A witness to political revolutions and radical aesthetic shifts, Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) forged a pictorial sensibility of his own, characterized by anatomical, gestural, and psychological extremes. Bizarre, exaggerated, theatrical, and often melodramatic, his drawings embraced obscure literary and historical subjects intended to elicit profound emotional response.
Fuseli was born in Switzerland but traveled to Germany and Italy early in his career, eventually settling in London, where he played a prominent role in the newly established Royal Academy. While he worked in various media, Fuseli excelled at drawing. This medium was central to his practice, evidenced by the extraordinary number of drawings he made—ranging from quick sketches to watercolors that often exceeded the ambitions of his oil paintings.
The Art Institute is home to a remarkably rich collection of Fuseli’s surviving works, including large-scale drawings; smaller, less-finished sketches; and significant paintings and prints. Shockingly Mad: Henry Fuseli and the Art of Drawing considers drawing as an expressive means unto itself, paralleling the broader arc of Fuseli’s career as writer, painter, critic, and teacher. As comparisons to the work of his contemporaries reveal, Fuseli can be said to have forged a radical new drawing style. With roots in Classical antiquity and Renaissance Italy, Fuseli’s passionate, unrestrained approach reflects the revolutionary spirit of his age, which was marked by social and political upheaval. The Art Institute’s holdings are complemented by a number of important local, national, and international loans, and the exhibition itself is accompanied by the adjacent installation Gods and (Super)heroes: Drawing in an Age of Revolution—a selection of drawings by Jacques-Louis David, Théodore Géricault, Francisco Goya, and others that further contextualizes Fuseli as a draftsman.