Henry Fuseli Sketches: Figure Studies

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Former Curator of Art and Special Collections, Erin Blake curated Henry Fuseli Sketches: Figure Studies, for the 2009 exhibition The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries from the Folger Vault as part of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), also known as Johann Heinrich Füssli, was born in Switzerland but spent most of his working life in England. There, he became one of the great names in painting and an important teacher of the next generation. His teaching emphasized the study of nature and classical art, yet his own works show an overwhelming interest in expressive, sometimes bizarre scenes. The connection between painting and literature fascinated him, and he frequently turned to Shakespeare for inspiration. The six Fuseli paintings at the Folger are well-known, but these drawings have never before been exhibited. Fuseli typically explored figure poses, patterns of light and dark, and overall composition through drawings like these.

Henry Fuseli. Figure studies. Drawing, ca. 1805? ART Box F993 no.10.

The image to the left has long been identified as a drawing of “King Lear humbling himself before Cornwall and Regan,” specifi­cally Lear’s lines “On my knees I beg / That you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.” However, there are actually three distinct studies on the sheet: a woman leaning on the arm of a chair or sofa, a mounted warrior in battle, and a bald-headed old man who may be the Hermit in Christoph Martin Wieland’s epic poem Oberon.

A drawing was previously cataloged as a sketch for Fuseli’s painting of act 1, scene 3 of Macbeth, the witches appearing to Banquo and Macbeth on the heath (ART Box F993 no.4). It actually shows a nightmarish morphing of that scene with act 4, scene 1, the cauldron scene. A toad and an owl—future ingredients of the witches’ brew—swirl within the witches’ robes as they fly toward Macbeth, each with “her choppy finger laying / Upon her skinny lips,” preparing to hail “Macbeth that shalt be king hereafter.”

Fuseli’s third sketch captures the action of The Merry Wives of Windsor, act 4, scene 2 (ART Box F993 no.1). Mistress Ford tells Falstaff he can escape from her husband disguised as her maid’s aunt, but she is fooling Falstaff as well as Ford. She knows full well her husband thinks the aunt is a witch, and will drive “her” from the house with blows. Ford’s pose, as he prepares to strike Falstaff, is based on classical statuary Fuseli studied in Rome.

Hear former Curator of Art and Special Collections, Erin Blake, discuss these unusual sketches.