Fuseli, Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Gothic Fantasy

Henry Fuseli: Dark Gothic Fantasy

The early gothic found ghastly, thrilling form in the supernatural intimations of Henry Fuseli. A writer, translator and artist of fierce intelligence we know him primarily as the creator of the famous Nightmare painting, with its incubus sitting on the limp chest of a slumbering female form, and a leering, supernatural ‘night mare’ casting its glowing eyes across the scene.

Dark Fantasy, Fuseli, Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head, 1793Fuseli though was a towering figure in late 18th Century and his work forges links between great tragedic literature of Shakespeare and Milton, and popular culture classics of the modern era. He was an energetic man whose prodigious works rose above the stagnant classicism of his day to wage a cultural war against the a British Establishment that was on the brink of losing America, and fearful in the face of an apocalyptic, revolutionary France.

Early Years

Fusilli was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1741. His father was a celebrated portrait painter at a time in Europe when the well-bred and literary elite studied throughout the great cities of the continent. An ordained minister he was obliged to leave the country of his birth due to a youthful outburst against local dignitary, a sign of the strong convictions that would leave its mark throughout his life.

He found himself in London in 1764 and the good fortune of parentage granted him access to high society: he soon met a friend of his father, Joshua Reynolds, the celebrated painter and founding president of the Royal Academy (RA), who advised him to go to Italy and learn his trade as a painter. With some initial reluctance he departed, spent eight years studying the graceful sinews of Michelangelo and came to lead a group of firebrand painters, writers and thinkers.

Gothic fantasy, Füssli, Mad KateIn the years after his return to London Fuseli gained a reputation for painting direct and powerful works that echoed the disenchantment of with the corrupt institutions of state  and am Hanovarian aristocracy that had grown effete and aloof. Fuseli’s  intensity and his incendiary preoccupation with the supernatural found a willing audience in a public fixated on the early gothic novel, and it is this association that shaped both his popularity, and an inspiration that is still felt, nearly 250 years later.

Era and Culture

In March 1775 Goethe said, “What fire and fury the man has in him.” Fuseli was admired by artists, writers, thinkers and composers of a Sturm und Drang movement that created a fortress against stale classicism: Goethe, Wagner, Schiller and the philosopher Hamann celebrated the individual response to art rather than the collective acceptance of classical norms, focusing on the real and, to shock their audiences into action, used extremes of human emotion rather than perceptions of classical truth and beauty. They formulated the horrific and terrific as a means of inducing such effects, and this would prepare the ground for the Romantic poets with their wild imaginings, of Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Lord Byron, and the Romantic artists, Romney, Gainsborough and Constable who gloried in the world around them, offering sumptuous landscapes of the contemporary world.

Gothic Fantasy, Henry Fuseli, Titania and BottomBut this was also the time of Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Joseph Priestley, and Mary Wollstonecraft, thinkers and radicals who traced an intellectual orbit around publisher Joseph Johnson. Fuseli was powerful voice in their literary lunches, a campaigner against slavery and the status quo. Such gatherings were echoed throughout Europe and the Americas as intellectuals discussed the shortcomings of the various inbred institutions that had carried Nation-States into war, continents into slavery and the corrupt instruments of Empire, the East India Companies. In New York,  Charles Brockden Brown reveled in constitution building in New York, wrote pamphlets, critiques and american gothic novels, in Weimar Goethe breathed the fire of secular damnation and in London William Blake harangued politicians, priests and public alike.

Contradictions and Conformism.

In common with artists throughout history, Fuseli’s ethical position was complex: painters require wealthy sponsors. The radical and reforming tended to be less prosperous so although Fuseli associated with William Roscoe (an affluent campaigner against slavery), he also consorted with Thomas Coutts, the banker. Along with Schiller, Goethe, Beethoven and other remarkable artists he endured periods of utter conformism, in order to survive and it is curious to identify the Professor of Art at the uber-institutional Royal Academy as a founder of the gothic mode. His personal work was drenched in deviation, sexuality and challenged every acceptable concept of the art he taught to the obliging and well-connected students of the RA. His po-faced translation of ‘Winckleman’s Reflections on Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks’ and revision of a ‘Dictionary of Painters’ was conducted at the same time as his dark and sensual paintings.

Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches, 1794From 1785-1799 he participated in John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, a project designed to educate Europe into the benefits of the greatest English dramatist, but also to forge a base for historical painting. It was an idea conceived at a dinner with the Lord Mayor of London, and Boydell and several other great painters of the day, and reinforced the institutional game of survival and patronage. Shakespeare though was a lifelong obsession and we can detect the origins of Fuseli’s gothic awakening in the dark, supernatural corners of Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear and Midsummer Night’s Dream. Almost as a rite of passage Fusilli would go on to illustrate all other great literary works: Milton, Norse Legends, Dante, Spenser’s Faerie Queen and more.

Fuseli ,The Nightmare, GothicOur vision of Fusilli is dominated by a few of his most celebrated paintings, many of which express the night-time terrors and the power of dreams over the conscious form: Nightmare, (1781), Titania and Bottom (c.1790), The Three Witches (1783) and The Shepherd’s Dream (1793), Mrs. Fuseli Seated by a Fireplace (1799), Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head (1793), Wolfram Looking at his Wife, whom he has Imprisoned with the Corpse of her Lover (1812-20), A Sleeping Woman and the Furies (1821).

The Gothic Sensibility

The Gothic is often lambasted for its stock characters and formulaic situations, but these are fundamental to the structure of its effect. They represent the constant echo, the toll of a familiar bell that draws the reader in to revel in dream-like terrors, a reader both comforted and excited by the horrors within.

Dark Fantasy, American Frankenstein, RailroadIn the latter stages of the 18th century the rise of the gothic was associated with what were regarded as feminine values of imagination, rather than the robust civic values aligned to government and masculine thought. Britain was a highly conformist society, used to success after its hard-won defeat of the traditional enemies, France and Spain: it was shaken by the revolution in America and soon the shocking republicanism of France. The forces that created these challenges represented a way of thinking that was alien and dangerous to the ruling elite, but provided excitement to a generation of readers, writers, artists and musicians who relished the new creative landscapes.

The Gothic boom of this period offered new heroic models. The languid classical heroes appeared to have failed and were replaced by the tragic fire-breathing males of Matthew Lewis’s Monk, Fusilli’s Wolfram and Goethe’s Faust, and lapped up by a new breed of female reader who sought the escapist fantasies of Ann Radcliffe in particular, whose heroes would not rush off to war to die, but stay at home to woo and cherish their languid lovers.

Gothic Fantasy, Henry Fuseli, Night HagThe traditional newspaper press would attempt to skewer this gothic obsession and Fusilli’s work was caught in the crossfire; he was often dismissed as a fantasist who created whimsical and frivolous scenes without classical authenticity; but Fusilli was his own man, creating wild-eyed, exaggerated forms with a heavy emphasis on the central figures and little or no background. He used strongly contrasting light and filled the canvas with shadows to create a form of art that was devoured by the gothic reading public and today could be recognized as a precursor to the mass market comic books and the early sf and fantasy paperback covers of the 1930s and 40s, with their lurid colours and direct, seductive effects. This became the space occupied by Frank Frazetta, Jeffrey Catherine Jones and Virgil Finlay, who displayed dark forms that both intrigued and terrified an excitable 20th Century audience.

Archetypes and Stereotypes

Gothic Fantasy, Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma, FuseliAgainst the convention of the time Fuseli invented many of his own heroes and heroines (Ezzelin, Belisaire) , creating them as archetypes and ciphers, not just regurgitations of other artist’s work. Classical and biblical stories were not rejected but assimilated into the fantastic  and Fuseli became an icon of the gothic aesthetic as the supernatural and the power of the unconscious mind played out in the dream-like palette of his paintings.

