Superheroes

The works in this selection show how the dynamic style developed by Fuseli and his contemporaries helped define a new image of the hero. Their paintings undermined the more restrained ideals of the past, and were orientated to sensationalist and Gothic tastes. This room is dominated by the large oil paintings on romantic and heroic themes with which Fuseli made his name at the Royal Academy exhibitions in the 1780s.

Henry Fuseli, Edgar Feigning Madness Approaches King Lear Suppoted by Kent and The Fool on The Heath c.1772

In a scene from Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act III, Scene 4, Edgar, son of the Earl of Gloucester, disguised as ‘poor Tom’, confronts the increasingly deranged ancient British king on a stormy heath. Despairing, the king discards his clothes while struggling with his supporters, the Earl of Kent and the Fool.

Henry Fuseli, King David being warned by The Prophet Nathan c.1772

Henry Fuseli King David being warned by The Prophet Nathan circa 1772

Henry Fuseli
King David being warned by The Prophet Nathan c.1772
Black chalk, grey wash on paper, 616 x 918 mm

Private collection, courtesy of Aroldo Zevi Limited, London

This drawing shows an angry encounter between the prophet Nathan, and King David, from the Biblical book of Samuel. Nathan has been sent by God to confront David with his sins of murder and adultery. Having kindled David’s anger against the rich by use of an allegory of such a man who stole a lamb from a poor person, Nathan throws the accusation back at him – ‘Thou art the man!’

Henry Fuseli, The Witches Show Macbeth the Descendants of Banquo (Die Hexen zeigen Macbeth Banquos Nachkommen) 1773/1779

Henry Fuseli The Witches Show Macbeth the Descendants of Banquo

Henry Fuseli
The Witches Show Macbeth the Descendants of Banquo (Die Hexen zeigen Macbeth Banquos Nachkommen) 1773/1779
Pen and wash on paper, 360 x 420 mm

© 2006 Kunsthaus, Zürich. All rights reserved

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is shown a vision of the future by the three witches: a procession of the eight kings who will descend from his rival Banquo, the last holding up a mirror that throws light into Macbeth’s eyes. This design was created in 1773 and reworked while the artist was briefly revisiting his home town of Zürich in 1779. It was almost certainly a compositional study for a spectacular painting (now lost) that Fuseli exhibited in London in 1777.

Alexander Runciman, The Death of Oscar 1772

Alexander Runciman The Death of Oscar 1772

Alexander Runciman
The Death of Oscar 1772
Pencil, pen and wash on paper, 343 x 492 mm

Lent by the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Oscar, the ancient Gaelic hero, has fallen in battle. His family and supporters stand around him, lamenting his fate. The subject is taken from James Macpherson’s ‘Temora, An Ancient Poem’ (1763). This was one of a series of texts published by Macpherson which were claimed to be translations of the third-century Gaelic bard Ossian. Their raw, heroic qualities inspired passionate admiration around the world.

Henry Fuseli, Study of a figure c.1774–8

Henry Fuseli Study of a figure circa 1774-1778

Henry Fuseli
Study of a figure c.1774–8
Pen and ink and pencil 355 x 378 mm

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

This appears to be a study for the drawing of ‘Buoncante da Montefeltro’ shown nearby. Fuseli’s figures defy gravity and logic, and it is almost impossible to tell which way up this design should be viewed. An early commentator wrote that one of Fuseli’s compositions showed ‘such incomprehensible sublimity’ that it was said to have been hung upside down at the Royal Academy!

Henry Fuseli, Buoncante da Montefeltro c.1774–8

Henry Fuseli Buoncante da Montefeltro circa 1774-1778

Henry Fuseli
Buoncante da Montefeltro c.1774–8
Pen and ink and wash 475 x 353 mm

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

Fuseli renders a scene of spiritual conflict from Dante’s Purgatory (1319–21) as a grandiose physical drama. Buonconte da Montefeltro was killed in battle in 1289, during Italy’s bloody civil wars. In Dante’s account, good and evil angels vie for his body briefly, but his soul is saved because of one final tear of repentance. This is the scene that Fuseli dramatizes.

Henry Fuseli, Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel’s Spear (Satan flieht, von Ithuriels Speer beruht) 1779

Henry Fuseli Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel's Spear (Satan flieht, von Ithuriels Speer beruht) 1779

Henry Fuseli
Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel’s Spear (Satan flieht, von Ithuriels Speer beruht) 1779
Oil on canvas, 2305 x 2763 mm

Lent by the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Milton’s Satan, represented here as a heroically-proportioned figure, leaps back from the slightest touch of the angel Ithuriel’s spear. He protects Adam and Eve, who slumber in each other’s arms at the bottom of the composition. This canvas was exhibited by Fuseli at the Royal Academy in 1780. It was one of the works which made his reputation as a painter of infernal subject-matter.

Him thus intent Ithuriel with his SpearJohn Hamilton Mortimer
Sir Arthegal, The Knight of Justice, with Talus, The Iron Man exhibited 1778
Touch’d lightly; for no falsehood can endure
Touch of Celestial temper, but returns
Of force to its own likeness: up he starts
Discoverd and surpriz’d. As when a spark
Lights on a heap of nitrous Powder, laid
Fit for the Tun some Magazin to store
Against a rumord Warr, the Smuttie graine
With sudden blaze diffus’d, inflames the Aire:
So started up in his own shape the Fiend.

