Silence by Henry Fuseli

Silence by Henry Fuseli (1800)

As you know, I like paintings which have some kind of symbolism or ones which lead art historians to write about their interpretations of what is before us.  It is always interesting to witness how art historians’ views sometimes differ with regards how they interpret what an artist has depicted.  It also gives one an opportunity to air one’s own views about the symbolism and how we want to interpret what we see.   I want you to look carefully at today’s featured painting and work out in your own mind what you are witnessing.  Later, after looking at the life of the artist, I will pose some questions which you may wish to deliberate on and then I will tell you what I see and let us see how close we come together with our interpretations of this beautiful and haunting painting.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is by Henry Fuseli and is simply entitled Silence.  He completed the work in 1800 and it is now housed in the Kunsthaus in Zurich.  Fuseli was born in Zürich, Switzerland, in 1741 and was the second of eighteen children, of which only five survived to adulthood.   His father was Johann Caspar Füssli, a portrait and landscape painter and later a city clerk.  He was also a part-time writer and was author of the art history book entitled Lives of the Helvetic Painters. Henry’s mother was Anna Elisabeth Füssli (née Waser).  His mother and father wanted Henry to study for the church, and after some home tutoring sent him to the Caroline College of Zurich, where he received a first-class classical education, studying literature, aesthetics, Greek and Latin. It was during his time at this college that he met and became great friends with Johann Kaspar Lavater, who would become a well-known Swiss poet.  In 1761, aged twenty, he was ordained into the church as a Zwinglian minister.  The following year, 1762, Fuseli and his friend Lavater discovered the corrupt ways of a local magistrate and politician Felix Grebel and denounced him publicly.  The magistrate was found guilty and had to make financial reparations, which angered him and his followers, so much so that in 1763 Fuseli had to flee the country and go to Prussia to avoid retribution.

After spending a short time in Berlin, Fussli who by now was an accomplished linguist,  moved to London where he was employed as a translator, translating French, German and Italian books into English. He spent a lot of his leisure time sketching and writing but had little success in getting any of his writings published.  Whilst in London he got to know the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds and on showing the English artist some of his sketches, he was encouraged to devote more of his time on his art and less time trying to become an author, so in 1768 Henry Fussli took Reynolds’ advice and decided to become an artist.

In 1770, at the age of twenty nine, Füssli went along the well-trodden path taken by artists and would-be artists – an artistic pilgrimage to Italy and he remained in that country for eight years.  Füssli was a self-taught artist and whilst in Italy copied many of the works of the Renaissance Masters and spent much time in the Sistine Chapel copying the frescoes of Michelangelo.  It was also his stay in Rome that afforded him multiple sexual forays and these experiences no doubt were the reason behind some of his erotic drawings.  During his eight year sojourn In Italy he also changed his surname to the more Italian-sounding “Fuseli” which he must have believed had a more artistic ring to it. 

In 1779 he returned to Zurich and fell in love.  The woman he loved was the niece of his old friend from the Caroline College, Felix Lavater.  Unfortunately for Fuseli, his love for Anna Landolt vom Rechs was not reciprocated.  One of Henry Fuseli’s most famous paintings, The Nightmare, which I featured in My Daily Art Display (August 8th) is based on an erotic dream he had of this “love of his life”.  Fuseli left Zurich heartbroken and returned to London.  In London, Fuseli exhibited many of his history paintings at the Royal Academy between 1780 and 1786 and by so doing established a reputation in this important genre. He also came into contact once again with Joshua Reynolds, the man who almost twenty years earlier advised him to become an artist.  Reynolds was now the president of the Royal Academy.

William Blake, the English poet and artist met Fuseli around 1787 and they became close friends, with Blake engraving occasional works for Fuseli.   In that same year, Fuseli was elected associate of the Royal Academy and in 1788 he married Sophia Rawlins, a woman who was eighteen years his junior.  It was also around this period of his life that Fuseli became acquainted with the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (her daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein).  She was besotted with Fuseli and even went as far as approaching Fuseli’s young wife’s to share the man between them. Needless to say Fuseli’s wife would have nothing to do with this plan. 

Fuseli was elevated to Royal Academician in 1790 and what was strange about this change of status was that his one-time mentor Reynolds tried unsuccessfully to oppose the appointment.   In 1799 he became Royal Academy professor of painting.   In 1816 Fuseli, Sir Thomas Lawrence and John Flaxman were elected honorary academicians of the Accademia di San Luca at Rome.   Henry Fuseli died at the home of the countess of Guilford at Surrey in 1825, aged 84 and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.   Although Fuseli’s reputation is based on his works of art he should also be remembered for his writings on art and the fact that he was a formidable art historian.

So by now you have had time to study the featured painting and maybe you have come to a conclusion of what it all about.  Let me therefore pose some theories and at the same time question you on what you have concluded.  This painting is totally devoid of symbolism and it demands your own determination of what it is all about.  It is enigmatic and frustratingly we do not know what it is all about.  We see a figure, seated cross-legged in an indeterminate place, surrounded by gloom.  There is nothing in the depiction of the background to help us fathom out the mystery.   Is it a man or is it a woman?  Long hair and a shift-like dress, so it must be female or must it be so?  The hands are feminine but maybe the arms, which look quite muscular, are masculine.  For the time being let us presume it is a long-haired female.  Her head is downcast, almost hunched into her shoulders.  She is of an indeterminate age and there is ambivalence about the way she is dressed.  But what of her mood?   What is the state of her mind?  The problem for us when we want to decide the mood of the person is that we can neither see her face nor her facial expression.  One’s face is who one is.  Maybe more importantly, we cannot see her eyes – the windows to her soul.  We cannot therefore try and read her mind.  We have to build up our perception of her by looking at her posture.  As we cannot see her facial expression, can we glean anything by studying the body language?  Are we looking at somebody who is just simply relaxing or are we looking at somebody who has come to the end of her tether and slumps before us almost drained of life?  If I asked you to describe her posture in one word, what would it be?  Despair? Exhaustion?, Acceptance? Resignation?

I don’t have the answers.  Nobody but the artist knows what it is all about.  Why did he give the painting the title Silence?  We can all theorise but nobody can be categorical about the correctness of their theories.  I will leave you with this haunting painting and let you decide.