Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection

HENRY FUSELI
1741-1806

42 Siegfried about to Deny on Oath that Brunhild had been his Paramour 1805

Grey wash over pencil on wove paper 25.5 x 41.5 (10 x 16 1/4)
Inscribed in pencil top left '4' and in brown ink 'P.C. l l. Aug.05' over 'W.B' in grey ink bottom right; verso the same composition in pencil inscribed in pencil 'BLAKE' partially erased centre and in pencil bottom right 'W Blake'.

T08133

The subject of this watercolour is taken from an anonymous thirteenth-century German epic poem, The Nibelungenlied, a text which Fuseli, alone among his British contemporaries, frequently illustrated. It is best known today as the source for Richard Wagner's opera cycle The Ring. Fuseli shows the moment outside the cathedral at Worms described in chapter 14 - 'How the Queens railed at each Other'. Siegfried, responding to a quarrel between his wife, Kriemhild, and King Gunter's wife, Brunhild, when Kriemhild accuses Brunhild of letting Siegfried and not her brother, Gunter, make love to her first after her marriage, is raising his hand to swear denial. But Gunter had in fact needed Siegfried, made invisible with his magic cloak, to subdue his new wife on their marriage bed, and he is seen here between him and Kriemhild acknowledging Siegfried's innocence. The tearful Brunhild is on the right. Fuseli has shown one of the turning-points in the whole poem: Siegfried the noble hero, having now earned the hatred of Hagen, loyal vassal of Brunhild, and been unknowingly betrayed by Kriemheld, is later killed by Hagen (Hatto 1969).

Fuseli, which is an anglicisation of his Swiss name F?ssli, was born in Zurich and went to Italy to train as a painter in 1769 before settling in London in 1779. He was a man of extraordinary intellectual energy and one of the most powerful and original of all the artists working in England at this period. One of the leading history painters of the day, he contributed to Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery from 1786; from 1791 he also embarked on his own, ultimately unsuccessful, scheme for illustrating the works of John Milton which at the time was the most ambitious art project undertaken by a single artist in Britain.

This drawing is one of a group of at least eight which can be dated to a period between May and August 1805 when the artist was staying at Purser's Cross (the 'PC' of the inscription), the villa in Fulham, west of London, which belonged to Fuseli's old friend and patron, the radical bookseller Joseph Johnson. Fuseli described the house as a 'Sweet and peaceful Little neat hut inbosomed by a wilderness of Shrubs' (Weinglass 1982, pp.299-300, 562-3). Fuseli's first idea for Siegfried was drawn in pencil on the other side of this sheet and then 'traced' through with some alterations.

Fuseli continued to exhibit historical paintings, including subjects from The Nibelungenlied (Schiff 1973, nos.1380-96, 1490-2), at the Academy in 1807, 1814, 1817 and 1820 until the year he died. It was a sign of the times that the critics rarely noticed them, though the 'fine phrenzy' of his work was still admired (Examiner, 1 May 1814, p.316). With hindsight, this 1805 cycle of drawings dealing with a grand historical theme full of darkness, the mythical heroic, sexual jealousy, murder and revenge, all perfectly caught in this work, was by then a concept which had had its day: in May of the same year the young David Wilkie (see no.89) arrived in London and in 1806 captivated a new public at the Academy with his painting of a 'scene from familiar life', The Village Politicians. With this, in B.R. Haydon's words, Wilkie 'changed the whole system of art in the domestic style' (Haydon 1963, vol.3, p.420). Fuseli told Wilkie that it was a 'dangerous work' (Cunningham 1843, vol.1, p.116), and although he was referring to the danger of Wilkie being seduced by popular success, his words might equally have been applied to the threat it posed to his own art and that of other history painters in the grand style.

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.120 no.42, reproduced in colour p.121