John Milton, Paradise Lost 1667
Book IV, ll.810–19

John Hamilton Mortimer, Sir Arthegal, The Knight of Justice, with Talus, The Iron Man exhibited 1778

John Hamilton Mortimer, 'Sir Arthegal, the Knight of Justice, with Talus, the Iron Man (from Spenser's 'Faerie Queene')' exhibited 1778

John Hamilton Mortimer
Sir Arthegal, the Knight of Justice, with Talus, the Iron Man (from Spenser's 'Faerie Queene') exhibited 1778
Oil on canvas
support: 2426 x 1460 mm
Purchased 1976

View the main page for this artwork

Sir Arthegall is the personification of Justice and central protagonist in Book Five of Spenser’s vast Protestant allegory The Fairie Queene (1590). He is accompanied here by his sidekick Talus, armoured from head to toe in invulnerable iron. Mortimer died young, but his art exerted an important influence over contemporaries. Here, he develops a characteristically fierce and ruffianly image of the hero.

Henry Fuseli, The Oath on the Rütli (Die drei Eidgenossen beim Schwur auf dem Rütli) 1779–80

Henry Fuseli The Oath on the Ruttli

Henry Fuseli
The Oath on the Ruttli (Die drei Eidgenossen beim Schwur auf dem Ruttli) 1779–80
Oil on canvas 2670 x 1780 mm

Lent by the Kunsthaus, Zürich (deposited by the Canton of Zürich, 1989)

This painting presents the key episode in Swiss medieval history as an extravagant physical drama. Representatives of the three original cantons (states) of Switzerland meet on the Rütli (a meadow on the western shore of Lake Lucerne) and promise to overthrow the tyrannical rule of the Austrian empire. Their revolution took place in 1307, and was seen as establishing a democratic spirit in Swiss politics.

Henry Fuseli, Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma exhibited 1783

Henry Fuseli Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma

Henry Fuseli
Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma exhibited 1783
painting in new replica frame

This is a scene from a Gothic narrative of Fuseli’s invention. The virile hero, waking from his enchanted sleep, raises his sword to attack a wizard, clasping a chained maiden by his side. The ghostly heads to the left are presumably lost or trapped souls; the manacled woman’s hand hidden to the right is that of another victim of Urma.

Henry Fuseli, Hotspur, Glendower, Mortimer and Worcester Disputing the Division of England 1784

In a scene from Shakespeare’s 1 King Henry IV (1592–4), the fate of England is debated by rebellious noblemen. Hotspur is the seated figure on the left. The Welsh lord and wizard Owen Glendower angrily directs him to look again at the map showing the turn of the river Trent, which Hotpsur claimed gave him an unfair share of land.

Henry Fuseli, Othar Rescuing Siritha from a Giant 1781

Henry Fuseli Othar Rescuing Siritha from a Giant 1781

Henry Fuseli
Othar Rescuing Siritha from a Giant 1781
Pen and brown ink with brown-grey wash on paper, 304 x 370 mm

Lent by the Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford

A hero saves a maiden from the clutches of a giant, represented only by an enormous hand clutching at the edge of the step. This drawing probably represents the story of Othar and Siritha from the History of the Danes by Saxo Grammaticus (c.1200). Fuseli prided himself on his knowledge of such obscure literary sources.

John Rigaud, Samson Breaking his Bonds 1784

The Biblical hero Samson, still with his hair and thus his superhuman strength, breaks his bonds. The treacherous Delilah and the Philistines look on, alarmed. This painting was presented to the Royal Academy in 1784, when Rigaud was elected a member. The canvas serves as a showcase for his skills in evoking rippling male flesh.

Henry Fuseli, Thor Battering The Mitgard Serpent 1790

Henry Fuseli Thor Battering The Mitgard Serpent 1790

Henry Fuseli
Thor Battering The Mitgard Serpent 1790
Oil on canvas, 1310 x 910 mm

Lent by the Royal Academy of Arts, London

The Icelandic hero, Thor, raises his weapon to strike at the monstrous Mitgard Serpent, which he has fished from the churning black sea. The diminutive elderly figure at the top of the canvas is intended as the god Odin. The subject is drawn from the medieval epic, The Edda. Fuseli presented this work to the Royal Academy in 1790, when he was elected a member. It exemplifies his interest in super-heroic action and in unusual literary sources.

