK)

Fuseli wrote extensively on art and is said to have influenced a generation of painters. His work was neglected for about a century after his death, until the Expressionists and Surrealists found in him a kindred spirit. His friend William Blake described him as
"The only man that e'er I knew who did not make me almost spew."

A former student of Fuseli's described him thus: "...used to dab his beastly brush into the oil, and sweeping round the palette in the dark, take up a great lump of white, red, or blue, as it might be and plaster it over a shoulder or face... I found him the most grotesque mixture of literature, art, scepticism, indelicacy, profanity, and kindness."

Fuseli's Greatest Hit - click on the image for a bigger, clearer version:

The Nightmare. An icon of horror since it was first exhibited at the annual Royal Academy exhibition in London in 1782. Fuseli wanted the painting to shock and intrigue, as well as to make a name for himself - he succeeded! Images of the work have been used and lampooned many times. (TATE)

The Nightmare (1781; Detroit Institute of Arts) was an immediate success. It has become Fuseli's most famous painting, and was a landmark in the development of Romanticism. The Nightmare owes its enduring popularity to 2 main factors: it was one of the first paintings to successfully portray an intangible idea, rather than an event, a person, or a story. Second, the exact intentions of the artist remain obscure. The creature squatting on the woman is an incubus or mara. It is this demon who is causing the nightmare rather than the horse (or "night-mare") that peers through the curtains. Alternatively the painting may have been conceived as an act of romantic revenge. On the back of the canvas, there is an unfinished portrait of a girl who may have been the object of the artist's unrequited attention.

Painting Style...The characteristics of Fuseli's mature style were well defined before his departure from Italy. They included dramatic foreshortening of figures, strong chiaroscuro, extravagant gestures and distortions of scale, and a preference for new, often obscure, literary subjects which stressed the demonic side of human nature. In his works, the aesthetic of the Sublime was given its most extreme visual articulation. He also had a special line in pictures of female cruelty and bondaged males. In addition, he was obsessed with women's hair.

For a quick look at many of Fuseli's other paintings, see Google Image, and click on any of interest for enlarged views.

 Fuseli's study for a self portrait
The doubt about Fuseli's date of birth will not be too important for this very general view of him. 24 hours would change Moon's position, and ascending sign - as would the exact hour he was born on either date. Dictionary of Art Historians gives 6 February as his date of birth and states: Date born: February 6, 1741 [Fuseli often gave other dates]. 7th February is more generally stated as his date of birth. Could it be that he was born close to midnight on the 6th (London time), but in Switzerland (+1 hour) it'd be 7 February? Just a wild guess!

A look at charts for both 6 and 7 Feb., Zurich, Switzerland, at 12 noon (as no time of birth is available):



Moon in Scorpio (on 7th Feb, at noon) seems the better bet, bearing in mind his fascination with "the demonic side of human nature", nightmares, and suchlike - as well as those distinctive eyes in his self-portraits. But Moon being in Scorpio would depend on his exact time of birth on 7th. He'd have to have been born after 8:00 AM on 7th for Moon to have reached 0* Scorpio. That would knock on the head my theory about the London/Switzerland time difference.

Venus, planet of the arts, conjunct Uranus in Capricorn, sextile Pluto in Scorpio, semi-sextile his Aquarius Sun and opposing Mars in Cancer is a contrary, irritable and itchy kind of mix! Looking back to the quote from a former student of his: I found him the most grotesque mixture of literature, art, scepticism, indelicacy, profanity, and does fit the astrology rather well!

Jupiter conjunct Moon's north node, and probably in trine with Moon itself reflects Fuseli's seeming need to continually express exaggerated attitudes and excess of intensity in his art.

Stepping back from detail, simply viewing Fuseli's natal chart (for either day), its shape depicts someone of an overtly 2-sided nature, somewhat held together by natal Moon, his inner emotional core, which could have been either darkly Scorpio-tinged, or more lightly and artistically coloured by Libra.

Fuseli's friendship with William Blake who, remember, described him as "The only man that e'er I knew who did not make me almost spew" isn't hard to understand. See Blake's chart at my archived post on him from 2009. Blake's natal Venus in Capricorn conjoins Fuseli's Venus/Uranus; Blake's Saturn in its traditional sign of rulership, Aquarius, conjoins Fuseli's natal Sun there.

A final spotlight on the personality of Henry Fuseli, and from this we can discern his Uranian eccentricity, his Plutonian darkness and Jupiterian excesses: a self portrait of himself as a Faun (he seemed to enjoy drawing himself) is accompanied by this tidbit at the Tate Gallery:

Fuseli made this portrait of himself as a sculpted faun when he was in Italy during the 1770s. By this time Fuseli already had a reputation for studied eccentricity. As a friend in Rome noted:
"He is everything in extremes - always
an original; His look is lightning, his
word a thunderstorm; his jest is death,
his revenge, hell. He cannot draw a
single mean breath. He never draws portraits, his features are all true
yet at the same time caricature..."

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Anonymous said...

Another unknown artist for me. I like his "Nightmare" and don't find it that threatening. I looked at his other work and find some of those more unnerving. Interesting that the main construct of "Nightmare" is repeated in "Homage to Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare" by Cory Mcburnett of Deviant Art...I like both. I like many of Fuseli's paintings and I don't often appreciate the Gothic Romanticism style. Several of his paintings are unusually risque for that era.

Either chart is interesting and I suppose the primary basis for his shocking-at-the-time expression was the Mars opposed Venus-Uranus conjunction, and Mercury opposed Saturn. Moon could have T-squared either aspect depending on which day, but I favor Moon in Libra...a bit more artistic placement and a cardinal sign giving him the action potential to express himself. It's a coin toss! His Sun and Saturn are in reciprocal and opposing signs, which would provide additional attributes of eccentricity described in the last quotation.

mike said...

Oooops...submitted the above anonymously by accident...LOL.

Twilight said...

mike aka Anonymous ;-)

There'a another homage (well kind of homage) by Robert Crumb. See:

I'm not too keen on Fuseli's usual subject matter, being a Pre-Raphaelite groupie myself, but there are some similarities I suppose. Fuseli was a tad more rakish and strange.

Yes, there are arguments, equally valid for either date of birth.
It's an odd discrepancy really - if not due to time zone difference, maybe a mistake taken from handwriting in an original source a scribbled 7 looking like a 6 or vice versa. It wasn't one of those instances where an actress or "celeb" wanted to give impression of being younger than her years. Definitely an error at first source, of some kind I suspect.

Thanks for the extra astrology pointers.