Henry Fuseli often used fairy-tale scenes from Shakespeare as motifs for his paintings. Here is an episode from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Fairy Queen Titania, bewitched by her jealous husband Oberon, falls in love with the donkey-headed weaver Bottom. She has flung both arms around the hybrid creature and, mad with love, has no inkling of the humiliation that awaits her. She is surrounded by her courtiers, a cloud of spirits in a variety of forms. At the top right, a mischievous face peeps out of the darkness, that of Puck, the Fairy King’s henchman, who attends and executes his master’s will. His magic potion will also prove the despair of the two young women, Hermia and Helena, emerging from the forest clearing: the potion’s mistaken use causes their respective lovers to confuse one for the other.
Fuseli spent most of his life in England, where he first tried his hand at writing. It wasn’t until he was 30 that he devoted himself entirely to painting and drawing. He achieved renown as an English painter and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral among his adopted country’s celebrated artists. He developed his characteristic style in Rome, however, where he lived for eight years. He was unconcerned with such academic skills as the correct representation of a nude or a fold in drapery, the addition of decorative niceties, or the emulation of nature. What interested him were the liminal zones of the psyche, of fantasy and dreams, and his focus is on effective invention, drawn directly from the power of the imagination and permeating the soul of the viewer.
The Kunsthaus Zürich possesses the world’s leading collection of works by Henry Fuseli. This is thanks not to a legacy, although the artist was born in Zurich, but in large part to the museum’s first director, Dr. Wilhelm Wartmann, who systematically collected paintings and drawings by Fuseli and mounted two large exhibitions devoted to his work.