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English gentry, who then, as now, swarmed in Home, he formed friendships which were useful in after-life.
How Fuseli supported himself abroad during eight years of study, he has not told us; his family were respectable, not opulent; his attempts with the pen had enabled him to live, without making his purse overflow, and as his paintings were few, it has been supposed that the income arising from his own exertions was but little. It is now ascertained that such was his winning way in conversation, and such even then the acknowledged powers of his pencil, that from English travellers alone he had at one time commissions to the amount of £\500. Some of his letters from Rome have a laconic brevity which amuses those whom they fail to inform; others breathe of a sadness of heart and depression of spirit, such as the sons of genius are commonly heirs to. In 1774, he sent to the British Exhibition a drawing of the Death of Cardinal Beaufort, and three years after, a Scene from Macbeth; both marked by much boldness and originality. His mind loved to range with Shakspeare and Milton— the Satan of the latter, majestic even in ruin, was a favourite study, and he imagined no one save himself could body him forth in all his terror and glory; the Tempest and the Midsummer Night's Dream contained images no less congenial, and he had already filled his portfolio with designs worthy of the wand of Prospero or the spells of Puck. His imagination, though he seemed not aware of it, was essentially Gothic; his mind dwelt with the poetry and the superstitions of Christendom; he talked about, but seldom drew, the gods and goddesses of Olympus.
In the year 1778 Fuseli left Italy. He paid a visit to his native Zurich, and lived six months with his father, whom he loved tenderly. His elder brother, Rodolph, had settled in Vienna, and become librarian to the emperor, and his brother Caspar died in the prime of life, after having distinguished himself - by several skilful compositions on entomology. Early in 1779 he left Zurich, to which he never returned, and came back to London with his mind strengthened in knowledge, and his hand improved in its cunning. With the reputation of an eight years' residence in Rome upon him, he commenced his professional career, and the beginning was au spicious.
Thus stood art at that tinje in England. Reynolds excelled all men in portraiture and wrought unrivalled and alone. Wilson and Gainsborough sufficed for the moderate measure of public demand in landscape. Barry and West shared between them the wide empire of religious and historic composition, and there was nothing left for Fuseli save the poetical. Nature had endowed him eminently for this field, and the nation showed symptoms of an awakening regard for it. No preceding painter had possessed himself of the high places of British verse. The enthusiasm for Milton, and especially for Shakspeare, was warmer and also more intelligent than at any former time; and Fuseli was considered by himself and by many friends as destined to turn this state of feeling to excellent account.
The first work which proved that an original mind had appeared (in England, was the "Nightmare," exhibited in 1782. "The extraordinary and peculiar genius which it displayed," says one of his biographers, "was universally felt, and perhaps no single picture ever made a greater impression in this country.. A very fine mezzotinto engraving of it was scraped by Raphael Smith, and so popular did the print become, that, although Mr. Fuseli received only twenty guineas for the picture, the publisher made five hundred by his speculation." This was a subject suitable to the unbridled fancy of the painter, and perhaps to no other imagination has the Fiend which murders our sleep ever appeared in a more poetical shape.
His rising fame—his poetic feeling—his gTeat knowledge—and his greater confidence—now induced Fuseli to commence an undertaking worthy of the highest genius—The Shakspeare Gallery. An accidental conversation at the table of the nephew of Alderman Boydell, started, it is said, the idea; and West, and Romney, and Hayley, and Fuseli shared in the honour. To the mind of the latter, indeed, such a scheme had been long present; it dawned on his fancy in Rome, even as he lay on his back marvelling in the Sistine, and he saw in imagination a long and shadowy succession of pictures. Boydell supported the plan anxiously and effectually; on receiving £500 Reynolds entered, though with reluctance, into a scheme which consumed time and required much thought: but Fuseli had no rich commissions in the way—his heart was with the subject—in his own fancy he had already commenced the work, and the enthusiastic alderman found a more enthusiastic painter, who made no preliminary stipulations, but prepared his palette and began.
Shakspeare presented a whole world to the eye of art; and to imbody the whole or any considerable portion of his visions, would demand a combination of powers not to be hoped for. As might have been expected, Fuseli grappled with the wildest passages of the most imaginative plays; and he handled them with a kind of happy and vigorous extravagance, which startled common beholders.
The Tempest, the Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear, and Hamlet suggested the best of the eight Shakspearian pictures which he painted, and of these, that from Hamlet is certainly the noblest. It is, indeed, strangely wild and superhuman—if ever a spirit visited earth, it must have appeared to Fuseli. The majesty of buried Denmark is no vulgar ghost such as scares the belated rustic, but a sad and majestic shape with the port of a god: to imagine this required poetry, and in that our artist was never deficient. He had fine taste in matters of high import; he drew the boundary line between the terrible and the horrible, and he never passed jt; the former he knew was allied to grandeur, the latter to deformity and disgust. An eminent metaphysician visited the gallery before the public exhibition; he saw the Hamlet's Ghost of Fuseli, and exclaimed, like Burn's rustic in Halloween, "Lord, preserve me!" He declared that it haunted him lound the room.
The paintings which composed the Shakspeare Gallery were supplied by various hands; the plan was new, and novelty seldom fails to attract the multitude; but the multitude cannot be supposed to have much sympathy with works of a purely poetic order. There must be a strong infusion of the grosser realities of life to secure extensive popularity: any rustic can feel the merits of John Gilpin, but what can such a person comprehend of the Penseroso? Much as the Shakspeare Gallery was praised, its excellence therefore was not felt by the people at large. The superiority of Fuseli in poetic conception over all his compeers was however appreciated by the few, on whose approbation alone he placed any value.
Those pictures were followed by others, all of a poetic order—Dante's Inferno suggested the Fransesca and Paolo—Virgil supplied him with Dido, and from Sophocles he took ffidipus devoting his son and CEdipus with his daughters. They were all marked by poetic freedom of thought and by more than poetic extravagance of action. They astonished many whom they could not please, and the name of Fuseli was spread over the island and heard of in foreign lands. He was elected an Associate of the Academy in 1788, and early in 1790 became an Academician—honours woe by talent, without the slightest co-operation of intrigue.
In 1788 he had married Sophia Rawlins, a young woman whom he first, it is said, employed as a model, and on whom, finding that her vocation had neither corrupted her heart nor rendered her cold in affection, he thought it no dishonour to bestow his hand. She proved a kind and faithful wife, who soothed him in moments of irritation, loved him warmly, and worshipped his genius. Higher birth and more delicate breeding might not have done more for him. She was handsome in youth, nor was she much faded when Opie painted her portrait. She was a woman of discretion, too, as well as of kindly feelings, and had what ladies call "trials." These must be described, as they are interwoven closely with the character of her husband.
At the table of Johnson, the bookseller, Fuseli was a frequent guest, and in all conversations that passed there was lord of the ascendant. There he met his friend Armstrong, who praised him in the journals, Wolcot, whom he hated, and Mary Wolstonecraft, who at the first interview conferred upon him the honour of her love. The French Revolution was at that time giving hopes to the young and fears to the old. Fuseli was slightly smitten: but the cap of liberty itself seemed to have descended on the heart as well as the head of the lady; who conducted herself as if it were absurd to doubt that the new order of things had loosened all the old moral obligations, and that marriage was but one of the out-worn ceremonies displaced for ever by the new dispensation of Lepaux and his brethren. With sueh notions Mary Wolstonecraft cast bold eyes upon the Shakspeare of canvass. And he, instead of repelling, as they deserved, tnose ridiculous advances, forthwith, it seems, imagined himself possessed with the pure spirit of Platonic love—