Fuseli’s work represents men and women in clear physical forms. We do not rely on the legacy of classical behavioural norms to identify their behaviour. These characters live in the moment, and they suffer supernatural actions and fantasies. The women are subject still to the male, but at least the males are more gripped by emotional imagination than entirely heroic action.

Silence, Fuseli, GothicFuseli was still a man within a male dominated society, however radical his instincts might have been. Although he was one of the first artists to create his own heroes, still they were binary products of their time, bursting with stereotypical representations of the bold male, adored by the submissive, often languid female, offering a sexualised, response to navigate the problems of the day, the uncertainties and confusions. For modern tastes the woman is helpless or a hag, no hint of the Hunger Games or Buffy-like defiance, and no there is no moral aspect to the relative position of his men and women. But for the time Fuseli’s work was certainly revolutionary, and he was greatly censured for his stance.

Of course, it is hard to ignore a particular criticism of the gothic, that it is deliberately simplistic, appealing to the stereotypes, the guilty secret pleasures of its audiences, abandoning the sophistication of more elitist art. It’s no wonder that the gothic mode was so popular!


Fuseli died on April 16, 1825 in Putney Hill. He was buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral, near Sir Joshua Reynolds who was the first to take his art seriously.

Fuseli has influenced so may of those that followed. There is something about the gothic sensibility itself that resonates with a primal instinct in humanity.

Gothic Fantasy, Death on a Pale Horse, William BlakeFuseli’s impact ran through contemporaries such as George Romney, James Barry, John Flaxman, Theodor von Holst, and, of course, William Blake. Blake  engraved some of Fuseli’s work and was a great admirer, although Fuselli did not care for Blake’s writing, especially his prophetic works, and his public enthusiasm for revolution. Blake’s Night of Enithamon’s Joy (1795), House of Death (1795), Death on a Pale Horse (1800) are clear descendants of Fuselli’s gothic aesthetic.

Mary Shelley too, her father William Godwin and mother Mary Wollstencroft were friends of Fuselli, drew on Fuselli’s dark themes for Frankenstein, and Edgar Allen Poe‘s gothic masterpiece ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘ references Fuseli’s Nightmare, borrowing the effects of its dreamy horror and themes subconscious sexual jealousy.

Dark fantasy, Nosferatu, 1922, draculaIn literature, amongst his many admirers in the 20th Century was H.P. Lovecraft, who confessed that “Fuseli really brings a shiver”; Algernon Blackwood, Stephen KingAngela Carter and Tony Morrison each inherit his influence. Early movies such as 1922’s Nosferatu, the first Dracula movie and probably the closest to the feel of Bram Stoker‘s novel, lit the action with the same contrasting intensity as Fuseli’s paintings while the dark gothic challenges of modern TV series such Buffy the Vampire Slayer leap forward into broader popular culture media such as manga and Twilight fan fiction.

Dark Fantasy, Bernie Wrightson, FrankensteinOf course his demon seed can be found in the art of Margaret Brundage (illustrator of most of the 1930s Weird Tales covers), the dark, brooding shadows of Bernie Wrightson‘s Warren Magazine illustration and some of the more lurid work of Frank Frazetta and Jeffrey Catherine Jones, and Gene Colan

Fuselli’s paintings made a convenient separation of morality from art. He created stereotypes of heroic men and submissive women, subject to the terror of their dreams and the shadows of jealous retribution. As Fuseli said, “our ideas are the offspring of our senses”, his work was hugely popular and his connection with the supernatural themes of Shakespeare’s dark tragedies to the gothic work of those that followed, the comic books, graphic novels, the paperbacks and the movies demonstrates the acute power of the gothic sensibility and the sheer power of imagination.


Other posts of interest include:

And here’s a Pinterest board on Fuseli and Dark Gothic Fantasy.