Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism Back

Centuries of drawings of their wives, models and courtesans by well-known artists permeate Western art history, but less often do we encounter these as interchangeable subjects, or in a display of assertive individuality and disturbing sexual aggression. We are familiar now with the suppressed or private drawings by Turner or Rodin, their exuberant spontaneity of expressive female bodies drawn in minimal lines and thin washes. The small, rarely displayed collection of Fuseli’s drawings on show in two rooms at the Courtauld Gallery is different. These drawings are as much about the artist as his subject, exploring his obsessions and insecurities. Except for a few women friends and unidentified individuals, Fuseli’s wife is the focus of the fifty or so drawings on show. The intricate details of her bizarre hairstyles, rendered with detailed, seductive care, give them a detached independent life of their own. They are worn as trophies of compulsive indulgence, deviant and grotesque but recognisable as inflated renditions of the styles promoted in contemporary fashion plates. They display the meticulous extremes of complex styling, defy gravity and restraint and although the women sway and pout provocatively, the hairstyles warn against any intimate approaches with the fierce authority of Medusa’s snakes.


‘Henry Fuseli Sophia Fuseli seated in front of a bust of Medusa (1799) graphite, brush and grey and brown wash, touches of red wash, heightened with white opaque watercolour 336 x 199 mm Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

The first room finds an origin of Fuseli’s imagery in traditional representations of Medusa and her destructive gaze, and the introduction suggests that he deliberately placed his figures next to fireplaces with all their eighteenth-century connotations of virtuous, feminine home comfort and stability in order to destabilise the tradition. The first picture we encounter is Woman standing in front of a fireplace, flanked by fairies (1798). The thinly veiled nudity is rendered acceptable by the presence of small fairy figures to suggest ‘creative genius’. The depiction of a Medusa sculpture above a glowing fireplace makes the direct gaze of Sophia challenging and ambiguous in Sophia Fuseli Seated in front of a Bust of Medusa (1791). Like other strange or incongruous elements inserted into many of the drawings on display, they encourage us to question their purpose and remind us of the disturbing composition of Fuseli’s well-known painting The Nightmare (1781) which has exercised the minds of art historians and psychologists alike. Previous analyses of Fuseli’s drawings have centred on Freudian arguments, using Freud’s essay Fetishism (1927) to explain their significance. The Tate Gallery’s 1975 exhibition Henry Fuseli, 1741-1825 drew largely on these. However, the Courtauld emphasises the performative gender roles which the drawings explore, the ‘destabilising of gendered identities’ (David Solkin, p.15) which the catalogue outlines.

The female accoutrement of the sewing basket, symbolic of conventional domestic skill, is set alongside the painted face, open lips and visible nipples of Fuseli’s wife in Sophia Fuseli, Seated at a Table (1790-91). A drawing of Seated Woman (Sophia Fuseli?) in Curls, Reading (c.1796) draws on the image of a female reading a book, which was already being undermined as a representation of passivity and virtue by the mid-eighteenth century in response to fears about the deleterious effects of novel-reading on young women. The extraordinary tight curls of the hair form a helmet, a compressed restraint on what might otherwise be a wild profusion of hair. They hint at the woman’s earlier surrender to a painstaking coiffure process and are clear interpretations of Roman sculpture, busts of matrons with elaborate hair styles, which Fuseli sketched while in Rome. As the exhibition progresses, the tension between the time-consuming hair styles fixed immovably on the head and the diaphanous flow of high-waisted dresses which intentionally signify their potential for removal to reveal the body further, becomes palpable. Nowhere in the exhibition is it suggested that these hair styles may be wigs but the skills of hairdressers are invoked, alongside the assertion of Sophia Fuseli’s own agency and powerful self-expression. It might be added that the delicate hands and long fingers, often encased in skin-tight gloves, add further fetishized elements to Fuseli’s drawings. The tension between Sophia’s creative sense and Fuseli’s desire to subjugate and control her representation is apparent.

Fuseli advocated the primacy of line in his Royal Academy lectures, in his capacity as Professor of Painting. He saw colour as a ‘slave of fashion and usurper of priority’ which can obfuscate and deflect from the primary truth of an image. The drawings are economic with colour, but, as Solkin observes, Fuseli adds thick ‘crusts’ of bodycolour to the faces, hair and decorative fabrics of his female figures which serve to embody the idea of the ‘painted woman’ in all her moral degeneracy (p.22). Solkin suggests that the erotic imagery should be seen as ‘one of the thematic and economic cornerstones’ of Fuseli’s career, using ‘the sexualised female body as an attention-grabbing device’ (p.44). Subtle or overt pornographic depictions of women were common in illustrations for contemporary fiction and satirical prints but Fuseli’s drawings lack both the guise of justification for a romantic plot or crude humour of social commentary. They are disturbing because they show his wife in her role as artist’s model, dressed to provoke and unconcerned with the norms of female modesty or domestic conformity. She colludes with Fuseli’s fantasies.

The most difficult images in the exhibition are those which hint at far more dangerous activities than those of the courtesan. The brief sketch, Paidoleteira (1821), meaning ‘child murderer’, shows a vague form of a child’s body held by a woman with a long hairpin in her mouth. Though the label offers the possibility that it refers to the story of Medea, it continues: ‘Nonetheless, it is difficult to explain the artist’s motivation for depicting this and other acts of a sadomasochistic nature, except perhaps in terms that are highly personal to Fuseli’. The viewer is left to guess the possibilities. The exhibition features several of these mainly later drawings, such as Two Courtesans, half-lengths, Engaged in an Indistinct Action (1817), which appears to show a small shrouded figure and the courtesan with an implement and bowl, and Two Courtesans (Witches?) with a Knife and Rod (c.1790), along with others focusing on acts of aggression or dominance directed at male figures.

The picture of Fuseli offered by his contemporaries, such as John Thomas Smith in Nollekens and His Times (1828) suggests he was well-dressed, gregarious and witty, ‘cautiously and precisely polite’ to ladies with whom he was very popular (vol.2, p.433). This exhibition gives access to the much darker and macabre side of his imagination. Based on the evidence of the drawings, Sophia emerges as an unusual, sexually confident and sophisticated woman. Speculating on the intriguing relationship between the couple is an inevitable result of viewing the display. Each revisiting of his private drawings in an exhibition reflects our contemporary approach to the undercurrents of deviant or suppressed human experience and deeper interpretations of Fuseli’s major works on canvas are made possible.