Then taking out a fishing line extremely strong, he fixed it to the ox’s head, unwound it, and cast it into the sea. The bait reached the bottom, the Serpent greedily devoured the head, and the hook stuck fast in his palate. Immediately the pain made him move with such violence that Thor was obliged to hold fast with both his hands by the pegs which bear against the oars: but the strong effort he was obliged to make with his whole body caused his feet to force their way through the boat and they went down to the bottom of the sea; whilst with his hands, he violently drew up the Serpent to the side of the vessel.
From Paul Henri Mallet, Northern Antiquities, translated by Thomas Percy (1770)

Henry Tresham, The Earl of Warwick’s Vow Previous to The Battle of Towton exhibited 1797

Henry Tresham The Earl of Warwick's Vow Previous to The Battle of Towton exhibited 1797

Henry Tresham
The Earl of Warwick’s Vow Previous to The Battle of Towton exhibited 1797
Oil on canvas, 440 x 358 mm

Manchester City Art Gallery

Before the battle of Towton (1461), during the War of the Roses, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and the leader of the Edward IV’s Yorkist army, kills his own horse and vows that he will face the superior enemy force on the same terms as the common foot soldier. Tresham has approached this historical subject in the spirit of Fuseli.

James Barry, Satan and his Legions Hurling Defiance Toward The Vault of Heaven c.1792–4

James Barry Satan and his Legions Hurling Defiance Toward The Vault of Heaven circa 1792-1794

James Barry
Satan and his Legions Hurling Defiance Toward The Vault of Heaven circa 1792-1794
Etching,and engraving 746 x 504 mm

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

In a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), Satan and his troops, having been expelled from Heaven for their rebellion, glare back from Hell and rage against God. Barry has used a low viewpoint and strong tonal contrasts to emphasise the heroic proportions of Satan. His rugged, unconventional printmaking technique enhances this characterization.

after Henry Fuseli, Satan Summoning his Legions, engraved illustration to John Milton, Paradise Lost published by F.I. du Roveray 1802

after Henry Fuseli Satan Summoning his Legions, engraving to John Milton, Paradise Lost published by F.I. du Roveray 1802

after Henry Fuseli
Satan Summoning his Legions, engraved illustration to John Milton, Paradise Lost published by F.I. du Roveray 1802
Engraving in a bound volume 114 x 88 mm

Private collection, London

Satan has been expelled from heaven, and here conjures up his demonic army. This is one of six small engravings executed after designs by Fuseli, illustrating a new edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Fuseli was all too aware of the irony in seeing his vast ambitions reduced to little illustrations such as this.

Henry Fuseli, Siegfried Having Slain Fafner The Snake 1806

Henry Fuseli Siegfried Having Slain Fafner The Snake 1806

Henry Fuseli
Siegfried Having Slain Fafner The Snake 1806
Pen, pencil and grey wash on paper, 348 x 237 mm

By the light of the moon, the German hero Siegfried bathes in the blood of the dragon he has slain, making him invincible except for a spot between his shoulder blades. The subject derives from a fleeting reference to this scene from the German medieval epic, The Nibelungenlied.

Henry Fuseli, Siegfried and Kriemheld 1807

Henry Fuseli Siegfried and Kriemheld 1807

Henry Fuseli
Siegfried and Kriemheld 1807
Watercolour on paper, 480 x 360 mm

Lent by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Purchased 1965

The Germanic hero Siegfried is shown on his knees before Kriemheld, at the moment of their first meeting. The dominatrix-like heroine cups his head in her hands, gently perhaps, but also suggesting violence. The subject is taken from the medieval epic, The Nieblungenlied, where the themes of sexual domination, erotic submission and cruelty are intertwined. Fuseli was one of the few people in Britain to know about this literary source.

Henry Fuseli, Perseus Starting from the Cave of the Gorgons c.1816

The hero Perseus flies from the clutches of the Gorgons, the decapitated head of the foul snake-haired monster, the Medusa, in his hand. A contemporary remarked: ‘The figure of Medusa is very happily conceived, and he has contrived to hide all the disgusting part, – the stump of the neck and the blood, – very judiciously’.

Henry Fuseli, Undine and Huldbrand c.1819–22

Henry Fuseli Undine and Huldbrand circa 1819-1822

Henry Fuseli
Undine and Huldbrand c.1819–22
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 481 x 319 mm

Lent by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Purchased 1965

The romantic hero Huldbrand embraces his wife, Undine, after she has warned him of the supernatural dangers they are facing. The subject is taken from the short tale Undine by the German writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777–1843), first published in 1811 and translated into English in 1818. The story involves the hero Huldbrand, his wife, the water-nymph Undine, and the lovely Bertalda.

William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child c.1790–4

In a vast landscape, two angels struggle over a baby. The blond figure is the Good Angel; the dark figure clasping at the child is Evil. The allegory was invented by Blake, but alludes to traditional ideas about angels struggling over souls in Purgatory (that is, caught between Heaven and Hell). This watercolour was the basis of a large colour print by Blake of around 1795, shown nearby.

William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels 1795/? c.1805

William Blake, 'The Good and Evil Angels' 1795/?circa 1805

William Blake
The Good and Evil Angels 1795/?circa 1805
Colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper
support: 445 x 594 mm
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939

View the main page for this artwork

Two heroically proportioned flying figures struggle over a child, in a vast, almost abstract landscape. The Evil angel is dark-skinned and surrounded by flames, his foot in chains. The Good angel clutches a child, pulling him or her to safety. Blake invented this allegory, which he also represented in a watercolour shown nearby. The interpretation of the image remains disputed.