Fuseli & Shakespeare.
The Swiss artist Henry Fuseli arrived in London in 1763, published a translation of the German antiquarian Winckelmann, and followed Reynold’s advice to spend time studying in Rome for eight years until 1779. During the 1780s Fuseli showed several canvases at the R.A., where he got acclaim for the originality of his compositions; his art was also said to have a “singularity,” a term denoting the artist’s bizarre genius, or at least his artistic originality. Even more than Reynolds, Fuseli was an expert on Shakespeare, falling just short of publishing his own version of Macbeth in the 1760s when the manuscript was probably lost in a fire.1 Fuseli’s early Shakespearean paintings led to important commissions from Boydell for whom he painted nine Shakespearean works, mainly from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Macbeth (above). The scenes from the imaginative fairy scenes of the first play exhibit just as much a personal iconography as an interpretation of Shakespeare’s text. But Fuseli became more acknowledged as a painter who wanted his Shakespearean dramatic scenes viewed through the lens of the sublime, the horrific, and unleashed artistic imagination.2 During the Boydell commission Fuseli found himself in competition with the PRA, Reynolds, who was asked to paint subjects which overlapped with the Swiss artist’s works. Reynold’s were reported to be scenes from Macbeth and Hamlet; the latter remained unfinished, though he did a scene with Macbeth and the Three Witches that upset time and unity of action in the play. Fuseli also painted a specific moment from Macbeth where the eponymous tragic hero sees the witches in visionary form; his source for the tragically fallen Scot was the Borghese Gladiator, famously painted by Joseph Wright. Rivalry between Fuseli and Reynolds was hardly new as they both painted the same subject, the Death of Dido which were shown on opposite walls in the R.A. exhibition of 1781, as if in obvious competition. Both artists would also produce images of Puck; the Fuseli seems closer to his disturbing imp in the Nightmare; the Reynolds is simply a painting of a baby which Boydell had suggested could be easily transformed into the mischievous Shakespearean pixie. That small example illustrates the stark difference in attitude towards Shakespeare of these two R.A. artists.
1Sillars, Painting Shakespeare, 100.
2Fuseli almost certainly used the theory of the sublime as part of his exhibition strategy, as explained by Martin Myrone, “The Sublime as Spectacle: The Transformation of Ideal Art at Somerset House” in Art on the Line, 77-91.